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A portrait of a possible Mars one thousand years from now

by Chris Wayan, 2003

Planetocopia, a series of virtual worlds, includes Tilt!, Futures, the Biosphere Variations, and Caprices. You are in FUTURES
Orbital photo of a terraformed Mars 1000 years from now.


Welcome to Mars! Mars as it was, and will be, of course--Mars alive, not the mummified Mars that's glaring red-eyed through my window as I write this. I've chosen an arbitrary date for my portrait: one thousand years from now. I doubt terraforming Mars will take that long--I agree with Kim Stanley Robinson that a few centuries will do. But I'd like my portraits of three future worlds, Mars, Earth, and Venus, to be on a single day--and with Venus, a couple of centuries is too short--there's cooling, and hailstorming (pelting a world with ice-chunks) and shading, and carbon sequestration. So to be on the safe side, a thousand years it is! Terraforming is like bonsai--patience, patience...

Below is a clickable sketch-map of Mars in the year 3000. Each region has orbital photos and a description of the land, climate, flora and fauna--if any! Mars, even after 1000 years, isn't a biosphere, it's a bio-swiss cheese--as patchy as an old man's hair.

You'll notice something is missing--humanity. Towns, trains, roads, dams, farms, factories, space elevators. I'm not suggesting people will be extinct--just that they'll be unrecognizable, and so will their works. So why try to depict them? Besides, plenty of science fiction is human drama using Mars as a backdrop. For once, I want to take us out of the foreground and look at the land itself--Martian geography, climatology, ecology. Like stilling the ego's voice in meditation and just... seeing.

This approach seems to be in my blood. My mom's an artist who loves landscape; she's painted many scenes of Northern California. But she makes one small change: quite often, she simply deletes all the works of humanity, to see what's underneath our buildings, wires and roads. I'm just painting landscape too--on a planetary scale.

Map of Mars. Click a feature to go there.
If you can't find a place on the map, try the Index of Martian place names.

Want a tour? The following route snakes around Mars, covering all major features:


My Mars is much like Kim Stanley Robinson's projections in Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars. At sea level, the atmosphere's about 360 millibars, half Earth's pressure, about the same as Tibet. However, Martian air is nearly 30% oxygen, so its partial pressure is more like mountain air at 2500 meters on Earth, not 4000--thin, but the average Terran can quickly adapt. In the deep Hellas basin, the pressure's 540 millibars, and more oxygen's available than at sea level on Earth. Even sensitive species that can't colonize the rest of Mars do well there.

Thin air doesn't retain heat well on Earth, but the Martian atmosphere is much richer in carbon dioxide, certainly at least 1000 ppm (0.1%) and maybe more. Hence, temperatures are perhaps warmer than a Terran would expect: in the tropics, days reach into the 30s Celsius (80s F), and the same for summers in the middle latitudes. In winter, snow blankets most regions down to 30 degrees north or south; balmy Hellas is again an exception. Of course, Martian temperatures vary more by altitude than latitude--you could trek from pole to pole and barely thaw out, even at the equator, if you go by way of the Tharsis Bulge.

Martian gravity is 38% of Earth's. Held lightly, the atmosphere thins much more slowly with altitude--it takes an Everest-scale climb (9 km or more) to cut that pressure in half--about the limit that most life can handle. Of course, Mars has altitude to spare--much of Tharsis is higher than that, and is practically sterile. But lands that'd be Tibetan on Earth, like the Great Escarpment, the Southern Highlands, Tyrrhena, and the clifflands around Mariner Canyon, can still be fertile, due to the slower thinning of the Martian atmosphere.

As I sculpted this globe, I learned just how much conflict there was between supposedly authoritative sources--even about basic topographic facts! There are plenty of errors here, but even if your atlas shows me to be wrong... don't trust your atlas too much. Published maps are often antiques even as they leave the presses. As an experiment, I chose to restrict myself to published material for this Mars portrait, but stuck to online data for my parallel portrait of Venus. Though I live in the San Francisco Bay Area and have access to a big modern library, it's revealing that the Web still won easily. Our library system lacked any up-to-date regional maps of Mars, while the Web had close-up radar altimetry scans of every part of Venus. I chose to sketch Mars but tour Venus in detail, largely because Robinson has already done such a solid job on Mars--but no one's really done Venus. And it's beautiful.

