Terraforming is a word that conjures up images of dark red and brown planets, massive, industrial processors and billowing clouds of god-knows-what chemicals spewing into the sky. It seems, at first glance, to be an improbably distant ability, a process requiring scale, technologies, and knowledge ecosystems centuries (or at least decades) beyond the present.
Of course, this isn’t exclusively true. Anthropologists have suggested for some time that we live in the ‘Anthropocene Age’, that is, an age dominated and heavily shaped by humans. From strip mines to crops planted, consumed, and fertilized, from roads to reservoirs, humans have made an indelible mark on the world we inhabit, and have for thousands of years.
That this is already terraforming is hard to dispute; we have shaped this planet to our purpose, and in some ways this has been a very good thing. One prime example of the utility provided by human modification of the land are polders, or land reclaimed from the sea.
Anyone who has heard of Atlantis, or read of the various existing sunken or flooded cities knows the concept of losing land to the oceans. Encroachment and destruction by water is a constant threat, whether in floods of Biblical proportions such as has been suggested for the Black Sea, or by the regular and unpredictable flooding of the Nile river during the ancient civilizations there. These floods had catastrophic impacts on human lives, both directly in terms of people killed and houses destroyed, and for the lingering infrastructure effects that they created, such as crop failure and famine. From the beginning of human civilization, our relationship with water has been one of struggle and dependency.
So the concept of harnessing, controlling, and even shaping water channels, and the effect this had on the landscape, are almost doubtlessly underestimated in terms of their impact on civilization, on the stability of human populations, and in terms of their importance to future explorations on other planets.
Polders involved using manual and automated devices to channel, redirect, and control water so as to cut low-lying land off from direct access to the sea or natural water channels, and to make this reclaimed land available for human use. They were nothing short of revolutionary in terms the insurance they provided against flooding and the new land they provided for settlement and agriculture. They allowed civilization to exist where it could never have before – at or below water levels and on the coast – and they provided means for managing waters as they rose during flooding or due to storm surges. The large-scale application of this type of water management technology is older than the United States, dating back to the early 17th century.
Further, in the 20th and 21st centuries, in combination with dredging, the lessons learned in the creation of polders have further helped to create land where it had never existed before, including the Dubai luxury islands. It is not only possible, but wholly likely that the kind of large-scale terraforming we imagine when it comes to colonizing other planets will make use of this four hundred year-old technology. Polders, meanwhile, don’t look like much from the ground, but they are remarkable – and remarkably sci-fi, when you think about it.