The dust storm this Martian summer blotted out the sun for nine Earth-weeks – much longer than the fiercest of the storms we have previously experienced during our decade here. Our solar panels have been smothered by the dust, and the battery back-up that keeps our systems going is nearly exhausted. Now that the storm has died down three of us don our spacesuits and go out into the night sky’s dim light to clear the dust from the panels.
Bright dots against the star-speckled blackness, Earth and the moon are perfectly aligned with the sun that’s already below the Martian horizon. Before we went out, we had been observing through our station’s telescope the dramatic sight that has delighted us at intervals during the time we’ve been here, always reminding us of that scene in that old film 2001: A Space Odyssey when the black monolith screeched as the moon, Earth and the sun came into alignment, signalling to an alien intelligence that terrestrial beings had made it to the moon. Through the telescope Earth appeared as a pendant sapphire with a shiver of white at its southern tip, beautiful despite its blueness being blotched by ochre, green and whorls of cloud; the moon, in contrast, was brassy and pockmarked.
We knew when we lifted off from Earth that climate change had enabled ships to sail in summer through decaying Arctic ice, and that the slow warming and acidification of the sea were harming corals and crustaceans’ shells. Further, plastics – once seen as such a boon to humankind – were spreading through the oceans and entering the pelagic food chain.
The latest news from Earth is far worse. The beautiful blue of the oceans conceals the near-extinction of marine life due to a decline in the level of dissolved oxygen. The only biological successes in the seas are the algal blooms stimulated by the nitrogen and phosphorus from agricultural run-off and the unusual creatures that thrive around the sulphur-rich ‘black smokers’ venting from mid-oceanic ridges. Earth’s atmosphere is now so warm that the Arctic is completely free of ice during summer, and coastlines are being reconfigured as rising seas inundate low-lying ground. Extended periods of extreme heat and a lack of rain are lowering crop yields: the prairies of the mid-West United States have reverted to the dust bowl of the 1930s. A combination of high temperature and high humidity elsewhere (notably in the vastness of China’s primary agricultural region) is making it more difficult to cultivate food crops and is significantly raising the death rate, particularly of those who have to work the land. Glaciers in the Himalayas have retreated so far that the great rivers of Asia have shrunk to trickles outside the monsoon season. Shortages of water and food have led to conflict both within and between nations. Humankind’s survival on Earth has probably passed a tipping-point.
We in our small Martian colony are pioneers, a group of men and women free of dependants who are finding out for those who will follow us what it takes to survive in an environment far less welcoming than that of the deteriorating Earth. Ice extracted from the rocky Martian crust provides water sufficient for all the needs of our radiation-resistant biomes. Our fuel cells give us power for our electrical equipment, and we successfully cultivate vegetables, fruit and fish. With the occasional arrival of automatically-controlled craft from Earth, we have all the supplies we could reasonably want. Life out here is surprisingly good: we don’t envisage going home.