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Tribune T Magazine – The Express Tribune




Dr Moonis Ahmar

July 10, 2021


For the last decade or so, there seem to have been serious efforts by the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the scientific community in other countries to explore Mars and determine whether it can be liveable.

Known popularly as the ‘Red Planet’ on account of the colour its iron-oxide rich surface, Mars is roughly half the size of the Earth and has been a constant source of curiosity for scientists over the years. This is reflected in the amount of exploration and research that has gone towards the planet to ascertain whether it is possible to establish life there. Projects like the Mars Foundation based in the Netherlands and the Mars Space Mission project based in New York are composed of scientists and aerospace companies exploring how Mars can be liveable in the first half of 21st century.

After Venus, Mars is our closet planetary neighbour. In 2003, Mars was closest to earth with a distance of 56 million kilometres. If Mars and Earth are farthest from the sun, the two planets can be 401 million kilometres apart. Travel time between the two planets in a spacecraft with a speed of 58,000 kilometres per hour that uses the closest approach will take 39 days and with farthest approach with 289 days. On average, travel time between Mars and Earth will be 162 days. With these facts in mind, scientists engaged with NASA and elsewhere are researching the characteristics of Mars that can provide a ray of hope to those dreaming of colonising the Red Planet. It may be a wishful thinking and a utopian concept to send spaceships carrying humans to Mars, but human curiosity and innovation has no boundaries.

Mars can certainly be a source of anxiety for those who realise how in the last 200 hundred years scientific innovation and discoveries made it possible to drastically cut travel time from one continent to another, and enabled people to connect each other from telephone, telex, fax, e-mail and then online sources. But while it may seem an uphill task to develop a planet with a faint possibility of having water and oxygen, our history does lead one to expect scientific miracles.

In a 2014 conference at the NASA Ames Research Centre, Dr Chris McKay, a planetary scientist and founding member of ‘The Mars Society’, presented a list of Mars’ most important resources that early Martian colonists would exploit to make the planet habitable. According to him, under atmospheric CO2 is Mars’ most easily accessible resource, providing feedstock for manufacturing methane propellant. The chemistry involved in separating it is simple, low power, and has been employed on Earth for more than a century. Referring to H2O from the atmosphere and polar ice he further argued, “Mars is a dry planet compared to the Earth, but compared to other celestial bodies like the moon and asteroids, its water budget is quite generous. Mars has a polar cap composed of a mixture of water-ice and CO2 dry ice, and even at non-polar latitudes, water-ice is known to exist a few meters under the surface regolith. This water can be purified and consumed, or electrolyzed to produce O2 and hydrogen, which can be further combined with atmospheric CO2 to produce a range of useful plastics”.

Traces of glaciers, lakes and water in some of the regions of Mars and human ability to make use of minimum resources necessary for colonising the Red Planet is perhaps a single most important source of hope for NASA and the world’s scientists. If they are persistent, a day will come when human settlement in Mars be not be a dream but a reality. Instincts of lust for resources and power have remained two major characteristics among human beings that gave an impetus to the colonisation of Americas, Australia, Africa and parts of Asia. Similar instincts motivate human beings from scientifically developed nations to sustain their efforts to transform Mars as the second world for human beings. People may term the vision of some scientists that Mars can be liveable as weird but science has no limit and can strive to transform unthinkable as unthinkable. Life on moon was ruled out because it has neither air nor water, but in the case of Mars the scientific results of exploration done so far tend to make scientists and explorers double-minded about the possibility of life on Mars.

