Читать онлайн "Broca's Brain: The Romance of Science" автора Саган Карл Эдуард - RuLit - Страница 55


Выбрать главу

The ominous possibility that human activities may cause inadvertent climate modification makes the interest in planetary climatology rather important. There are worrisome positive feedback possibilities on a planet with declining temperatures. For example, an increased burning of fossil fuels in a short-term attempt to stay warm can result in more rapid long-term cooling. We live on a planet in which agricultural technology is responsible for the food of more than a billion people. The crops have not been bred for hardiness against climatic variations. Human beings can no longer undertake great migrations in response to climatic change, or at least it is more difficult on a planet controlled by nation-states. It is becoming imperative to understand the causes of climatic variations and to develop the possibility of performing climatic re-engineering of the Earth.

Oddly enough, some of the most interesting hints on the nature of such climatic changes appear to be coming from studies not of the Earth at all, but of Mars. Mariner 9 was injected into Martian orbit on November 14, 1971. It had a useful scientific lifetime of a full terrestrial year and procured 7,200 photographs, covering the planet from pole to pole, as well as tens of thousands of spectra and other scientific information. As we saw earlier, when Mariner 9 arrived at Mars there was virtually no detail whatever to be seen on the surface because the planet was in the throes of a great global dust storm. It was readily observed that the atmospheric temperatures increased, but the surface temperatures decreased during the dust storm, and this simple observation immediately provides at least one clear case of the cooling of a planet by the massive injection of dust into its atmosphere. Calculations have been performed that use precisely the same physics for both the Earth and Mars and treat them as two different examples of the general problem of the climatic effects of massive dust injection into a planetary atmosphere.

There was another and entirely unexpected climatological finding by Mariner 9-the discovery of numerous sinuous channels, replete with tributaries, covering the equatorial and mid-latitudes of Mars. In all cases where relevant data exist, the channels are going in the proper direction-downhill. Some of them show braided patterns, sand bars, slumping of the banks, streamlined teardrop-shaped interior “islands” and other characteristic morphological signs of terrestrial river valleys.

But there is a great problem with the interpretation of the Martian channels as dry riverbeds, or arroyos: liquid water apparently cannot exist on Mars today. The pressures are simply too low. Carbon dioxide on Earth is known as both a solid and a gas, but never as a liquid (except in high-pressure storage tanks). In the same way, water on Mars can exist as a solid (ice or snow) or as vapor, but not as a liquid. For this reason some geologists are reluctant to accept the theory that at one time the channels contained liquid water. Yet they are dead ringers for terrestrial rivers, and at least many of them have forms inconsistent with other possible structures such as collapsed lava tubes, which may be responsible for sinuous valleys on the Moon.

Furthermore, there is an apparent concentration of such channels toward the Martian equator. The one striking fact about the equatorial regions of Mars is that they are the only places on the planet where the average daytime temperature is above the freezing point of water. And no other liquid is simultaneously cosmically abundant, of low viscosity, and with a freezing point below Martian equatorial temperatures.

If, then, the channels were made by running water on Mars, that water apparently must have run at a time when the Martian environment was significantly different from what it is today. Today Mars has a thin atmosphere, low temperatures and no liquid water. At some time in the past, it may have had higher pressures, perhaps somewhat higher temperatures and extensive running water. Such an environment appears to be more hospitable to forms of life based on familiar terrestrial biochemical principles than the present Martian environment.

A detailed study of the possible causes of such major climatic changes on Mars has laid stress on a feedback mechanism known as advective instability. The Martian atmosphere is composed primarily of carbon dioxide. There seem to be large repositories of frozen CO2 in at least one of the two polar caps. The pressure of CO2 in the Martian atmosphere is quite close to the pressure of CO2 expected in equilibrium with frozen carbon dioxide at the temperature of the cold Martian pole. This is a situation quite similar to the pressure in a laboratory vacuum system determined by the temperature of a “cold finger” in the system. At the present time the Martian atmosphere is so thin that hot air, rising from the equator and settling at the poles, plays a very small role in heating the high latitudes. But let us imagine that the temperature in the polar regions is somehow slightly increased. The total atmospheric pressure increases, the efficiency of heat transport by advection from equator to pole also increases, polar temperatures increase still further, and we see the possibility of a runaway to high temperatures. Likewise a decrease in temperature, from whatever cause, could bring about a runaway toward a lower temperature. The physics of this Martian situation is easier to work out than the comparable case on Earth, because on Earth the major atmospheric constituents, oxygen and nitrogen, are not condensable at the poles.

For a major increase in pressure to occur on Mars, the amount of heat absorbed in the polar regions of the planet must be increased by some 15 or 20 percent for a period of at least a century. Three possible sources of variation in the heating of the cap have been identified, and they are, interestingly enough, very similar to the three fashionable models of terrestrial climatic change discussed above. In the first, variations of the tilt of the Martian rotational axis toward the Sun are invoked. Such variations are much more striking than for the Earth, because Mars is close to Jupiter, the most massive planet in the solar system, and the gravitational perturbations by Jupiter are pronounced. Here variations in global pressure and temperature will occur on hundred thousand to million year time scales.

Secondly, a variation in the albedo of the polar regions can cause major climatic variations. We can already see substantial sand and dust storms on Mars, because of which the polar caps seasonally darken and brighten. There has been one suggestion that the climate of Mars may be made more hospitable if a hardy species of polar plant can be developed that will lower the albedo of the Martian polar regions.

Finally, there is the possibility of variations in the luminosity of the Sun. Some of the channels on Mars have an occasional impact crater in them, and crude dating of the channels from the frequency of impacts from interplanetary space shows that some of them must be about a billion years old. This is reminiscent of the last epoch of high global temperatures on the planet Earth and raises the captivating possibility of synchronous major variations in climate between the Earth and Mars.

The subsequent Viking missions to Mars have increased our knowledge about the channels in a major way, have provided quite independent evidence for a dense earlier atmosphere and have demonstrated a great repository of frozen carbon dioxide in the polar ice. When the Viking results are fully assimilated, they promise to add greatly to our knowledge of the present environment as well as the past history of the planet, and of the comparison between the climates of the Earth and Mars.



2011 - 2018