Currents and heat circulation are complex problems. I work by analogy, not theory, looking for similar latitudes, landforms and currents, figuring nature knows better than our simulations. But extrapolation from either present-day Earth or Mars isn't too helpful, with Tharsis sticking up like a blister and Hellas forming a warm air-pool (and is it really a coincidence they're nearly opposite each other? Then why are Argyre and Elysium, the next biggest hump-and-hole, paired up the same way? Looks to me like the rule is: whack Mars on one side, get a volcano field on the other). The new Mars is awkward--a world not shaped by biology, yet with a biosphere imposed. Well, re-imposed.

Since Mars's spin and heat gradients are reasonably Earthlike, I do think its atmosphere will have Hadley cells like ours--three convection loops, in the tropics, in the temperate zones, and in the polar regions, with boundaries around 30 and 60 degrees. The 30-degree boundary has cool dry downdrafts that lead to dry, high-pressure zones, causing some coastal deserts in my model, plus unexpected oases and grasslands quite far from the sea-basins, in equatorial zones... like Terra Meridiani, where evidence of water is now turning up.

Red Mars is colored by Robinson's knowledge of the American West--not a bad base for understanding Mars, but it leads him astray sometimes. The rainshadows of the Sierras and Cascades he knows so well led him to assume all mountains in the tradewind-zone will have wet west slopes and dry easts. It ain't necessarily so, as my versions of the Phlegra Mts or Nili Patera will attest. Westerners have long decried Eastern parochialism (climatic as well as cultural)--as a native Californian, I've done it myself--but Westocentrism is equally narrow. My model tries to show more realistic rain and wind patterns for east and south coasts, and tropical zones in general. Other regions in which I differ from Robinson are Xanthe and the lower Mariner Canyon, which I portray as drier than his, and the Argyre Basin which I've flooded and he hasn't, and Noachia downwind from Argyre, distinctly greener on my Mars.

I've tried to improve on his models; but my Mars, too, is not perfect. In fact, it's undoubtedly wrong in major areas. But how much, where, in what directions?


I've focused mostly on the land, not individual species. In general, Martian fauna will be:

I've described each region of the future Mars as if forests, seas, and plains might be used for logging, fishing, farming and so on, but I think it's more likely such activities will be seen as archaic, barbaric--like ripping up library books for fuel! Our descendants may grow their food, but it's just as likely that they'll manufacture most of it so as to leave the land alone--if they eat at all. We may be silicon-based AIs in far less than 1000 years! The uncertainties here are simply too large to look at, so I've restricted myself to commenting on what primitives like us would see in a land--a concise way to sketch its character, not because I think future people will behave like us. I doubt it. I think they may indeed farm, but farm something more interesting than food: intelligent life.

Even in our world, with its extinctions and migration barriers, big-brained primates are scattered over a hemisphere--orangutans live in Indonesia. On Mars, with relatively few water barriers, animals can migrate worldwide. New intelligent species will spread.

And it's worth remembering that elephant brains are already as complex as ours, while the even larger mammoths, once they're resurrected (oh, they will be--that's not even worth arguing) will be ideally suited for Mars. The only quadrupeds with a hand!

Arctic wolves already have chimp-sized brains, and undisturbed packs (of which there are now few) show evidence of language (if you doubt me, read Farley Mowat's NEVER CRY WOLF (no, not the movie!) Grizzly bears aren't far behind. OK, they're a little irritable--that scared off researchers so much that their brains were underestimated until this decade. Be aware your view of them is probably outdated.

The great apes will do well in the equatorial belt from Syrtis to the foot of Mt Olympus, plus the warm Hellas Basin. They're already in the stone age--how far will they go, in a new world where they're not crammed into tiny refuges?

Parrots and ravens have recently shown they rival apes in intelligence--avian brains are smarter than mammal brains, gram per gram--they're miniaturized to lessen flight-weight. But Mars, with its low gravity and cool temperatures (which generally push warm-bloods to enlarge, for thermal efficiency), will allow these birds, snow-tolerant ravens in particular, to grow to unprecedented sizes--and brainpower. On Earth, high gravity, huge distances and low relief push many bird species into migrational athleticism, sacrificing big brains (heavy, energy-hungry organs after all) for strong shoulders and wings that can carry them thousands of miles. On Mars, migrations will be shorter, gravity light, and the climate-zones so vertically stacked that many migratory species won't need to head far north or south--just to the nearest mountains, rift, or crater. Brain not brawn will be favored.

