Main Neocene

The world of flying whales and forests soaring above the thunderclouds. The world with a superdense atmosphere and enormous pressure. What if the Earth would be similar to Venus?

Flight on the umbrella

If the atmosphere was a hundred times denser

Text by Igor Kraj
(article is published here in authorial version with pictures sent and approved by author himself; the magazine version may be seen here)

“But it means a mind reading.”
“Let’s assume it. What of it, if we
are not limited by anything in our
creativity?” - king had countered.

Stanislav Lem “Repeating”.

What would happen, if the climate on the Earth would be different? But, you see, it is not uniform all the same. There are both fuggy rainforest and icy deserts. In far geological past there were both global congelations incomparably surpassing ice ages of human era in their scale, and warming, when tropical forests reached almost to polar regions.

How real is it?

The main difficulty is nitrogen. Other gases cannot become a basis of an oxygen atmosphere, because they are either insufficiently distributed, or are too light for the Earth-like planet to keep them, or are poisonous or inflammable.
It is supposed that in Earth atmosphere nitrogen represents a product of oxidation of ammonia – the gas having literally cosmical plevalence. But the closer to a star the planet, the lesser amount of gases will it get at the stage of its formation. It is easy to see how the solar wind promptly evaporates comets and carries away easy substances to orbits of giant planets.

Having explained how Titan had got its nitrogen atmosphere, planetologists have suddenly failed to understand why other large moons of gas giant planets lack it.

Ammonia is quite naturally present abundantly at the mysterious Titan of. If to extrapolate the “experience” of Titan to the Earth-sized world, we shall receive exactly a nitric atmosphere 100 times surpassing Earth one in weight. The another problem is that as a “tie-in” with the increased stocks of ammonia the planet formed at the distance from its star will inevitably receive an amount of water enough to cover it with a layer of one hundred kilometers thick.

Actually, any variations of average temperature at the planet will result only in change of the relative area of tundra and jungle. Changing the humidity, we shall get a continuous desert, essentially not differing from Namib and Atacama deserts, or the boundless sea. But also the present Pacific Ocean is great enough, perhaps, to satisfy the most inveterate gigantomaniac.
Of course, if we’ll do it right, in a big way, making, for example, the amount of heat received by our planet, 10-100 times greater or lesser, we shall not find a place for habitual conditions any more. The world will turn to a similarity of Mercury melted off by Sun heat, or will become covered with a crust of frozen gases. But we have Mercury or Pluto initially, not straining our imagination.

Planets get their primordial atmosphere at the stage of their formation. Later it releases light gases (due to their “escape” to the space) and
replenishes with volcanic releases.

The natural border of climatic deviations worth to talk about is the ability of human survival without the help of high technologies. Because with their help it is possible to adapt to everything, not changing way of life – even to the absence of a climate as such. Even nowadays the building of orbital cities or colonization of the Moon is only a matter of expenses and expediency. Only the human body is limited in its opportunities. The intelligence enables to develop gas oceans of the Jove, ice splinters at the borders of Solar system, and even space emptiness. But these would be not human worlds. People would get there only tiny man-made islets.

Only the air pressure is not limited with confined frameworks. The atmosphere cannot be made too rarefied. Even twice less dense, it will not be suitable for human being anymore. But it is possible to “thicken” it fairly.


It is not difficult to sate a superdense atmosphere with oxygen. It is so, because not its relative contents, but only absolute amount of the life-giving gas getting to the lungs is important. Because of it the deeper the skin-diver dives, the lesser is the contents of the oxygen in its respiratory mix. Otherwise nitrogen narcosis would be also supplemented with oxygen one. And everyone knows how harmful is to mix alcohol drinks.
The trouble is that this principle is also correct for harmful gases. Even 0.03% of carbon dioxide will make dense atmosphere suffocating. So, live creatures must make a great job, withdrawing carbon from the atmosphere and burying in rocks. The planet will abound the caves washed out in limestones, and chalk rocks and coal sediments.

