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:
"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."