Silhouettes of Martian fauna (human, elephant, and parrot) after 1000 years of engineering and adaptation, with a Terran for comparison.

Cetaceans may change in the Martian seas: with the gravity so low, dolphins and even orcas may be able to emerge from the water and still breathe comfortably, crawling around like seals. While their handlessness may keep them a primarily oral culture, that may not matter much when industry's nanobotic and the Web's ubiquitous. "Ask, and it shall be given."

Giant octopi and squid are the other marine group of interest. Martian gravity will have the same effect; they may emerge from the sea, at least for brief periods. Highly intelligent and dextrous already, they may advance to tools and fire rather quickly on land.

Another handless but interesting group, the prairie equivalent of whales, will be Przewalski's horse, the big-brained wild horses of Central Asia. These highly social creatures seemed to be evolving toward more and more intelligence before we intervened, dumbing them down into the domestic horse. Pure Przewalskis, or horse-zebra hybrids, would do well on the Martian steppes.

Of all the creatures that may benefit most from Martian gigantism, bees, ants and termites may benefit most. In the lowlands, where the air is thick and oxygen richer than Earth, thumb- or even hand-sized insects may be the rule. Hive intelligence may grow; maybe old bugs can learn new tricks. We'll find out.

Mars, then, will have a rich pool of big-brained creatures. If we let them, they may continue along the path toward culture. In evolutionary terms, after all, a lag of a few million years is nothing--a few steps behind us on the path!

Or, of course, our descendents may be interventionists, pushing them along. After all, they'll have seeded Mars with all these species, and likely altered them too. An ethical case can be made that creatures forced to share the costs of our civilization (let's start with hunting, pollution, habitat destruction, and a simple sense of dispossession and bewilderment as their world turns surreal and nightmarish, before we add the uprooting and genetic meddling that Martian transplants will suffer) have a right to the benefits, too: health and longevity, hands, language, culture, knowledge, leisure time, and most important of all, a voice in the direction civilization takes.

My guess is that however the contenders start out, herbivorous or carnivorous, they'd become omnivores soon after they developed fire and tools, letting them process new foods. Big brains burn so much fuel! The crucial differences between such people and us might not arise from body shape or diet, but temperament. Aggression, territoriality, sociability, gender differentiation? And subtler traits: social smarts like bonobos and dolphins, or clever but introverted engineers like orangutans and squid? The dominant sense may be sight, smell, touch or hearing. Such species differences will shape animal cultures profoundly. Look how we take our tool-dexterity, our intraspecies aggression, our constant sexuality, and our smell-blindness for granted! The evolution (aided or not) of other intelligent species will answer questions we're now too parochial to frame. And of course, the questions we can't even frame properly are the most fascinating...

Orbital photo of a terraformed Mars 1000 years from now: Tharsis and Mariner Canyons.

Two great global changes will shape future societies--Martian, Terran, deepspace, human, raven, cetacean... whatever. One is technological change, particularly artificial intelligence--but all we can be sure of, on a thousand-year scale, is that Vernor Vinge's prediction of a technological singularity is near-certain. One can argue that his schedule's too fast--he says change will accelerate to an inherently unpredictable cusp (whether paradise, apocalypse, or both at once) within our lifetimes. Even if he's wrong, I think it's clear that in a thousand years, people will be unrecognizable--if people in our sense exist at all, instead of a vast, pooled intelligence, the grandchild of our Net.

Still, this is a caution that applies to absolutely any future longer than fifty years. Mars Reborn is mainly a climatological thought-experiment, so I'm arbitrarily postulating that one or more branches of intelligent life will stay in its home niche--planets--and could be called, loosely, people, filling an analogous ecological role, as caretakers (and meddlers).

The second global change is: if you've built your own biosphere, it's hard to blame God or chance for lesser problems--it's too clear you're responsible for change. The culture of the future, human or not, will take it for granted that it's the custodian of the planet's health. That requires thinking in such long terms that our notions of wealth, power, status, class, race, species, and hierarchy will be archaic and irrelevant--or at least thoroughly rebuilt.

