China has turned desert into fertile land, showing promise for the terraforming of Mars

terraforming Mars

If we want to make Mars a viable second home for us, then we will need to terraform it. Terraforming (which literally means “Earth-shaping”) the Red Planet would involve altering its surface and climate in order to make the planet hospitable to humans. It will, of course, be an extremely difficult enterprise. However, China has managed to turn desert into fertile land, which offers hope for a successful terraforming of Mars.


China turns desert into farmland

In 2002, China passed a law that aims to tackle desert expansion. Since then, China has been carrying out several projects, with one taking place at a desert in the north. North China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region receives little (if any) annual rain and is characterised by scorching temperatures.

In response to this unfavourable environment for growing crops, researchers developed a technology – a paste – made of a particular substance found in plant cell walls. What these researchers discovered is that when this substance is added to sand, it can retain water, nutrients and air, all of which allow for the growth of vegetation.

Zhao Chaohua, Associate Professor of Chongqing Jiaotong University, said:


According to our calculation, there are over 70 kinds of crops growing here. Many are not planted by us but they just grow themselves.


Using this technology is also very efficient. Yang Qingguo, a professor at Chongqing Jiaotong University, points out:


The costs of artificial materials and machines for transforming sand into soil is lower compared with controlled environmental agriculture and reclamation.


China also has ambitious plans. It hopes to transform an additional 200 hectares of desert – and possibly even 13,000 more in the next few years – into arable land.

This is a truly breakthrough experiment. Being able to convert sand into soil means land that previously seemed hostile to life can now be made fertile.

It’s worth highlighting, though, that China is by no means the first country to carry out such an experiment. The Sahara Forest Project, a Norwegian company, has been developing cutting-edge food, water and energy technologies to turn the deserts of Qatar and Jordan into farms. As reports:


The plan: to combine solar thermal technologies with saltwater evaporation techniques, freshwater condensation and efficient production of food and biomass without displacing existing agriculture or natural vegetation. As desertification becomes an increasingly vexing problem around the world, this group of technologies is aiming for revegetation.



Terraforming Mars

Perhaps something like the paste used to transform China’s deserts could be used to make the Martian surface arable. Another proposed method for terraforming Mars entails warming the planet. While the idea of subjecting another planet to global warming may seem like an insane thing to do, given the mess we’ve got ourselves into, global warming could actually be crucial to making Mars a habitable planet.

In order to make the surface of Mars fertile, it needs to be covered with water that is stable. Currently, as NASA researcher Michael Chaffin, underscores:


If you took a glass of liquid water to Mars and poured it out, some of it would freeze, and some of it would boil away, but none of it would remain liquid for very long.


Popular Science reported how global warming could offer a solution:


theoretically, if we were able to pump greenhouse gases into Mars’ atmosphere, we could warm the surface of the planet enough for liquid water to be stable on the surface, as it was in the distant past (roughly 3.5 billion years ago). The thicker atmosphere would also provide enough pressure to help water remain stable.

One way this might be possible…is to manufacture super-greenhouse gases or perfluorocarbons (PFCs) in automated factories. These compounds would trap the heat from sunlight on Mars, without disrupting the planet’s fragile ozone layer or posing a toxic threat to human settlers.


Another possible solution is to use certain organisms – those that can survive in extreme environments on Earth – to convert the Martian surface into arable soil. However, Imre Friedman, a microbiologist who proposed the idea, said:


I don’t think any of us alive today will see this happen. When the time does come to make Mars a more habitable place, the technology will be so different that everything we plan today… will be ridiculously outdated.


Indeed, while we can speculate about whether revolutionary paste, global warming or microorganisms will turn the Red Planet’s surface into farmland, we are so far away from achieving this aim that we cannot really predict what technology we’ll end up utilising.


About the author: Sam Woolfe @samwoolfe

Sam is a writer who is especially interested in space exploration, sustainability, tech, agriculture, and nutrition.


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