If humans land on Mars by 2037 as NASA hopes, they'll need cities modeled on ones that already exist in extreme climates on Earth. Here are six high-tech (and a few low-tech) cities that would have a passing shot at survival in the Martian climate. Of course there are the obvious choices, like research stations in Antarctica. But there are other possibilities, like the instant city model developed at Black Rock City, home to arts festival Burning Man, which you can see here nestled in a Martian crater. And there are others potential Martian city models that might surprise you, like ones in Nunavut, Canada and in ancient Native American pueblos.
We've superimposed structures from Earth onto real Martian landscapes created by the Martian rovers and satellites orbiting Mars. You can see smaller photos of the original Earth structures next to each.
Black Rock City
Up top, you can see what Black Rock City, home to Burning Man, would look like in a Martian crater. Why this city? Erected swiftly every year in the barren playa of Black Rock Desert in Nevada, the city is like a beta test for instant colonies erected in harsh alien climates. People use vehicles and temporary buildings to shield themselves from extreme temperatures and sandstorms. Would it work on Mars? If the buildings could provide atmosphere, yes. A Martian colony will need fast, temporary housing and will also need to be profoundly careful with the ecosystem on the planet. So the Burning Man credo of "leave no trace," meaning leave no trash or non-environmentally appropriate items, will become the credo of Mars too.
Already there is an international program devoted to simulating life on Mars in the arctic region. And Kim Stanley Robinson, author of the Red Mars trilogy, spent several seasons in Antarctica to get a feel for what it would be like to live on Mars. Many researchers have speculated that the new high-tech Antarctic science station, pictured here on a Martian landscape, would be perfect for the frigid, windy climate on Mars. It's placed on hydraulic legs that can lift or lower the station so that winds can blow underneath the station, and snow (or on Mars, sand) doesn't get packed around the walls.
A vast city that grew out of a harsh desert climate over the past two decades, Dubai could provide a model for the Martian desert too. The problems? Even though the city grew quickly, it's not "instant" enough to provide a good colony blueprint. And the amount of power and raw materials required to build skyscrapers on this scale might not work on a planet whose natural resources are not as plentiful as the Earth.
Like Dubai, Las Vegas is literally a city in a Martian-esque landscape (although Vegas is hot rather than freezing, the way Mars is). Much of Vegas is already under a dome, in the sense that most action on the strip takes place in vast, climate-controlled casino-malls. Would it provide a good model for a city on Mars? While Caesar's Palace might work as a domed city, the problem here is the same as in Dubai. The resources and water required to keep this city running on full power probably wouldn't exist on Mars.
The far-northern territory of Nunavut in Canada is an excellent analog for Mars. Cold and dry, the region is home to cities and peoples who are used to surviving the cold without the vast resources of a wealthy land like Dubai. Here, you can see the John Arnalukjuak School in a small city in Nunavut, which was built to withstand subzero temperatures while also using modest power. Low to the ground and insulated, the building is precisely the kind of shelter that would keep Martian kids of the future warm while they learn all about those weird old people from Earth.
Pueblos of United States and Mexico
The natives who lived in what later became Mexico and the United States built homes directly into rocky slopes, and later used clay to build vast, interconnected homes that stayed warm in winter and cool in summer. Small windows kept the worst of the desert wind out, and the thick clay walls provided excellent insulation. Obviously a pueblo alone wouldn't work as a Martian colony, but pueblo-style dwellings with atmospheric controls, low to the ground and interconnected, made from thick Martian clay, might be just the ticket for a Martian city.
Image spiffing by Stephanie Fox.
Image of the North American Pueblo at Taos by Bobak Ha'Eri. Image of Las Vegas by MattSims. Image of Nunavut school by eanoee. Image of Black Rock City from Incredimazing. Octal has a great set of photos of Dubai, including the one we used above that captures how much it is literally growing out of a barren desert.