Colonization Considerations: Caring for the Environment on Mars

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What Humans Need to Think About as we Colonize Mars

Historically, curiosity, idealism, and potential opportunity has driven the colonization of new territories.  The quest to inhabit Mars is no different; and likewise it shares the potential downsides of colonization.  This includes altering the landscape and environment of the colonized land in unforeseen – and not always positive- ways.

Keeping Mars Beautiful

Some scientists have proposed designating specific areas of the planet as ‘parks’ similar to the national park concept already in place on Earth.  One park to protect the planet’s ice cap for biological studies, another to preserve the solar system’s largest volcano, Olympus Mons, and other park areas would set aside critical natural areas with scientific or cultural value to protect their resources from exploitation.

One challenge with the park concept arises immediately: What body will govern these areas? Nations provide stewardship for national parks on Earth but the best way to manage these areas on Mars will need to be determined as more and more humans populate it.

Dealing With Garbage

Humans produce a lot of garbage. So much garbage that we don’t know where to put it all on our home planet.  What can we learn from our experience on Earth to help us from manage our solid waste on Mars? Americans generate the most trash per person per day – but are not the lone culprits in creating waste.  Even the lowest trash-producing countries helped contribute what a recent World Bank report projected will be nearly 6 million tons per day by 2025.

While the population on Mars won’t be nearly what it is on Earth; the problem of where to put what is produced still needs to be solved.

Some amount of population density will be a necessity, as humans will need to live in clusters in order to most efficiently use the resources that allow them to survive on the planet.  Will we be able to compost some of our waste as we do here, taking advantage of the superoxides in the soil on Mars that break down organic compounds? Will dumps or landfills exist?

NASA is exploring the development of a “Heat Melt Compactor” to deal with solid waste by compacting it, then turning it into a tile that be used as a radiation shield. As the population increases, so will the need for repurposing waste into useful products.

Interplanetary Contamination

We don’t yet know enough about Mars to determine if any life forms from Earth would survive without some type of environmental alteration known as ‘terraforming’. The search for life on Mars could be a self-defeating effort.  As humans explore Mars; contaminants unintentionally brought from Earth may destroy what life does exist.

We don’t know for certain how much water is present on the planet yet. But the first human inhabitants of Mars will need to heed the lessons of past colonists on Earth.  Those early settlers introduced unwelcome viruses and bacteria to their new lands.  Colonists and explorers on Mars will have to reduce biological contamination as much as possible.

“The benefit of having humans in space is that they’re much more flexible than robots, but they could contaminate Mars with Earth life”. Catharine Conley, NASA’s planetary protection officer.  Source:

Humans have learned the hard way just how important conservation is to Earth.  The depletion and contamination of natural resources and excess production and inefficient management of solid waste are not inherent to colonization.  The future of human life on Mars gives us good reason to hope that as the dream of living on Mars becomes a reality, we will make the protection of the planet a primary consideration.