These are marshes “preserving” organic debris, which save the oxygen for an atmosphere.

Diving to the depth

So. What pressure the human being can withstand?
Depth of diving with an aqualung is limited by danger of nitrogen narcosis caused by nitrogen dissolving in blood. In itself this gas used for a narcosis is harmless, but, having started to talk to fishes, the diver risks to lose mouth-piece. The problem is solved by using of a special helium-based respiratory mix enabling the human to reach the depth of 300 meters. Only at the pressure of over 30 atmospheres “helium barrier” comes out, being also connected with disorders of mentality and motoric functions.
But as far as at the end of 1960-th it was established that in conditions of consecutive change of several respiratory mixes helium barrier is quite surmountable. Volunteers have begun to feel discomfort only at the pressure of... 240 atmospheres! This is an equivalent to diving to almost two kilometer depth. That is, people appeared capable to endure the same conditions as a sperm whale.

Maximal depth achieved at diving with an aqualung is 330 meters. But the emersion after that alone takes almost nine hours.


As it is considered, sperm whale dives to the depths from 2200 up to (maybe) 3000 meters, hunting giant squids. But what can squids eat at
such depth is still a puzzle – maybe, the sperm whales overestimated their forces.

Despite of the opportunities given by heliox, the most practical equipment
for works at the depths from 120 up to 600 meters is an atmospheric
diving suit, inside which the pressure is kept equal to atmospheric.

Comparison to sperm whale is, however, not quite right, because the whale does not breathe under water. Its lungs are rather small relatively to the body size and contain small amount of air. Before the diving the sea giant stocks oxygen right in its blood. Because of it the diffusion of nitrogen into the tissues, and then nitrogen narcosis and the decompression are not dangerous for cetaceans.

Despite of stunning result, the secret researches in the field of adaptation to high pressures had been stopped as having no any practical prospect. After all, one of conditions of safety of superdeep diving is the limitation of its speed, which could not exceed 10 meters per hour. In addition, one should emerge much slower. Without it the organism had not time to accustom to changes and the composition of gases dissolved in blood – to change completely. But it is impossible even to sustain 30 hours necessary for diving to cherished 300 meter depth in diving suit.
Practically for real “pedestrian” descent to the ocean chasm it would be required to create a chain of tens of diving bells placed deeper and deeper, in which divers could have a rest. Militarians could not imagine a situation in which similar rates would be allowable, and expenses are justified.
But the question on speed of diving loses its urgency in cases when it is not necessary to emerge. That is, if the Earth atmosphere in equal to Venus one in density, it would not threaten to live creatures in itself. Quite probably (at least, within the framework of fantastic assumptions) people would not have a trouble even with nitrogen narcosis. Sensitivity to the poisoning with this nitrogen is individual. Probably, it is possible to accustom to it.

Soaring forest

Boundless cloudy fields so are fine, that deserve to be inhabited.


Venus surface has a temperature +470°C. But in top layers of its atmosphere both pressure and temperature appear quite comfortable for terrestrial creatures. In his novel “Life belt” Igor Zabelin describes the project of “settling” of this zone with plants.

The rise of temperature can cool a little the enthusiasm raised by fascinating prospects of the air world. On the Earth at such density of an atmosphere it should rise up to 250 degrees Celsius. But oceans will not begin to boil, by the way. Pressure of 100 atmospheres will keep water in liquid phase even at 300 degrees Celsius.
Perhaps, for life as such the conditions like that are even more favorable than “earthly” ones. It is so because, according the modern representations, it also has arisen in vents of deepwater volcanos, having only later adapted to extremely cold, but much more widespread conditions of global ocean. However, overheating up to 42 degrees Celsius only is already fatal for humans.
But this calculation is very approximate. The density of an atmosphere, its composition, transparency and temperature depend from each other so artfully, that the science is not capable yet to unweave this knot confidently. As a last resort the planet may be removed farther from its star.

