Water on Mars

After I read about the new evidence for liquid water on Mars, bubbling up from underground and leaving brief tracks before the terrible cold burns it away to nothing, I went into the kitchen and filled a glass from the tap. It tasted vacant, like outer space.

Good water is like the face of a model: void of all detectable particularities. Regular to the point of seeming inhuman.

Coincidentally, I just found out via comments on a recent post about aquagenic urticaria,

a rare condition in which hives develop within 1 to 15 minutes after contact with water. The hives last for 10 to 120 minutes and do not seem to be caused by histamine release like the other physical hives. Most investigators believe that this condition is actually exquisite skin sensitivity to additives in the water such as chlorine.

Imagine what it would be like to suffer from this ailment: even after treatment, still experiencing itchiness whenever your skin comes in contact with what we have always been told is the source of all life.

Evidence of ancient water abounds on Mars, and the question has generally been, What if there’s life? But now, with this strong evidence that water somehow, somewhere persists, the opposite case strikes me as equally intriguing: What if there isn’t, and has never been, life on Mars?

According to Michael Malin, the leader of the team who made the discovery,

These fresh deposits suggest that at some places and times on present-day Mars, liquid water is emerging from beneath the ground and briefly flowing down the slopes. This possibility raises questions about how the water would stay melted below ground, how widespread it might be, and whether there’s a below-ground wet habitat conducive to life.

An essay by science fiction author Ben Bova helps place these questions in context.

Several decades ago, when most scientists wrote off frigid, arid Mars as a world that could not harbor life, Carl Sagan and a few others suggested that Mars was probably much warmer and wetter in eons past. Maybe what we see today, they speculated, is the Martian equivalent of an ice age period. Maybe Mars wasn’t always the way it is today. […]

On Earth, there are varieties of bacteria that live deep underground, where they metabolize solid rock. Like all forms of life that we know of, these rock-eating bacteria need liquid water, which they get from underground seeps and flows.

The same kind of organisms could exist on Mars. Right now.

And we might never know for sure. Space exploration costs gazillions, and we may not be able to afford it for very much longer.

Death is not a synonym for lifelessness. Only a planet known to have once harbored life can truly be called a dead planet. And if we ever discover that to have been the case with Mars, we’ll have to give some thought to memorial rites. We have a hard enough time grappling with genocide or the extinction of a species, so much more numbing than the loss even of the greatest or most beloved individual. Now we are beginning to see the collapse of entire ecosystems. We have no fucking idea how to mourn the loss of a world.

Interesting, isn’t it, how the language works on us? Only a place that has been someone’s home can rightly be considered a world.

If life on earth turns out to be derived ultimately from Mars, by way of microorganism-bearing meteorite(s), our sorrow and sense of disorientation will be like that of an adoptee who only discovers his adopted status after the death of his birth-mother.

Unless, of course, that mother still clings to life in some cold and sterile hospital ward, lying in a coma. We return again and again to peer down at her silent mask, watching, wondering if it might ever return to being a face. Mere biological life is not enough. We crave a response.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

11 Comments


  1. I like that phrase ‘exquisite skin sensitivity’…

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  2. “This is the interesting thing about the Earth in comparison with the other planetary surfaces. Of the rocky planets, Mercury may be similar (we don’t know much about it) but Mars and Venus are typically covered with basaltic lava. Basaltic lavas are what you get in a rocky planet when the mantle starts melting — due to heat from radioactivity, say. In the case of Venus, basaltic lava has covered the planet, and Mars is pretty well covered with it as well. On the Earth, the reason why the lava comes up along the mid-ocean ridges, travels along on this conveyor belt and dives back down into the mantle, getting recycled to produce the continental crust, is probably the water content. Without that we could have been stuck with barren plains of basalt everywhere — no continents, no ore deposits, and so on.”

    Part of that “so on” would be rampant ecosystems as we have known them.

    This from an interview with a very interesting man. A very good read if you want to know what the moon is made of.
    http://www.science.org.au/scientists/rt.htm#earth

    It’s all just another reason to be happy, for today is yet another day in which you probably won’t be subducted. Thank you water.

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  3. As usual, I haven’t written very well. It’s all very nice to not to be undergoing subduction at the moment, but it is the ongoing process of subduction for which I mean to be grateful. Isn’t it great Dave?

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  4. It’s good either way. Thanks for the info – I knew that tectonic activity was more or less responsible for life on planet Earth, but wasn’t aware of this connection with water. Pretty cool.

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  5. The only thing is, I don’t know what exactly the “water content” does, and how it works to bring about subduction. The lack of understanding forces my imagination to produce apocryphal explainations of my own (such as the weight of the ocean holding the sea floor down!) When he says water content, he may not be talking about oceans but water in the material of the mantle, where the by far greatest fraction of the earth’s water abides, as far as I dimly recall having read. Things won’t be made any clearer by my writing one more word, quite the opposite, but I do like trying to re-establish an understanding I thought I once possessed, though it all seems a bit picturesque in recollection. There was a free comprehensive article for the layperson on the net on this subject but it has been removed and now is available only for money.

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  6. If the allergic person is also exquisitely sensitive to drinking water, they’re in trouble. I suppose they’d have to sterilize it.

    I was recently listening to Bill Bryson’s In a Sunburned Country (about Australia) and he described going to see the stomatolites in Shark Bay, the remains of the earliest life forms on earth. See also here. I don’t know that they arrived here from Mars, though. ;-)

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  7. nature continues to shape and mold us, teach us with its metaphors, and change our perceptions of ourselves–even in its deteriorating condition.

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  8. leslee – No, not anything as advanced as stromaltolites. (I read that book too. A good read, and much better as natural history than A Walk in the Woods, I thought.)

    Josh – You bet!

    Thanks for stopping by.

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  9. I’m here via a comment you left on a blog for Poetic Thursday recently. I see so many posts here that catch my eye. This one is fascinating on many levels from informational to topics of interest to me all of my artsy-science life, to creative writing of yours! I’m bookmarking you and off to find your contribution to Poetic Thurs.
    Best wishes this holiday season!

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  10. I’m glad you’re enjoying the site, and hope you’re not too disappointed when you discover that I don’t actually participate in Poetic Thursday. (Not that I have anything against it — I think it’s a terrific idea — I’m just really bad at organized group activities in general.)

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