There are technical and various scientific terms, which are used to judge whether there can be life on Mars? According to Robin Wordsworth in his blog ( February 14, 2020) “It’s a very poorly kept secret in planetary science that many of us first got inspired to join the field by reading science fiction. For many of us who study Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson’s 1990s Mars trilogy, which describes the colonisation and eventual transforming of the Red Planet, was particularly influential. But rereading these books in 2019, I noted that much of what he imagined looks pretty far-fetched—we’re still a long way from landing the first human on Mars, and transforming the planet to make it habitable seems like a very distant dream”. Reinforcing his arguments about establishing life in Mars he further states that, “serious scientific ideas for transforming Mars into an Earth-like planet have been put forward before, but they require vast industrial capabilities and make assumptions about the total amount of accessible carbon dioxide (CO2) on the planet that have been criticised as unrealistic. When we started thinking about this problem a few years ago, therefore, we decided to take a different approach. One thing you learn quickly when you study Mars’s past climate, as we do in our usual research, is that while it was intermittently habitable in the past, it was never really like Earth—it has always been a unique and alien world. So when we’re thinking about how to make Mars habitable in the future, perhaps we should also be taking inspiration from the Red Planet itself”.

Human quest for knowledge, exploration and discovery has no parallel. The West, on account of its edge in science and technology in the last four hundred years wouldn’t like to give up hope to make use of the opportunity to colonise Mars provided there are chances of some success. Investment on scientific missions to be sent to Mars will pay off as the West, particularly the United States will be first one to put its flag on the Red Planet and unleash the process of colonising Mars.

In his paper “A way to make Mars habitable” Robert Woodsworth in Harvard Gazette ( argues that “people have long dreamed of altering the Martian climate to make it liveable for humans. Carl Sagan was the first outside the realm of science fiction to propose terraforming. In a 1971 paper, Sagan suggested that vaporizing the northern polar ice caps would result in “yield ~103g cm-2 of atmosphere over the planet, higher global temperatures through the greenhouse effect, and a greatly increased likelihood of liquid water.” Based on the results of a pair of NASA-funded researchers from the University of Colorado, Boulder, and Northern Arizona University in 2018 found that processing all the sources available on Mars would only increase atmospheric pressure to about seven per cent that of Earth — far short of what is needed to make the planet habitable, scientists are now exploring the possibility of colonising not the entire Mars but some of its regions. Quoted by Robert Woodsworth, “the researchers suggest that regions of the Martian surface could be made habitable with a material — silica aerogel — that would mimic Earth’s atmospheric greenhouse effect. Through modeling and experiments, the researchers show that a two to three-centimetre thick shield of silica aerogel could transmit enough visible light for photosynthesis, block hazardous ultraviolet radiation, and raise temperatures underneath permanently above the melting point of water, all without the need for any internal heat source”.

Scientists are going an extra mile to probe how even a small percentage of available ice and CO2 can help start colonization process in Mars. Therefore, they agreed upon selecting some of the parts of mars so as to conduct engineering of environment that can at least lead to life in the red planet. According to Robin Wordsworth, Assistant Professor of Environmental Science and Engineering at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and the Department of Earth and Planetary Science “this regional approach to making Mars habitable is much more achievable than global atmospheric modification,” “Unlike the previous ideas to make Mars habitable, this is something that can be developed and tested systematically with materials and technology we already have.” “Mars is the most habitable planet in our solar system besides Earth,” said Laura Kerber, a research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “But it remains a hostile world for many kinds of life. A system for creating small islands of habitability would allow us to transform Mars in a controlled and scalable way.” Unlike Earth’s polar ice caps, which are made of frozen water, the ones on Mars are a combination of water ice and frozen CO2. Like its gaseous form, frozen CO2 allows sunlight to penetrate while trapping heat. In the summer, this solid-state greenhouse effect creates pockets of warming under the ice. “We started thinking about this solid-state greenhouse effect and how it could be invoked for creating habitable environments on Mars in the future,” Wordsworth said. “We started thinking about what kinds of materials could minimize thermal conductivity but still transmit as much light as possible.”

According to Chelsea Gohd in her paper, “Can we Terraform Mars to Make It Earth-Lie? Not anytime Soon” ( “while many researchers have devised ways we might use Mars’ carbon dioxide to terraform the planet and make it habitable, one new study suggests that the Red Planet simply doesn’t have enough carbon dioxide for this to be possible. Could we make Mars Earth-like? Not with existing technologies, one new paper suggests. For many years, Mars has existed as a hopeful “Planet B” — a secondary option if Earth can no longer support us as a species. From science-fiction stories to scientific investigations, humans have considered the possibilities of living on Mars for a long time. A main staple of many Mars-colonisation concepts is terraforming — a hypothetical process of changing the conditions on a planet to make it habitable for life that exists on Earth, including humans, without a need for life-support systems. Unfortunately, according to a new paper, with existing technologies, terraforming Mars is simply not possible”.