Air 100 times denser would make the Earth completely different world. In such conditions balloon able to lift a human, filled with hydrogen, would be only one meter in diameter. And it means that “live balloons” described, for example, in Kir Bulychev’s “The Settlement”, would get a full approval from physicians and biologists. Soaring would become the most obvious and effective way of movement quite accessible even for creatures with firm armour, so evolution would not ignore such opportunity. Soaring cavities in bodies of animals would become as usual, as swimming bubbles in fishes.
But the first group to take an advantage of aeronautics would be plants. If the hollow stalk filled with light gas weighs of nothing, hence its height is practically unlimited. Tree can extend upwards for hundreds meters, and even for kilometers – to uplift its crone higher above clouds. Because the dense atmosphere passes light necessary for photosynthesis too reluctantly.
In any case, even at moderate height, trees will appear unlike terrestrial ones. Similarly to macroalgae they will be kept in vertical position due to lift-up of gas bubbles instead of trunk rigidity. Soaring branches would be connected to root system by strong and flexible cord having minimal sailing capacity and capable to resist to hurricane.

Dragon wings, being useless in our world, become quite functional in dense atmosphere.

Wind in “Venus-like” atmosphere is a quite special matter. Conditions for occurrence of storms must be absent, because the temperature is almost identical everywhere. But even the slightest whiff is capable to get a human airborne and to carry him away to the other end of the world. Fortunately, troubles also will be limited only to it, because the speed of flight will be low and landing – rather soft.

If it is hard to keep against the ground, would it be easier to leave it forever? It is possible to take water right from air, like some orchids do, having stretched a net of roots. Of course, necessary mineral substances plant will have to extract from rainwater and dust. Nevertheless, Earth lichens quite manage these sources.
It is possible to imagine greenish clouds of unicellular plants soaring in the element, but not due to droplets of fat, as in the sea, but due to bubbles of hydrogen or methane. Or simply gliding, like our young spiders do using their spider web threads. Or integral soaring islands – enormous carpets of bound hollow stalks and leaves laid downwind. The planet will get similarity to the world of “Avatar” movie full of surrealistic giants and winged creatures.

Even Earth-dwelling habitual “stationary” plants are capable to react to changes of weather and time of day. Airborne forests will have to develop the mechanism of controlling of height and speed of soaring. When thunder-storm comes closer, tree filled with hydrogen needs to rise above clouds.

Elephants in air

Blowfish (only filled not with water, but with hydrogen) can be considered as a real prototype of a live aerostat.
At the pressure of 100 atmospheres it would fly up, but would not direct its movement with the help of so small
fins. Planes should have an increased area..

Plants would look strange in conditions of superdense atmosphere, but animal will change even more. Streamline fish-like creature having 90% of its body volume occupied with gas cavities would appear an optimum “decision” for conditions of dense atmosphere. Fins can be more useful as rudders, and jet “engine”, like squid has, is more preferable. Also very wide flat tail may become the body of movement. The size will change from big up to enormous, because at swimming in air, as well as at swimming in the sea, only accessible food resources will limit the animal’s weight. But the main thing is that giantism improves the weight to body surface ratio. Larger is the creature, easier it can afford, for example, the replacement of soft covers by firm calcareous shell impenetrable for gas and inaccessible for enemies. At last, the soaring whale looks ten times larger than sea-going one simply because it is inflatable.

Feather-like outgrowths on bodies of copepod crustaceans enable them “soaring” in water like the poplar seed tufts.
It is a very perspective principle of movement in conditions of dense atmosphere.

In conditions intermediate between water and air it is necessary to expect also of the appearing of the creatures combining features of mammals, fishes and birds. Everything will be possible here: compact little pink elephants moving due to ear-flapping, dogs of unhealthy color levitating due to using of smoke like Montgolfier brothers, talking fishes, batmen, griffins, dragons, chimeras, politics believing their official credo... Nitrogen is a powerful thing anyway.

