Is Mars Habitable?/Chapter 3

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Mr. Lowell admits, and indeed urges strongly, that there are no permanent bodies of water on Mars; that the dark spaces and spots, thought by the early observers to be seas, are certainly not so now, though they may have been at an earlier period; that true clouds are rare, even if they exist, the appearances that have been taken for them being either dust-storms or a surface haze; that there is consequently no rain, and that large portions (about two-thirds) of the planet's surface have all the characteristics of desert regions.

Snow-caps the only Source of Water.

This state of things is supposed to be ameliorated by the fact of the polar snows, which in the winter cover the arctic and about half the temperate regions of each hemisphere alternately. The maximum of the northern snow-caps is reached at a period of the Martian winter corresponding to the end of February with us. About the end of March the cap begins to shrink in size (in the Northern Hemisphere), and this goes on so rapidly that early in the June of Mars it is reduced to its minimum. About the same time changes of colour take place in the adjacent darker portions of the surface, which become at first bluish, and later a decided blue-green; but by far the larger portion, including almost all the equatorial regions of the planet, remain always of a reddish-ochre tint.[1]

The rapid and comparatively early disappearance of the white covering is, very reasonably, supposed to prove that it is of small thickness, corresponding perhaps to about a foot or two of snow in north-temperate America and Europe, and that by the increasing amount of sun-heat it is converted, partly into liquid and partly into vapour. Coincident with this disappearance and as a presumed result of the water (or other liquid) producing inundations, the bluish-green tinge which appears on the previously dark portion of the surface is supposed to be due to a rapid growth of vegetation.

But the evidence on this point does not seem to be clear or harmonious, for in the four coloured plates showing the planet's surface at successive Martian dates from December 30th to February 21st, not only is a considerable extent of the south temperate zone shown to change rapidly from bluish-green to chocolate-brown and then again to bluish-green, but the portions furthest from the supposed fertilising overflow are permanently green, as are also considerable portions in the opposite or northern hemisphere, which one would think would then be completely dried up.

No Hills upon Mars.

The special point to which I here wish to call attention is this. Mr. Lowell's main contention is, that the surface of Mars is wonderfully smooth and level. Not only are there no mountains, but there are no hills or valleys or plateaux. This assumption is absolutely essential to support the other great assumption, that the wonderful network of perfectly straight lines over nearly the whole surface of the planet are irrigation canals. It is not alleged that irregularities or undulations of a few hundreds or even one or two thousands of feet could possibly be detected, while certainly all we know of planetary formation or structure point strongly towards some inequalities of surface. Mr. Lowell admits that the dark portions of the surface, when examined on the terminator (the margin of the illuminated portion), do look like hollows and may be the beds of dried-up seas; yet the supposed canals run across these old sea-beds in perfect straight lines just as they do across the many thousand miles of what are admitted to be deserts—which he describes in these forcible terms: "Pitiless as our deserts are, they are but faint forecasts of the state of things existent on Mars at the present time."

It appears, then, that Mr. Lowell has to face this dilemma—Only if the whole surface of Mars is an almost perfect level could the enormous network of straight canals, each from hundreds to thousands of miles long, have been possibly constructed by intelligent beings for purposes of irrigation; but, if a complete and universal level surface exists no such system would be necessary. For on a level surface—or on a surface slightly inclined from the poles towards the equator, which would be advantageous in either case—the melting water would of itself spread over the ground and naturally irrigate as much of the surface as it was possible for it to reach. If the surface were not level, but consisted of slight elevations and expressions to the extent of a few scores or a few hundreds of feet, then there would be no possible advantage in cutting straight troughs through these elevations in various directions with water flowing at the bottom of them. In neither case, and in hardly any conceivable case, could these perfectly straight canals, cutting across each other in every direction and at very varying angles, be of any use, or be the work of an intelligent race, if any such race could possibly have been developed under the adverse conditions which exist in Mars.

The Scanty Water-supply.

But further, if there were any superfluity of water derived from the melting snow beyond what was sufficient to moisten the hollows indicated by the darker portions of the surface, which at the time the water reaches them acquire a green tint (a superfluity under the circumstances highly improbable), that superfluity could be best utilised by widening, however little, the borders to which natural overflow had carried it. Any attempt to make that scanty surplus, by means of overflowing canals, travel across the equator into the opposite hemisphere, through such a terrible desert region and exposed to such a cloudless sky as Mr. Lowell describes, would be the work of a body of madmen rather than of intelligent beings. It may be safely asserted that not one drop of water would escape evaporation or insoak at even a hundred miles from its source.[2]

Miss Clerke on the Scanty Water-supply.