Scientists researching on Mars point out that several million years ago Mars was warm and wet and at that there was a large blue fresh water lake. Huge underground aquifers of liquid water exist, according to a group of scientists, who say they have found convincing evidence. The underground lake hasn’t been seen directly, but if it’s real, it’s a discovery that substantially increases the likelihood that the Red Planet might host life. Researchers detected the possible reservoir with the Mars Express Orbiter, a European spacecraft that’s been orbiting Mars since 2003. While scanning the ice cap at Mars’ south pole, the probe’s radar instrument, called MARSIS, detected a feature about a mile underneath the surface that was about 12.4 miles wide. The structure has a radar signature that matches that of buried liquid water here on Earth, leading the team to conclude that there’s a lake under the glacier. The researchers say they’ve ruled out all other possibilities for what they’re seeing.

According to Loren Grush, in her article “Scientists detect giant underground aquifer on Mars, raising hope of life on the planet” ( “in 2015, the space agency announced that a bunch of bizarre dark streaks seen on Mars were likely made up of salty water. That was the first big confirmation that water exists as a liquid on Mars, which is remarkable when you consider that the planet has an average temperature of -80 degrees Fahrenheit. Salt in the water lowers its freezing point, allowing it to stay liquid in frigid conditions; scientists believe the salt probably comes from Martian rocks”.

Other players for exploring Mars like China and United Arab Emirates (UAE) are also active with a resolve to seek the possibility of starting human life on the red planet. Drive to colonize Mars will further get an impetus because of over population, diminishing food and energy resources and worsening of global environment which will make human living on earth very difficult.

(The writer is Meritorious Professor of International Relations and former Dean Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Karachi. E.Mail: [email protected]).

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Climate tipping points are difficult to predict. In Canada and beyond, they might have already arrived –



Scientists have been watching extreme weather events unfold all over the world this summer, seeing the many links between heatwaves, floods, droughts and climate change. 

But the scale of some of these events, and just how dramatically they have upended previous records, suggests that the climate is no longer changing in a gradual, predictable way.

Deadly heat waves and other wild weather are putting renewed attention on tipping points  — the idea that major shifts to key ecosystems, such as Greenland’s ice sheets or the Amazon rainforest, can cause large, irreversible changes to the planet’s climate balance. 

“Tipping points are large-scale changes that could happen abruptly and could be potentially irreversible,” said Owen Gaffney, an analyst at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, a research institute

WATCH | Smog warnings might become the norm. How do we protect ourselves?

Hashem Akbari, an environmental engineer at Concordia University, says the solution must include stopping climate change. 5:23

He co-authored a 2019 article in the journal Nature that listed nine tipping points around the world that scientists are watching with growing concern. A prime example is the ice-sheets in parts of Antarctica and Greenland. Rather than gradually shrinking as the climate warms, research suggests the sheets could hit points of no return leading to rapid and irreversible ice loss  — and a corresponding rise in global sea levels.

In Greenland, models suggest the “ice sheet could be doomed at 1.5 C of warming, which could happen as soon as 2030,” the report said.

In Canada, the trends are worrying. This summer, various parts of British Columbia saw temperature records broken during the heatwave in June, notably the town of Lytton, which set the record for the hottest temperature ever recorded in Canada at 49.6 C — a remarkable 5.2 C increase over Lytton’s previous heat record (which was also a record for B.C.) in 1941.

Lytton, B.C., set Canada’s hottest temperature record this summer, and was mostly destroyed by a wildfire afterwards. The new record was about five degrees above the town’s previous record. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

“The analogy that scientists used to use is that as you warm the climate, it is like loading a pair of dice. And so now when you roll the dice, you get more sixes than you would have before,” said Simon Donner, a professor at the University of British Columbia who studies climate science and public policy. 