Of course, pressure will fall with height. Twenty five kilometers high from the surface it will make already only ten atmospheres. Here already winds may blow, even rather strong, but the creature carried away in air mass will not feel them, and also will not risk at all colliding against any obstacle. This area is good for plants. It is lesser amount of water and dust, but it is more light here. If below the temperature is terrible +250°C, at this height it appears quite comfortable. Otherwise, it will be cold, but the dark covers heated up by sun rays will correct the situation.
The main thing is, the higher up, the lesser is a number of herbivores. The creature weighting one kilogram only should represent a bubble like two footballs in diameter. Cavities will occupy already 99% of its volume. Such structure is acceptable for a plant, but hardly for active and complex creature. Only “live gliders” with impressive gliding planes and arthropods on webs can glide up to twenty and even to sixty kilometers. But nothing will, however, prevent them both to have a rest and even to settle in soaring trees.

Walking on clouds

In the world where the atmosphere is so dense, that Archimedes is always ready to offer a helping hand to designers,
technical progress will follow the ways lovely to heart of steampunk fans.

What can people do in such extreme world? If at the bottom, on contrary to predictions of planetologists, usual land and seas are, the way of life will not differ radically from Earth one. When the immunity to diffusion of nitrogen into the blood will develop, only constant gloom and the increased resistance of air to movements will be a reminder of uncommonness of conditions. Among strange waving forests, huge stalks lost in clouds and carried away into foggy height by chains of gas bubbles, the usual civilization will appear. But it will differ, however, with the prevail of air transport irrespectively of the level of technological development. Because even at the surface the majority of animals fly, it wouldn’t be a great problem to tame them.
It will be easy also to build “individual flying devices” looking like a balloon equal to large backpack in size with a pair of small wings. However, for performing of high-grade gliding strong umbrella-sized plane capable to endure human weight appears enough. Something like a board will be suitable.
Using balloons and “flying umbrellas” it is possible to rise up, above the clouds, where it is lighter, where armoured whales and mile-long worms made of hundreds of iridescent spheres soar. Nothing prevents also to occupy soaring atolls. It is possible to gather food there. But some deep-rooted human habits need to be reconsidered. For example, it is rather dangerous to make open fire on the heaven islands filled with combustible gases. But there is always an opportunity to fuel the burners with the gas, which renewable stocks are literally right underfoot.
What about the life in constant fear of height? What fear we are talking about, if falling in so dense environment is slow as if in dream?.. That is, if to be more exact, its speed corresponds the descent using an army parachute. Only in the case when the superheated “pressure cooker”, or planetary ocean hundreds kilometers deep is below, falling without any object which can be used for planning, will mean inevitable death.
The “above-the-clouds” existence will create a set of the problems. Of course, it is impossible to find metal in air. But who knows how will look and for what purpose bones and shells of airborne creatures may be useful? Anyway, diverse, strong and easy covers of live aerostats will almost certainly make tailors happy. Enormous predators and tiny pests striving to gnaw through covers of soaring island will also not dive time to be bored – as well as the dying off branches capable to drag it down into veil of clouds threaded with lightning discharges, to black mountain peaks or to the ocean surface burning like magma.

* * *

People say, scuba diving satisfies the eternal human dream of free flight. But water is always an element alien to humans. The “fifth ocean” – an atmosphere which can fill our lungs – is another matter. Maybe, it is not so dense to float in it, but it enables soaring on tiny folding wings as long as you like… Walking on elastic trunks of soaring trees... Watching clouds floating by below from the backs of air whales decorated with corneous crests... Would the somewhat high air pressure be an expensive payment for it?

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Further reading

Richard M. Goody, James C. G. Walker “Atmospheres”
John Imbrie, Katherine Palmer Imbrie “Ice Ages. Solving the Mystery”
Konstantin Kondrat’ev “Meteorology of the planets” (in Russian)
Stanislav Lem “Astronauts”
Stanislav Lem “Repeating”
Stanislav Lem “Fiasco”
Mikhail Ma’arov “Planets of Solar system” (in Russian)
Georgy Voitkevich “Chemical Evolution of Solar System” (in Russian)
Felix Ziegel “Travel in bowels of planets” (in Russian)