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written by Alex Moore on January 05, 2001 | author profile | forum profile | contact me
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Talk about global warming.
Talk about global warming.
Credit: State of the Environment Norwa
Imagine a structure of tremendous size. It has the strength of a huge nuclear power plant, and is operated by remote control. In fact, this machine is constructed of nothing but dust, the same material that runs through its inner-chambers 24 and a half hours a day. It converts the raw materials in Martian regolith into a type of "super-greenhouse gas" that is thousands of times more effective than carbon dioxide. What are they?

Author Kim Stanley Robinson, has plans that could change the face of the Red Planet within a mere sixty years. He envisions a line of factories scatted across Mars such as those described above. Each one would have the power of a large nuclear plant, and could process tons of regolith into PFCs, or perfluorocarbons.

James Lovelock, a British atmospheric scientist who is best known for his Gaia hypothesis, first suggested the use of PFCs to heat Mars. These super-greenhouse gases trap solar energy so well, in fact, that they are causing global warming here on Earth.

There are many positive qualities to PFCs however. They are 100% environmentally safe, since they are chlorine-free and do not contain any toxins. Also, PFCs are easy to make. They can be produced using simple molecules of carbon, sulfur, and fluorine which are all abundant on Mars. Dr. Christopher McKay, a research biologist at NASA Ames, suggests using CF4 and C2F6, and other compounds such as SF6. These compounds absorb thermal radiation efficiently and would have long lifetimes, maybe hundreds of years. Finally, PFCs are relatively inexpensive. Building colossal space mirrors or releasing nuclear warheads within the southern ice cap would cost trillions of dollars. Sunlight is free and generates more energy in 30 minutes than if all the nuclear warheads in existence exploded at once. Thus, PFCs are the best option for terraforming.

Computer calculations performed by myself, Owen B. Toon and James F. Kasting suggest that if Mars's atmosphere contained just a few parts per million of the super-greenhouse gases, the average temperature at the planet's surface would rise from -60 to -40 degrees Celsius (-76 to -40 degrees Fahrenheit). This warming could be enough to trigger the release of carbon dioxide from the polar caps and soil into the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide would then augment the greenhouse effect even further, driving the release of more carbon dioxide and water vapor into the atmosphere. Such positive feedback would be sufficient to create a thick, warm atmosphere--the carbon dioxide Mars. - Dr. Christopher McKay

To bring "just a few parts per million" of PFCs to the Red Planet would be a monumental task, both expensive and time-consuming. We must manufacture PFCs on Mars from the materials on the planet; there is no other practical way. Super-greenhouse gas producing factories could easily be sent to Mars on unmanned missions annually where they could begin pumping PFCs from regolith. Then, when the temperature has risen a few degrees Celsius, gas producing bacteria might be released planet-wide to accelerate the process.

McKay suggests that the entire PFC process will take a mere 100 years before average global temperatures reach an Earthly level. This number is such good news that scientists who were once skeptical of the concept of terraforming now look forward to the day when they can take part in it. And that day may be closer than anyone might imagine

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