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My Trip To Mars

Feel the power Alana Cahoon/Adam Frank hide caption

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Alana Cahoon/Adam Frank

Feel the power

Alana Cahoon/Adam Frank

The sky glowed in phosphorescent hues and the sun was painfully bright in the thin air. The parched ground showed its own pallet of colors stamped onto the landscape through an angry geology that was keen to let you know who was in control. Jumbled, fractured sculptures of rock towered above, giving way to cliffs of crystalized basalt that towered even higher. We were not meant to be here. Not for long anyway. This part of the planet was not in the business of welcoming visitors.

The description above is not of a canyon in the Martian Highlands but of Teide, a 3,000-meter high volcano on the island of Tenerife. There are important differences between the two (like me without a spacesuit and the presence of those green bushy living things you see in the picture) but there are also important similarities. From both we have a lot to learn.

I just returned from the Canaries, a set of volcanic islands some 100 kilometers off the northwest coast of Africa. I was there for a conference on the late stages of stellar evolution (the Europeans have powerful telescopes set on the top of La Palma, an island to the northwest of Tenerife). After the conference I traveled around a few of the islands.

Though they are now a major destination for European vacationers, the Canaries retain much of their Spanish colonial history (the small island of La Gomera was Columbus's last jumping off point before sailing west into the unknown). What is truly staggering about these islands, however, is not their record of human history. It's the planetary forces of mind-numbing power — some still at work — that set me back.

The Canary Islands may have formed when Africa slowed down, it's continental plate bumping up against the plates forming Europe, India and Asia. The ocean floor off Africa buckled, allowing vast rivers of molten rock to rise upwards. Thus the islands were born in plumes of fire and steam a hundred million or so years ago. It was both an apocalypse and just another day in the life of the Earth.

In our daily lives most of us do not confront the scale of energy and force available to planets. In the United States, in particular, we mostly live in cities or suburbs in regions with fairly mild climates and fairly mild topologies (which for the most part don't shake, roll or explode). Sometimes the weather gets extreme. Sometimes earthquakes happen. But those are relatively rare events.

These mild climates and stable surfaces are just one possible state in a planet's life. We get fooled into thinking mild conditions are the normal state of affairs because our short lives make it impossible to see how active and dynamic the planet truly is.

But in a place like the Canaries – in the merciless shadow of Tenerife's Teide volcano or the impossible steep, wildly corrugated slopes of La Gomera – you can't forget. Such is the joy of travel to wild places and such is their lesson.

In a planetary context, we are living in a remarkable moment. Our robot probes wander the surface of Mars and send back images showing a world that looks remarkably similar to the more extreme corners of our own planet.

Our telescopes look out and find a galaxy that is likely teeming with (dare I say it?) billions and billions of other planets. At the same moment, we are just beginning to understand how complex and tightly coupled the systems of water, air, earth and life are on our world.

Together they are teaching us a lesson that we can each get a taste of every time we step onto a beach, stand next to a river, walk into a forrest or venture into any reasonably wild place.

Every planet is a powerful thing with a life of its own.