“But what we’ve been seeing this summer isn’t a six, it’s like a seven or eight, something that wasn’t possible with the old dice.”

Simon Donner is a climate science and public policy researcher at the University of British Columbia. (Don Erhardt)

A study examining how much of the heatwave on the west coast could be attributed to human-caused climate change by a group of international scientists suggested that one explanation for the high temperatures could be “​​nonlinear interactions in the climate.”

Rather than gradual increases in temperature extremes, this theory suggests that the present amount of climate change is causing bigger-than-expected increases in extreme heat due to interactions in the climate system that are not fully understood.

And that raises questions about what cities and communities need to do to adapt to a future climate that looks increasingly uncertain. 

Tipping points may have been already reached

An international group of climate scientists are now warning that there is “mounting evidence that we are nearing or have already crossed tipping points associated with critical parts of the Earth system.” In a paper published in the journal BioScience on July 28, researchers pointed to the West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, warm-water coral reefs, and the Amazon rainforest as climate systems that were possibly nearing or had already reached their tipping point.

The paper tracked 31 key climate variables, such as global emissions and tree cover loss and found that 18 are at all-time records. That includes the three important greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, which reached new records for atmospheric concentrations in both 2020 and 2021.

Given the impacts we are seeing at roughly 1.25 C of global warming, “combined with the many reinforcing feedback loops and potential tipping points, massive-scale climate action is urgently needed,” the paper said.

Trucks carry relief supplies in central China’s Henan Province, hit by flooding in July due to unprecedented rain. Climate change will make floods more severe in many parts of the world. (Dake Kang/The Associated Press)

Paul Ritchie, a mathematician and climate scientist at the University of Exeter in the U.K., researches where those tipping points lie and how far we can overshoot some of them while still being able to recover. Certain changes, such as the loss of ice sheets, have a relatively long timescale, Ritchie said, occurring over many centuries.

“But then there are these other elements… where these can happen over much shorter timescales, maybe years or decades,” he said. 

“So pretty much as soon as we go over these particular thresholds, we might instantly know because we have this sudden loss of the Amazon rainforest or the monsoon suddenly stops operating.”

Both events would have devastating consequences. Millions of people rely on the monsoons for agriculture, while the Amazon’s loss could release even more carbon and accelerate global warming.

Adaptation still possible, but Canada not there yet

Canada announced a plan to develop a national adaptation strategy in December 2020. But experts warn the country is not ready for the climate we have now, and needs to move fast to respond to the future.

“The reality is that we should assume that we’re not going to meet that [Paris Agreement] target of 2 C,” said Gordon McBean, a professor at the Western University in London, Ont., of the global deal to reduce carbon emissions to stop the worst impacts of climate change. 

McBean was the lead investigator on a report for the federal government earlier this year on building community resilience to climate change.

His report found that while many cities have high level plans to address climate change, others still lack detailed implementation strategies or funding. 

“Most actions to build community resilience in Canada are unplanned and take place in recovery following an extreme loss event,” the report said.

Government workers check an area consumed by fire in the Amazon rainforest in Brazil in 2020. The Amazon is one system that could be nearing a tipping point. (Andre Penner/The Associated Press)

As average temperatures rise in linearly fashion, the number of extreme weather events increases more dramatically, McBean said. “An adaptation strategy has to take into account not just future projections of weather, but also future projections of greenhouse gas emissions, and the chance that the rest of the world will not meet its emissions reduction goals.”

Recent heat domes and tornados are examples of the kinds of events that will happen more often in the future, he said.

With the climate set to continue to change for years to come, and new information coming out about the dangers of tipping points that could lead to extreme weather that’s unforeseen, adaptation has become more urgent.

McBean said there’s enough information available now to start planning for that uncertain future, and make communities more resilient.

“It’s not saying we failed. It’s saying here’s what we need to do,” he said.

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It's not just the smoke — as climate change prompts more wildfires, hidden health risks emerge –



For 53-year-old photographer Stefanie Harron, the past few weeks have felt like living in a smoky, fiery hell. 

