An apparently off-the-cuff proposal by billionaire Elon Musk to make Mars habitable with nuclear weapons may not be the best idea.
Easy on that launch button, Dr. Strangelove.
Hours after Tesla and SpaceX CEO and potential supervillain Elon Musk told Stephen Colbert on "The Late Show" on Wednesday night that humans could try nuking Mars to make it more earthlike – a glib and apparently off-the-cuff remark that blew up Twitter – climate scientists and geophysicists chimed in to put a halt to the launch party.
"There are so many things that could go wrong here it is difficult to know where to start," renowned climate scientist and professional buzzkill Michael Mann, a professor and director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University, tells U.S. News.
As James Lewis, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, put it, "Any idea that sounds like a scene from a Schwarzenegger movie is open to question."
Musk's proposal – one that's been debated by scientists previously – goes like this: If you suddenly transform all the ice at Mars' poles into water vapor, you might be able to put enough of that vapor into the atmosphere to get what's known as a "runaway positive feedback," Mann explains, creating a climate warm enough to eventually support "permanent oceans and a moisture-laden atmosphere."
See photos of the planet:
Scientists: Please don't nuke Mars
The image shows part of the Arabia Terra region, which is scattered with craters of varying sizes and ages. The craters in this image, caused by impacts in Mars’ past, all show different degrees of erosion. Some still have defined outer rims and clear features within them, while others are much smoother and featureless, almost seeming to run into one another or merge with their surroundings.
This color image was taken by Mars Express’s High Resolution Stereo Camera on 19 November 2014, during orbit 13728. The image resolution is about 20 m per pixel.
(Photo by ESA/DLR/FU Berlin)
MOUNT SHARP, MARS - APRIL 10, 2015: In this handout provided by NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS A sweeping panorama combining 33 telephoto images into one Martian vista presents details of several types of terrain visible on Mount Sharp from a location along the route of NASA's Curiosity Mars rover. The component images were taken by the rover's Mast Camera on April 10, 2015. (Photo by NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS via Getty Images)
Mars true-color globe showing Terra Meridiani. (Photo by NASA/Greg Shirah)
GALE CRATER, MARS - APRIL 10, 2015: In this handout provided by NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS, NASA's Curiosity Mars rover recorded this view of the sun setting at the close of the mission's 956th Martian day, or sol April 15, 2015, from the rover's location in Gale Crater, Mars. (Photo by NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Texas A&M Univ via Getty Images)
Twelve orbits a day provide the Mars Global Surveyor MOC wide angle cameras a global 'snapshot' of weather patterns across the planet. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)
IN SPACE - SEPTEMBER 2: In this handout image provided by NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS, and captured by NASA's Curiosity rover, a rock outcrop called Link pops out from a Martian surface that is elsewhere blanketed by reddish-brown dust, showing evidence for an ancient, flowing stream, September 2, 2012. The fractured Link outcrop has blocks of exposed, clean surfaces. Rounded gravel fragments, or clasts, up to a couple inches (few centimeters) in size are in a matrix of white material. Many gravel-sized rocks have eroded out of the outcrop onto the surface, particularly in the left portion of the frame. The outcrop characteristics are consistent with a sedimentary conglomerate, or a rock that was formed by the deposition of water and is composed of many smaller rounded rocks cemented together. Water transport is the only process capable of producing the rounded shape of clasts of this size. (Photo by NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS via Getty Images)
IN SPACE - AUGUST 8: In this handout image provided by NASA and released on August 8, 2012, the four main pieces of hardware that arrived on Mars with NASA's Curiosity rover are spotted by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). The High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera captured this image about 24 hours after landing. The large, reduced-scale image points out the strewn hardware: the heat shield was the first piece to hit the ground, followed by the back shell attached to the parachute, then the rover itself touched down, and finally, after cables were cut, the sky crane flew away to the northwest and crashed. The relatively dark areas in all four spots are from disturbances of the bright dust on Mars, revealing the darker material below the surface dust. (Photo by NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona via Getty Images)
IN SPACE - AUGUST 5: In this handout image provided by NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS, This color thumbnail image was obtained by NASA's Curiosity rover during its descent to the surface on Aug. 5 PDT and transmitted to Spaceflight Operations Facility for NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. The image from Curiosity's Mars Descent Imager illustrates the roughly circular swirls of dust kicked up from the Martian surface by the rocket motor exhaust. At this point, Curiosity is about 70 feet (20 meters) above the surface. This dust cloud was generated when the Curiosity rover was being lowered to the surface while the Sky Crane hovered above. This is the first image of the direct effects of rocket motor plumes on Mars and illustrates the mobility of powder-like dust on the Martian surface. It is among the first color images Curiosity sent back from Mars. The original image from MARDI has been geometrically corrected to look flat. The MSL Rover named Curiosity is equipped with a nuclear-powered lab capable of vaporizing rocks and ingesting soil, measuring habitability, and whether Mars ever had an environment able to support small life forms called microbe. (Photo by NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS via Getty Images)
WINDJANA, MARS - APRIL/MAY 2015: In this handout composite provided by NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS NASA's Curiosity Mars rover used the camera at the end of its arm in April and May 2014 to take dozens of component images combined into this self-portrait where the rover drilled into a sandstone target called 'Windjana.' The camera is the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), which previously recorded portraits of Curiosity at two other important sites during the mission. (Photo by NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS via Getty Images)
A portion of the west rim of Endeavour crater sweeps southward in this false color view from NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)
This image illustrates possible ways methane might be added to Mars' atmosphere (sources) and removed from the atmosphere (sinks). NASA's Curiosity Mars rover has detected fluctuations in methane concentration in the atmosphere, implying both types of activity occur on modern Mars. A longer caption discusses which are sources and which are sinks.(Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SAM-GSFC/Univ. of Michigan)
Discover More Like This
BACK TO SLIDE
"Terraforming Mars has been considered and discussed for a long time," says Jason Smerdon, associate research professor at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. "I nevertheless would be cautious about our ability to terraform and manage another planet when we struggle so mightily with the practical and preventative measures that are vitally needed to maintain our own."
And nuclear weapons, as is their wont, come with a potentially huge downside: The explosions could backfire, producing a "phenomenon known as 'nuclear winter' (akin to the asteroid impact that killed off the dinosaurs)," Mann writes in an email, "wherein you generate so much dust and particles that they literally block out a significant portion of the incoming sunlight, cooling down the planet."
Or, as Colbert put it, "That's what a supervillain does. Superman doesn't say, 'We'll drop thermonuclear bombs.' That's Lex Luthor, man."
But the interview wasn't all about interplanetary weapons.
"I was delighted at Musk's response to Colbert's question about what is the single most important problem to solve right now: sustainable energy," Mann says. "That's the Musk we all know and love. The Musk who wants to drop nuclear bombs on the poles of Mars, as Colbert explicitly stated, sounds more like the 'evil genius' than the enlightened one."