If a Planet Has a Lot of Methane in its Atmosphere, Life is the Most Likely Cause

The ultra-powerful James Webb Space Telescope will launch soon. Once it’s deployed, and in position at the Earth-Sun Lagrange Point 2, it’ll begin work. One of its jobs is to examine the atmospheres of exoplanets and look for biosignatures. It should be simple, right? Just scan the atmosphere until you find oxygen, then close your laptop and head to the pub: Fanfare, confetti, Nobel prize.

Of course, Universe Today readers know it’s more complicated than that. Much more complicated.

In fact, the presence of oxygen is not necessarily reliable. It’s methane that can send a stronger signal indicating the presence of life.

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Scientists Think They Know What Caused the Deadliest Mass Extinction in the History of the Earth

This illustration shows the percentage of marine animals that went extinct during Earth's worst extinction at the end of the Permian era by latitude, from the model (black line) and from the fossil record (blue dots).A greater percentage of marine animals survived in the tropics than at the poles. The color of the water shows the temperature change, with red being most severe warming and yellow less warming. At the top is the supercontinent Pangaea, with massive volcanic eruptions emitting carbon dioxide. The images below the line represent some of the 96 percent of marine species that died during the event. [Includes fossil drawings by Ernst Haeckel/Wikimedia; Blue crab photo by Wendy Kaveney/Flickr; Atlantic cod photo by Hans-Petter Fjeld/Wikimedia; Chambered nautilus photo by John White/CalPhotos.]Justin Penn and Curtis Deutsch/University of Washington

Humanity can have a love/hate relationship with itself, but there’s no denying that we’re the pinnacle of evolution on Earth as things stand now. But it took an awfully long time for evolution to produce beings such as we. Several times, life had to drag itself back from near annihilation.

The largest extinction setback was the Permian-Triassic extinction, also called the “Great Dying,” some 252 million years ago. Up to 96% of all marine species and 70% of terrestrial vertebrate species went extinct.

What happened?

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There Could Be Carbon-Rich Exoplanets Made Of Diamonds

Scientists are getting better at understanding exoplanets. We now know that they’re plentiful, and that they can even orbit dead white dwarf stars. Researchers are also getting better at understanding how they form, and what they’re made of.

A new study says that some carbon-rich exoplanets could be made of silica, and even diamonds, under the right circumstances.

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Even If We Cut Greenhouse Gas Emissions Tomorrow, it Would Take Decades for the Earth to Start Cooling Again

Our beautiful, precious, life-supporting Earth as seen on July 6, 2015 from a distance of one million miles by a NASA scientific camera aboard the Deep Space Climate Observatory spacecraft. Credits: NASA

If—or hopefully when—we cut our Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions, we won’t notice much difference in the climate. The Earth’s natural systems take time to absorb carbon from the atmosphere. We may have to wait decades for the temperatures to drop.

Of course, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. It’s just that we have to temper our expectations a little.

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New Data Show How Phytoplankton Pumps Carbon Out of the Atmosphere at an Enormous Scale

One of the most fascinating things about planet Earth is the way that life shapes the Earth and the Earth shapes life. We only have to look back to the Great Oxygenation Event (GOE) of 2.4 billion years ago to see how lifeforms have shaped the Earth. In that event, phytoplanktons called cyanobacteria pumped the atmosphere with oxygen, extinguishing most life on Earth, and paving the way for the development of multicellular life.

Early Earth satisfied the initial conditions for life to appear, and now, lifeforms shape the atmosphere, the landscape, and the oceans in many different ways.

At the base of many of these changes is phytoplankton.

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During Mass Extinction Events, Volcanoes Were Releasing About the Same Amount of CO2 as We Are Today

200 million years ago, a mass extinction event wiped out about 76% of all species on Earth—both terrestrial and marine. That event was called the end-Triassic extinction, or the Jurassic-Triassic (J-T) extinction event. At that time, the world experienced many of the same things as Earth is facing now, including a warming climate and the acidification of the oceans.

A new paper shows that pulses of volcanic eruptions were responsible, and that those pulses released the same amount of CO2 as humans are releasing today.

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As Temperatures Increase, Forests are Having More Trouble Soaking up Carbon

On Earth, one of the most important factors regulating our climate is the carbon cycle. This refers to the processes by which carbon compounds are sequestered by biological (photosynthesis) and geological processes and released through volcanic activity and organic processes (decay and respiration). For billions of years, this cycle has kept temperatures relatively stable on Earth and allowed for life to flourish.

For the past few centuries, human activity has tipped the scales to the point that some refer to the current geological epoch as the Anthropocene. According to a new study by an international team of researchers, human activity is also leading to a situation where tropical rainforests (a major sequester of carbon dioxide) are not only losing their ability to soak up carbon but could actually be adding to the problem in the coming years.

