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MARS: THARSIS

by Chris Wayan, 2003

Mars Reborn: homepage -- Index: Martian place names -- Planetocopia: more world-models Orbital view of a future, terraformed Mars: Olympus, the Lycus Desert, and Arcadia.

1: MT OLYMPUS and the LYCUS DESERT

Medusa Valley (bottom center) is the east end of the Martian rainforest stretching halfway round the world, from Syrtis Major to the feet of Olympus. Though Medusa's right on the equator, it's cooler and drier than the jungles to the west--here, relentless katabatic winds can blow off Tharsis for weeks at a time, though storms from the Amazonis Sea do bring eventual relief as well as rain. The woods end rather abruptly in somber heights where even conifers soon fail in the harsh winds, and only patchy tundra survives.

Northward, the coast grows steadily drier, though short, powerful rivers descend from Olympus. The great cliffs that form the mountain's knees heave up four to six kilometers high in spots, and they wring rain out of the tropical storms. Trees and flowering vines cling to the cliffs most of the way up.

Above, the glaciers begin--and soon it's time for oxygen and pressure suits. Much of the mountain from knee to shoulder is now ice-clad--snow collects as high as 20 kilometers now, though that still leaves the bare, dark summit-island nearly Everest-tall, rearing out of the sea of ice. Up here the old Mars still endures--no more than faint tracings of snow, seas of cloud below, especially to the west, chocolate lava rock, and noonday stars in a violet sky rarely feathered by thin cirrus, at most. Oh, and lichens in the cracks. And climbers in the caldera. And the hotel on the edge, and the train to bring the tourists up the east side, the easy way. Don't be annoyed. These are as natural and inevitable as the lichen, once you bring the world to life. Freeze-dried planet--just add water!

As long as it's here, let's ride the train down. East to Tharsis Junction (almost low enough to breathe outside the train now) and then north, down into the biosphere again. We'll zigzag down the perilous cliffs marking the edge of Tharsis, and pass what I think's the most beautiful and outrageous sight on Mars--the cliffs on the north face of Olympus are as high as Mariner's walls, and steeper, and down them drop feathery falls, fed by the new glaciers, creating oases of ferns and even low trees--the only ones for miles, despite the fact we're off Tharsis now, masks off, back in life. Orbital view of a future, terraformed Mars: Arcadia and Milankovich Island.

But not much life. This is the Lycus Desert, one of the few coastal deserts of Mars. Lycus is a corrugated lavafield with cool, dry winds pouring down off the Tharsis highlands to the east. Even so, it'd probably be a series of piny ridges, except for its bad luck in being exactly at the boundary of two Hadley cells--a perpetual dry, high-pressure zone.

Just over the highlands marking its northern edge, the slopes of Arcadia are as green as Oregon, fed by storms off the North Sea, while to the south, the west flank of Olympus is green too--quite lush where the tropical storms are squeezed and wrung dry by the cliffs and slopes. Lycus, like Western Sahara, is caught between--left not-so-high, but dry.

Location, location, location...

2: ARCADIA

Arcadia, north of the ridges, is Oregonian--dense temperate forests of Douglas fir and Martian redwood. The prevailing winds here are off the sea, partly shielding Arcadia from the katabatic winds battering most lands around Tharsis.

Inland? A steady slow rise, progressively squeezing more precipitation from the thinning air. The trees shorten and thin out, leaving rocky alpine meadows, then stony lichen-fields. Then nothing but red rock and ice, for hundreds of kilometers--this is Alba Patera, the White Volcano, the biggest on Mars in sheer volume, a sprawling dome--or a fist, punching one more hole in the biosphere (like it needed that). Alba is laced with north-south canyons where glaciers grind, feeding a wide fan of north-flowing rivers.

To the north, past the isle of Milankovic with its somber pine forests, the coast bends east toward Tempe. A strong current just offshore ensures that the sea never freezes in winter, and while winters can be snowy here, this forested coastal strip stretches unbroken (if thin and spruce-blue from cold) all the way from Arcadia to Tempe. Orbital view of a future, terraformed Mars: the Tharsis Bulge.

This hard land, not much valued by the human species, was the evolutionary crucible for both mega-ravens and Martian wolves on their climb to intelligence--though once they'd evolved the smart ones headed south and built their civilizations in Tempe and Arcadia, only going back to visit their poor relatives in the Old Country during the short, mild summers...

3: THARSIS

Famous though it is, I have little to say about Tharsis proper. The Big Four are impressive volcanoes on paper, of course, but some things are just too big to see. Still, if it's vertigo you want, suit up and peer down the six-kilometer cliffs lining the throat of Mt. Pavonis!

Or if you want to get a true impression of the Big Four as mountains, I recommend Ascraeus, the northern sister. It's only a hair lower than Olympus and the steepest of the Big Four, plummeting to a low saddle in the heart of Tharsis. At its foot is one of the few lakes in the region--an oasis supporting tundra and even low spruce woods.

And Arsia, the southern sister, has the biggest, deepest caldera of all--broken, cataclysmically so, by a flow that burst the cone open on its south side, leaving cliffs rivaling Olympus's. The trouble isn't finding sheer spectacles on Tharsis, but grasping their scale, without reference points--without life.

Not that Tharsis is entirely dead--as the bulge rose, radial cracks (fossae) burst open; these are now canyons worming deep into the massif. Some have become glaciers, some cold bogs. But some at lower altitudes have flooded; others even shelter low forests or meadows. Orbital photo of Mars: The Tharsis volcanoes

Even the heart of Tharsis hides life: the valley between Olympus and the Big Three is low enough to support tundra, and even forests in a few cracks.

In the north, Lake Uranius, volcanically heated and never freezing over, has a whole web (from plankton to shrimp) adapted to its mineral stew, though no vertebrates have yet managed to tolerate the anoxic water. But the fog and steam from the lake add appreciably to precipitation all over northern Tharsis. Lichens and even grass grow much high up the slopes.

Not so in the south, around Arsia, which is nearly as, well, Martian as Olympus itself. Indeed, all south Tharsis is sterile, frozen in time. Cold, dry, thin air, ultraviolet... a third pole.

It took Southern Tharsis to teach me that I'm an unapologetic Green. Unchanging rocks in and of themselves interest me less than complex, changing systems.

Like life.

Like Mars reborn.

Orbital photo of a terraformed Mars

Map of Mars. Click a feature to go there.
Index of Martian place names. Or for a tour, the following route snakes around Mars, covering all major features:


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