On this point I am supported by no less an authority than the historian of modern astronomy, the late Miss Agnes Clerke. In the Edinburgh Review (of October 1896) there is an article entitled 'New Views about Mars,' exhibiting the writer's characteristic fulness of knowledge and charm of style. Speaking of Mr. Lowell's idea of the 'canals' carrying the surplus water across the equator, far into the opposite hemisphere, for purposes of irrigation there (which we see he again states in the present volume), Miss Clerke writes: "We can hardly imagine so shrewd a people as the irrigators of Thule and Hellas[3] wasting labour, and the life-giving fluid, after so unprofitable a fashion. There is every reason to believe that the Martian snow-caps are quite flimsy structures. Their material might be called snow soufflé, since, owing to the small power of gravity on Mars, snow is almost three times lighter there than here. Consequently, its own weight can have very little effect in rendering it compact. Nor, indeed, is there time for much settling down. The calotte does not form until several months after the winter solstice, and it begins to melt, as a rule, shortly after the vernal equinox. (The interval between these two epochs in the southern hemisphere of Mars is 176 days.) The snow lies on the ground, at the outside, a couple of months. At times it melts while it is still fresh fallen. Thus, at the opposition of 1881-82 the spreading of the northern snows was delayed until seven weeks after the equinox: and they had, accordingly, no sooner reached their maximum than they began to decline. And Professor Pickering's photographs of April 9th and 10th, 1890, proved that the southern calotte may assume its definitive proportions in a single night.

"No attempt has yet been made to estimate the quantity of water derivable from the melting of one of these formations; yet the experiment is worth trying as a help towards defining ideas. Let us grant that the average depth of snow in them, of the delicate Martian kind, is twenty feet, equivalent at the most to one foot of water. The maximum area covered, of 2,400,000 square miles, is nearly equal to that of the United States, while the whole globe of Mars measures 55,500,000 square miles, of which one-third, on the present hypothesis, is under cultivation, and in need of water. Nearly the whole of the dark areas, as we know, are situated in the southern hemisphere, of which they extend over, at the very least, 17,000,000 square miles; that is to say, they cover an area, in round numbers, seven times that of the snow-cap. Only one-seventh of a foot of water, accordingly, could possibly be made available for their fertilisation, supposing them to get the entire advantage of the spring freshet. Upon a stint of less than two inches of water these fertile lands are expected to flourish and bear abundant crops; and since they completely enclose the polar area they are necessarily served first. The great emissaries for carrying off the surplus of their aqueous riches, would then appear to be superfluous constructions, nor is it likely that the share in those riches due to the canals and oases, intricately dividing up the wide, dry, continental plains, can ever be realised.

"We have assumed, in our little calculation, that the entire contents of a polar hood turn to water; but in actual fact a considerable proportion of them must pass directly into vapour, omitting the intermediate stage. Even with us a large quantity of snow is removed aerially; and in the rare atmosphere of Mars this cause of waste must be especially effective. Thus the polar reservoirs are despoiled in the act of being opened. Further objections might be taken to Mr. Lowell's irrigation scheme, but enough has been said to show that it is hopelessly unworkable."

It will be seen that the writer of this article accepted the existence of water on Mars, on the testimony of Sir W. Huggins, which, in view of later observations, he has himself acknowledged to be valueless. Dr. Johnstone Stoney's proof of its absence, derived from the molecular theory of gases, had not then been made public.

Description of some of the Canals.