The air in her hometown of Castlegar, B.C., has been thick with smoke as wildfires rage nearby. Her neighbour’s house is barely visible though a mere 25 metres away. Her eyes water and her asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) make the simple act of breathing a challenge. 

Instead of using her puffer once or twice a week, she’s now using it four to five times a day. 

“The air, thick with particulates, makes me want to vomit,” she says. “The first thing you notice is the taste before the acrid smell. I would compare it to living in an ashtray. Every breath without a respirator is like short gasps for air,” Harron says. “[I’m] almost scared to take a deep breath knowing it will result in coughing and make it worse and more difficult.”

Harron is not alone. As roughly 250 fires rage across the province, tens of thousands of people have been exposed to poor air quality, and it’s particularly difficult on those who have health issues. Another 200 wildfires burn across the country.

Climate change is expected to exacerbate wildfires, with estimates of anywhere from a 74 to 118 per cent increase in Canadian land burned by 2100

WATCH | What’s the health impact of wildfire smoke?

Wildfire season in Canada contributes to increases in emergency room visits and for some people with respiratory illnesses, it can lead to severe outcomes. 4:32

And though the risks from smoke are among the biggest worries, there are also less-obvious health concerns such as the impact on mental health and clean water to consider.

Questions about long-term effects

Scientists examining air pollution — including that produced by wildfires — study various types of emissions, but among those most commonly measured is particulate matter (PM), specifically PM 2.5. 

PM 2.5 are fine particles measuring roughly 2.5 micrometres and smaller. Inhaling them can affect the lungs and heart, and are of serious concern to those with existing health issues such as asthma or heart and lung disease.

This illustration shows the approximate size of various particles. (Environmental Protection Agency)

The immediate effects may be obvious, but doctors are also trying to better understand the long-term impact.

“Four of the past five summers in British Columbia have had significant wildfire smoke events. And … we’re not really sure what the long-term health consequences are for populations who are exposed this way, sort of season after season,” said Sarah Henderson, the scientific director of environmental health at the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control. “There’s the potential for these big and significant wildfire smoke exposures to affect the health of those individuals throughout their lives.”

And those particles aren’t just concerning for those who live near the fires. Smoke can travel far from its source, sometimes traversing the globe. 

“For major smoke events, you’ll see the intercontinental transport of smoke,” said Jeff Eyamie, regional air health officer for Health Canada. “For the Fort Mac fires [in 2016], they had smoke as far away as the Ukraine that they could trace back to the Fort McMurray fires.” 

Here at home, on July 19, Environment and Climate Change Canada issued an air quality advisory for southern Ontario, including Toronto, as well as Ottawa as smoke from wildfires in northwestern Ontario blanketed the province. A week later, parts of Quebec, including Montreal, were put under a similar advisory.

Anxious and irritable

And then there is the impact on mental health. Wildfires sometimes force people to be evacuated from their homes, causing high levels of stress. Those who live in areas where the air is thick with smoke may also be forced to remain indoors for long periods of time. In addition, there may be other hidden costs, like a run on asthma medication.

An orange sun is seen in the sky at Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, roughly 12 kilometres southwest of Napanee, Ont. (Submitted by Malcolm Park)

Dr. Courtney Howard, an emergency physician in Yellowknife and past president of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, was involved in a study that interviewed 30 residents in Yellowknife, which experiences wildfires every year. In the study, they were asked what it felt like to live through a long period of smoky air. 

“What people told us was that they felt anxious and irritable,” she said. “They were cooped up, had that cabin fever … lots of comments about the decrease in physical activity. And so, of course, what that means is that people lose the treatment benefit that we know we get from being outside in nature, exercising.” 

At one point, the mayor of Yellowknife opened up an indoor exercise space so people could be active in a well-ventilated area, said Howard. It’s something she believes officials might need to consider in a future with climate change.

Impact on the environment

The particles that waft into the air affect more than just physical health. Those particles also land on trees, plants, buildings and end up in water.

Ash, sediment and minerals not only flow into streams and rivers, but also downstream into lakes and reservoirs, potentially affecting drinking water and contributing to algal blooms.

