Cold comfort

by Bill Ralston / 01 October, 2015
Never mind life on Mars, I’d settle for a warmer climate.
Cartoon Steve Bolton
Cartoon/Steve Bolton

So, they’ve found evidence of what they say is liquid water flowing on Mars. Of course, all water is somewhat liquid, otherwise it’s ice, vapour or steam, but pedantry aside, it is pretty exciting news. Water supports life. We may not be alone in the universe. On Mars today, there may be a microbe or lichen wanting to catch up with us for a chat.

Scientists warn that the water is almost certainly highly salty, but in my experience, that kind of water still supports life. A stream runs by the side of our Hawke’s Bay bach, ponding into a large lake-like estuary before trickling out to the sea. Every summer, thousands of children play in its warm, shallow water, which is why it’s been nicknamed The Urinator. Despite the influx of salty seawater and little kids’ pee, eels and small fish flourish in the estuary, giving me another reason to avoid swimming there.

Even The Urinator sounds more inviting than Mars. The planet is freezing cold, even in summer, and it’s described as an “icy desert”. Of course, having lived through this last long winter in Auckland’s Freemans Bay, I kind of get the feeling of it, except Mars has a negligible atmosphere and without breathing gear you’d choke to death – a little like being in a crowded public bar before they brought in the anti-smoking laws.

Luckily for us, spring is here. The heaters are largely off, the doors to the deck wide open and that big shiny orb in the sky means I can discard my thermals. Yes, I know, Aucklanders are wusses when it comes to wintry temperatures. A short while ago during one of the last cold snaps, I was wrapped in four layers of clothing, with the heaters blasting and the fire roaring, when a Wellington friend called by. He soon stripped down to a T-shirt before finally appealing to be allowed to open a window for air. He’d thrive on Mars.

It is to my eternal regret that Maui didn’t paddle his North Island waka several hundred kilometres further north – parallel with, say, Queensland – before turning the country into stone. Either I am getting old, which is perhaps true, or climate change means we’re getting increasingly vicious winters.

Of course, relocating New Zealand further north would put us much closer to New Caledonia. Back in the 18th or 19th century, this might have meant we’d have become French – surely a boost for the food and wine industry. However, in my experience of French territories, it would also have led to a decline of sanitation standards. I know this is a huge generalisation, but I’ve always found French toilets disgusting, worse than The Urinator. They also often have that type of toilet that encourages the user to stand on two ceramic footprints and squat over a hole – a most unsatisfactory and risky way to do business.

I hope I don’t offend you, but now that I think about it, going to the loo on Mars would be a little tricky. Its gravity is 62% lower than Earth’s, so anything going down the bog would take much longer than it does on this planet to reach its final destination. Still, the discovery of water is certainly a boost for the several planned missions to Mars this century.

Carrying enough water from Earth to support a long-term mission on the surface would be pretty near impossible, so now they can theoretically take some kind of desalination plant and make their own from the aquifers beneath the planet’s surface.

Having virtually solved the water problem, the explorers now have to figure out how to avoid being irradiated and the ill effects of low gravity, such as blindness. Good luck, I’d prefer The Urinator.

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