The dilemma our descendants must solve is: can we evolve cultural controls and outlets so we can safely exercise animal needs like competition, dominance behavior, and territoriality? Or are these traits so incompatible with our new job as planetary custodian that we must engineer ourselves into another species? And even that's limited. Our current social structures--warlordism, state socialism, and capitalist democracy or oligarchy--serve the needs of one species only--mostly just the short-term benefits of a small minority of that species. None, and I emphatically include capitalist democracy, are viable in the long run. Maybe multi-species anarchist cooperatives could manage the long view--I don't know. But even a mere thousand-year hop in time will show a Mars without one of two things: business as usual, or life. They just aren't compatible.


I'm personally appalled by Americans' energy-waste; to me it borders on the criminal. But in researching the climatic extremes I had to, to prepare this model, I grew aware of the great flexibility of life as a system--and, especially, its exuberant response to increased warmth and rain. It isn't that Mars resembles Earth; the truth is, Earth, in its current cold, dry phase, resembles Mars more than it has in eons. I'm now curiously ambivalent about global warming--it'll mean catastrophe for many of us as individuals, but even if Antarctica melts, I'm not so sure that Gaia as a whole won't benefit in the long run. She may have evolved us as a cure for those bad old ice age blues. Of course, like many medicines, we may be tailor-made to self-destruct or be excreted, once our work is done--as I'm afraid it soon will be.

Comforting, eh?


These photos weren't digitally generated. The model was a Mars globe about 20 cm across, sculpted of plaster and acrylic, built around a small Earth globe found in a thrift store. I built on an existing globe mainly so I'd have a stand with the latitudes marked--very helpful! I recommend this to all planetary architects. Of course, it did mean I had to cut the Earth open to gouge out Hellas Basin. But as apocalypses go, that was fun.

The images are digitally tweaked, since I made a few concessions to clarity: chose cloudless views, sidelighted to show vertical relief wherever I could, and roughly indicated water depth by color. To avoid confusing permanent icecaps from seasonal snowpacks and sea ice, both poles were shot near summer minimum. But temperate mountains are shown with moderate snowpacks, and equatorial ones as close to maximum as I could get, to emphasize the profound effect of altitude on Martian climate. Showing both poles in summer admittedly give the impression of a warmer Mars than is likely. Maybe I should have shot all the images on a spring/fall equinox.

Also, rivers, islets and other small details showing up poorly at Web resolutions are digitally exaggerated a bit. But I decided not to add arrows, names, numbers, longitudinal grids... that's all restricted to the text. The images show just one thing: what Mars was, and can be again.

Orbital view of a terraformed Mars: Hellas, Syrtis, Nepenthe, Hesperia, and Elysium.

I seem to be done with TILT, my game of tilt-the-axis-and-see-what-happens. Instead, I'm sticking with Futures--snapshots of three worlds on the same day 1000 years from now. In a thousand years, I expect terraforming to have transformed Venus as well as Mars--though I may regret budgeting a mere millennium when I get to Venus. She may be a stubborn girl, given her sunburn and spin problems--not to mention CO2! But I'll give her my best shot. Well, a lot of shots: artificial comet-strikes bringing ice from Jupiter or Saturn's moons. I'm calculating how much rotational energy they'll add, as well as water, though the results look dismal so far.

Oh, well, no one said Venus would be easy. But think about it. You do Mars, and after a lousy billion years it'll all leak away, and you're right back in dustville. But Venus is like hardwood. Tougher to work with, but what you build will really last. Earth's twin sister, but because she's the quiet, modest one under the veil, she gets no notice--no respect. Her bratty little red-faced brother with pimples gets all the attention...

Still, because everyone expects it, and you have to give even bratty little brothers their due... I've done Mars first. Venus, after all, is more complex and uncertain. How exactly to go about it? But Mars is a natural for terraformers--like a primer!

Has it occurred to anyone that it could have been set there? For that purpose?

Just an elementary class assignment. Nice little world, kids--if you can build it.

Orbital view of a terraformed Mars: Amazonia, Elysium and Tharsis, with Mt Olympus.
Planetocopia, a series of virtual worlds, includes Tilt!, Futures, the Biosphere Variations, and Caprices. You are in FUTURES

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