The good news is that in Canada the water purification systems are able to filter them out for the most part. But the added strain on the system means that it may cost more to handle the higher level of contaminants. 

“The issue around fire and drinking water is not — and I have to emphasize not — generally an issue of ‘Am I drinking something with some sort of toxic contaminant in it?'” says Monica Emelko, a professor in the University of Waterloo’s civil and environmental engineering department. “It’s rather an issue of: ‘If toxic contaminants get into the water, will you be able to have something running out of your tap that you can use?’ … When we have these disturbances on the landscape, that really pushes our ability to do that in a cost effective way.”

There are also effects on ecosystems, says Uldis Silins, a professor of forest hydrology at the University of Alberta. For example, as sediment and minerals flow into water they can upset the chemical balance in a lake. 

“One of the things that we’ve seen repetitively is very large impacts on things like sediment,” Silins said. “Unlike other kinds of disturbance pressures we might be thinking about, the scope of those impacts was not a 30 or 50 per cent kind of increase in sediment production, they were hundreds of percentages or thousands of percentages, so, orders of magnitude increases in those contaminants.” 

And as humans rely on those ecosystems, there may be other consequences – such as the impact on fish in lakes that are eaten. 

“I don’t think it’s bold of me to say we’re in a climate emergency. And everyone needs to be aware that this is happening,” said Health Canada’s Eyamie. “The models may not be 100 per cent accurate, but they’ll be accurate enough that this should be cause for concern for everyone.”

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Russian lab module docks with space station after 8-day trip – St. Albert Today



MOSCOW — A newly arrived Russian science lab briefly knocked the International Space Station out of position Thursday when it accidentally fired its thrusters.

For 47 minutes, the space station lost control of its orientation when the firing occurred a few hours after docking, pushing the orbiting complex from its normal configuration. The station’s position is key for getting power from solar panels and or communications. Communications with ground controllers also blipped out twice for a few minutes.

Flight controllers regained control using thrusters on other Russian components at the station to right the ship, and it is now stable and safe, NASA said.

“We haven’t noticed any damage,” space station program manager Joel Montalbano said in a late afternoon press conference. “There was no immediate danger at anytime to the crew.”

Montalbano said the crew didn’t really feel any movement or any shaking. NASA said the station moved 45 degrees out of attitude, about one-eighth of a complete circle. The complex was never spinning, NASA spokesman Bob Jacobs said.

NASA’s human spaceflight chief Kathy Lueders called it “a pretty exciting hour.”

The incident caused NASA to postpone a repeat test flight for Boeing’s crew capsule that had been set for Friday afternoon from Florida. It will be Boeing’s second attempt to reach the 250-mile-high station before putting astronauts on board; software problems botched the first test.

Russia’s long-delayed 22-ton (20-metric-ton) lab called Nauka arrived earlier Thursday, eight days after it launched from the Russian launch facility in Baikonur, Kazakhstan.

The launch of Nauka, which will provide more room for scientific experiments and space for the crew, had been repeatedly delayed because of technical problems. It was initially scheduled to go up in 2007.

In 2013, experts found contamination in its fuel system, resulting in a long and costly replacement. Other Nauka systems also underwent modernization or repairs.

Stretching 43 feet (13 meters) long, Nauka became the first new compartment for the Russian segment of the outpost since 2010. On Monday, one of the older Russian units, the Pirs spacewalking compartment, undocked from the station to free up room for the new lab.

Nauka will require many maneuvers, including up to 11 spacewalks beginning in early September, to prepare it for operation.

The space station is currently operated by NASA astronauts Mark Vande Hei, Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur; Oleg Novitsky and Pyotr Dubrov of Russia’s Roscosmos space corporation; Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Akihiko Hoshide and European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Pesquet.

In 1998, Russia launched the station’s first compartment, Zarya, which was followed in 2000 by another big piece, Zvezda, and three smaller modules in the following years. The last of them, Rassvet, arrived at the station in 2010.

Russian space officials downplayed the incident with Dmitry Rogozin, head of Roscosmos, tweeting: “All in order at the ISS. The crew is resting, which is what I advise you to do as well.”

Seth Borenstein, The Associated Press

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