At the end of his volume Mr. Lowell gives a large chart of Mars on Mercator's projection, showing the canals and other features seen during the opposition of 1905. This contains many canals not shown on the map here reproduced (see frontispiece), and some of the differences between the two are very puzzling. Looking at our map, which shows the north-polar snow below, so that the south pole is out of the view at the top of the map, the central feature is the large spot Ascraeeus Lucus, from which ten canals diverge centrally, and four from the sides, forming wide double canals, fourteen in all. There is also a canal named Ulysses, which here passes far to the right of the spot, but in the large chart enters it centrally. Looking at our map we see, going downwards a little to the left, the canal Udon, which runs through a dark area quite to the outer margin. In the dark area, however, there is shown on the chart a spot Aspledon Lucus, where five canals meet, and if this is taken as a terminus the Udon canal is almost exactly 2000 miles long, and another on its right, Lapadon, is the same length, while Ich, running in a slightly curved line to a large spot (Lucus Castorius on the chart) is still longer. The Ulysses canal, which (on the chart) runs straight from the point of the Mare Sirenum to the Astraeeus Lucus is about 2200 miles long. Others however are even longer, and Mr. Lowell says: "With them 2000 miles is common; while many exceed 2500; and the Eumenides-Orcus is 3540 miles from the point where it leaves Lucus Phoeniceus to where it enters the Trivium Charontis." This last canal is barely visible on our map, its commencement being indicated by the word Eumenides.

The Trivium Charontis is situated just beyond the right-hand margin of our map. It is a triangular dark area, the sides about 200 miles long, and it is shown on the chart as being the centre from which radiate thirteen canals. Another centre is Aquae Calidae situated at the point of a dark area running obliquely from 55° to 35° N. latitude, and, as shown on a map of the opposite hemisphere to our map, has nearly twenty canals radiating from it in almost every direction. Here at all events there seems to be no special connection with the polar snow-caps, and the radiating lines seem to have no intelligent purpose whatever, but are such as might result from fractures in a glass globe produced by firing at it with very small shots one at a time. Taking the whole series of them, Mr. Lowell very justly compares them to "a network which triangulates the surface of the planet like a geodetic survey, into polygons of all shapes and sizes."

At the very lowest estimate the total length of the canals observed and mapped by Mr. Lowell must be over a hundred thousand miles, while he assures us that numbers of others have been seen over the whole surface, but so faintly or on such rare occasions as to elude all attempts to fix their position with certainty. But these, being of the same character and evidently forming part of the same system, must also be artificial, and thus we are led to a system of irrigation of almost unimaginable magnitude on a planet which has no mountains, no rivers, and no rain to support it; whose whole water-supply is derived from polar snows, the amount of which is ludicrously inadequate to need any such world-wide system; while the low atmospheric pressure would lead to rapid evaporation, thus greatly diminishing the small amount of moisture that is available. Everyone must, I think, agree with Miss Clerke, that, even admitting the assumption that the polar snows consist of frozen water, the excessively scanty amount of water thus obtained would render any scheme of world-wide distribution of it hopelessly unworkable.

The very remarkable phenomena of the duplication of many of the lines, together with the dark spots—the so-called oases—at their intersections, are doubtless all connected in some unknown way with the constitution and past history of the planet; but, on the theory of the whole being works of art, they certainly do not help to remove any of the difficulties which have been shown to attend the theory that the single lines represent artificial canals of irrigation with a strip of verdure on each side of them produced by their overflow.

Lowell on the Purpose of the Canals.

Before leaving this subject it will be well to quote Mr. Lowell's own words as to the supposed perfectly level surface of Mars, and his interpretation of the origin and purpose of the 'canals':

"A body of planetary size, if unrotating, becomes a sphere, except for solar tidal deformation; if rotating, it takes on a spheroidal form exactly expressive, so far as observation goes, of the so-called centrifugal force at work. Mars presents such a figure, being flattened out to correspond to its axial rotation. Its surface therefore is in fluid equilibrium, or, in other words, a particle of liquid at any point of its surface at the present time would stay where it was devoid of inclination to move elsewhere. Now the water which quickens the verdure of the canals moves from the pole down to the equator as the season advances. This it does then irrespective of gravity. No natural force propels it, and the inference is forthright and inevitable that it is artificially helped to its end. There seems to be no escape from this deduction. Water only flows downhill, and there is no such thing as downhill on a surface already in fluid equilibrium. A few canals might presumably be so situated that their flow could, by inequality of terrane, lie equatorward, but not all. ...Now it is not in particular but by general consent that the canal-system of Mars develops from pole to equator. From the respective times at which the minima take place, it appears that the canal quickening occupies fifty-two days, as evidenced by the successive vegetal darkenings, to descend from latitude 72° north to latitude 0°, a journey of 2650 miles. This gives for the water a speed of fifty-one miles a day, or 2.1 miles an hour. The rate of progression is remarkably uniform, and this abets the deduction as to assisted transference. But the fact is more unnatural yet. The growth pays no regard to the equator, but proceeds across it as if it did not exist into the planet's other hemisphere. Here is something still more telling than travel to this point. For even if we suppose, for the sake of argument, that natural forces took the water down to the equator, their action must there be certainly reversed, and the equator prove a dead-line, to pass which were impossible" (pp. 374-5).

