How to leave Earth 101: Take good plants
Prof. Eric Vaz loves science fiction. As a teenager living in Germany in the 90s, he read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, which depicts humanity creating civilizations on the Red Planet as Earth suffers from overpopulation and environmental destruction.
Now, as a geography professor, Vaz revisits his fascination with space through his newest paper, “Mars Terraforming: A Geographic Information Systems Framework (external link) .” In it, he and master’s student Elissa Penfound identify plants that might one day help us terraform Mars – transform the planet so it more resembles Earth.
Vaz and Penfound argue that using Earth’s vegetation in order to create sustainable life support systems (external link) on Mars is vital – if they can survive.
“The idea is that you need a resilient species that can independently, with little genetic modification, colonize the planet like an invasive species and cope with similar temperature extremes,” Vaz explains.
Bluegrass on the Red Planet
He and Penfound examined what sorts of vegetation on Earth might be strong enough to endure the long space journey and, eventually, take root on the harsh Martian surface. After performing spatial analysis of extreme environments around the world, they discovered that Bluegrass, a plant that survives in Canada’s Arctic Peninsula, might be humanity’s best hope to seed life off planet.
The study brings a unique focus on this planet’s existing biosphere. Rather than looking at the differences between Mars and Earth, Vaz chose to examine their many similarities using geographic information systems. He looked at surface air temperature, precipitation, elevation and solar radiation from public datasets. Vaz identified two places in Nunavut’s Far North that are remarkably Mars-like: Ellesmere Island and Devon Island.
After analyzing the suitability of dozens of plants that grow in extremely harsh conditions, Vaz found that Bluegrass (genus Poa), which grows even in Canada’s most northern point, scores highest on potential survivability. In addition to being able to withstand sub-zero temperatures and intense solar radiation, Bluegrass takes up minimal space, requires little maintenance and produces large quantities of seeds.
Vaz identified two places in Nunavut’s Far North that are remarkably Mars-like: Ellesmere Island and Devon Island.
While the ability to transform the entire Martian surface remains far beyond current technology, building small, life-sustaining footholds on the planet – think of giant terrariums – would be a more feasible stepping stone to establishing a human outpost millions of miles from Earth.
Vaz thinks Canadians should be proud that the country contains some of the most hostile ecosystems known to science.
“We have in Northern Canada an opportunity to create a hub of experimentation for the future of Mars terraforming,” he explains.
“When I was growing up in Germany, I didn’t have access to the same richness and diversity of habitats that we have here,” says Vaz, who immigrated to Canada to join Ryerson’s Faculty of Arts in 2012.
Now that the devastating consequences of environmental damage, overpopulation and disease are no longer science fiction, exploring the stars might not seem as far-fetched.
“We have to realize that our world is a very vulnerable place,” Vaz says, working from home amidst a pandemic that has infected millions of people worldwide.
“Looking outside of Earth opens up the idea that we must be a species going to different places to survive. We are travellers. We need to think outside of our confinement.”
Read Vaz’s paper, “Mars Terraforming: A Geographic Information Systems Framework (external link) ” in the February 2020 issue of Life Sciences in Space Research.