I think my readers will agree with me that this whole argument is one of the most curious ever put forth seriously by an eminent man of science. Because the polar compression of Mars is about what calculation shows it ought to be in accordance with its rate of rotation, its surface is in a state of 'fluid equilibrium,' and must therefore be absolutely level throughout. But the polar compression of the earth equally agrees with calculation; therefore its surface is also in 'fluid equilibrium'; therefore it also ought to be as perfectly level on land as it is on the ocean surface! But as we know this is very far from being the case, why must it be so in Mars? Are we to suppose Mars to have been formed in some totally different way from other planets, and that there neither is nor ever has been any reaction between its interior and exterior forces? Again, the assumption of perfect flatness is directly opposed to all observation and all analogy with what we see on the earth and moon. It gives no account whatever of the numerous and large dark patches, once termed seas, but now found to be not so, and to be full of detailed markings and varied depths of shadow. To suppose that these are all the same dead-level as the light-coloured portions are assumed to be, implies that the darkness is one of material and colour only, not of diversified contour, which again is contrary to experience, since difference of material with us always leads to differences in rate of degradation, and hence of diversified contour, as these dark spaces actually show themselves under favourable conditions to independent observers.

Lowell on the System of Canals as a whole.

We will now see what Mr. Lowell claims to be the plain teaching of the 'canals' as a whole:

"But last and all-embracing in its import is the system which the canals form. Instead of running at hap-hazard, the canals are interconnected in a most remarkable manner. They seek centres instead of avoiding them. The centres are linked thus perfectly one with another, an arrangement which could not result from centres, whether of explosion or otherwise, which were themselves discrete. Furthermore, the system covers the whole surface of the planet, dark areas and light ones alike, a world-wide distribution which exceeds the bounds of natural possibility. Any force which could act longitudinally on such a scale must be limited latitudinally in its action, as witness the belts of Jupiter and the spots upon the sun. Rotational, climatic, or other physical cause could not fail of zonal expression. Yet these lines are grandly indifferent to such competing influences. Finally, the system, after meshing the surface in its entirety, runs straight into the polar caps.

"It is, then, a system whose end and aim is the tapping of the snow-cap for the water there semi-annually let loose; then to distribute it over the planet's face" (p. 373).

Here, again, we have curiously weak arguments adduced to support the view that these numerous straight lines imply works of art rather than of nature, especially in the comparison made with the belts of Jupiter and the spots on the sun, both purely atmospheric phenomena, whereas the lines on Mars are on the solid surface of the planet. Why should there be any resemblance between them? Every fact stated in the above quotation, always keeping in mind the physical conditions of the planet—its very tenuous atmosphere and rainless desert-surface—seem wholly in favour of a purely natural as opposed to an artificial origin; and at the close of this discussion I shall suggest one which seems to me to be at least possible, and to explain the whole series of the phenomena set forth and largely discovered by Mr. Lowell, in a simpler and more probable manner than does his tremendous assumption of their being works of art. Readers who may not possess Mr. Lowell's volume will find three of his most recent maps of the 'canals' reproduced in Nature of October 11th, 1906.

  1. In 1890 at Mount Wilson, California, Mr. W.H. Pickering's photographs of Mars on April 9th showed the southern polar cap of moderate dimensions, but with a large dim adjacent area. Twenty-four hours later a corresponding plate showed this same area brilliantly white; the result apparently of a great Martian snowfall. In 1882 the same observer witnessed the steady disappearance of 1,600,000 square miles of the southern snow-cap, an area nearly one-third of that hemisphere of the planet.
  2. What the evaporation is likely to be in Mars may be estimated by the fact, stated by Professor J.W. Gregory in his recent volume on 'Australia' in Stanford's Compendium, that in North-West Victoria evaporation is at the rate of ten feet per annum, while in Central Australia it is very much more. The greatly diminished atmospheric pressure in Mars will probably more than balance the loss of sun-heat in producing rapid evaporation.
  3. Areas on Mars so named