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This Artificial Leaf Turns Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide Into Fuel

There is no doubt that climate change is a very serious (and worsening) problem. According to a recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), even if all the industrialized nations of the world became carbon neutral overnight, the problem would continue to get worse. In short, it’s not enough to stop pumping megatons of CO2 into the atmosphere; we also have to start removing what we’ve already put there.

This is where the technique known as carbon capture (or carbon removal) comes into play. Taking their cue from nature, an international team of researchers from the University of Waterloo, Ontario, have created an “artificial leaf” that mimics the carbon-scrubbing abilities of the real thing. But rather than turning atmospheric CO2 into a source of fuel for itself, the leaf converts it into a useful alternative fuel.

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Today is the Highest Concentration of Atmospheric CO2 in Human History. 415 Parts Per Million. Last Time it Was This High, There Were Trees at the South Pole

Think about this for a minute: We humans and our emissions are helping turn back the climatological clock by 2 or 3 million years, possibly more. Not since that time, called the Pliocene Epoch, has the CO2 ppm risen above 400.

Way back then, the CO2 helped keep the Earth’s temperature 2 to 3 degrees C warmer than it is now. And the Earth was a much different place back then.

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Carl Sagan’s Theory Of Early Mars Warming Gets New Attention

Ah, the good old days. ESA’s Mars Express imaged Reull Vallis, a river-like structure believed to have formed when running water flowed in the distant Martian past, cuts a steep-sided channel on its way towards the floor of the Hellas basin. A thicker atmosphere that included methane and hydrogen in addition to carbon dioxide may have allowed liquid water to flow on Mars at different times in the past according to a new study. Credit and copyright: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)

Water. It’s always about the water when it comes to sizing up a planet’s potential to support life. Mars may possess some liquid water in the form of occasional salty flows down crater walls,  but most appears to be locked up in polar ice or hidden deep underground. Set a cup of the stuff out on a sunny Martian day today and depending on conditions, it could quickly freeze or simply bubble away to vapor in the planet’s ultra-thin atmosphere.

These rounded pebbles got their shapes after polished in a long-ago river in Gale Crater. They were discovered by Curiosity rover at the Hottah site. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Evidence of abundant liquid water in former flooded plains and sinuous river beds can be found nearly everywhere on Mars. NASA’s Curiosity rover has found mineral deposits that only form in liquid water and pebbles rounded by an ancient stream that once burbled across the floor of Gale Crater. And therein lies the paradox.  Water appears to have gushed willy-nilly across the Red Planet 3 to 4 billion years ago, so what’s up today?

Blame Mars’ wimpy atmosphere. Thicker, juicier air and the increase in atmospheric pressure that comes with it would keep the water in that cup stable. A thicker atmosphere would also seal in the heat, helping to keep the planet warm enough for liquid water to pool and flow.

Different ideas have been proposed to explain the putative thinning of the air including the loss of the planet’s magnetic field, which serves as a defense against the solar wind.

This figure shows a cross-section of the planet Mars revealing an inner, high density core buried deep within the interior. Magnetic field lines are drawn in blue, showing the global scale magnetic field associated with a dynamic core. Mars must have had such a field long ago, but today it’s not evident. Perhaps the energy source that powered the early dynamo shut down. Credit: NASA/JPL/GSFC

Convection currents within its molten nickel-iron core likely generated Mars’ original magnetic defenses. But sometime early in the planet’s history the currents stopped either because the core cooled or was disrupted by asteroid impacts. Without a churning core, the magnetic field withered, allowing the solar wind to strip away the atmosphere, molecule by molecule.

Solar wind eats away the Martian atmosphere

Measurements from NASA’s current MAVEN mission indicate that the solar wind strips away gas at a rate of about 100 grams (equivalent to roughly 1/4 pound) every second. “Like the theft of a few coins from a cash register every day, the loss becomes significant over time,” said Bruce Jakosky, MAVEN principal investigator.

This graph shows the percent amount of the five most abundant gases in the atmosphere of Mars, as measured by the  Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument suite on the Curiosity rover in October 2012. The season was early spring in Mars’ southern hemisphere. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech, SAM/GSFC

Researchers from the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) suggest a different, less cut-and-dried scenario. Based on their studies, early Mars may have been warmed now and again by a powerful greenhouse effect. In a paper published in Geophysical Research Letters, researchers found that interactions between methane, carbon dioxide and hydrogen in the early Martian atmosphere may have created warm periods when the planet could support liquid water on its surface.

The team first considered the effects of CO2, an obvious choice since it comprises 95% of Mars’ present day atmosphere and famously traps heat. But when you take into account that the Sun shone 30% fainter 4 billion years ago compared to today, CO2  alone couldn’t cut it.

“You can do climate calculations where you add CO2 and build up to hundreds of times the present day atmospheric pressure on Mars, and you still never get to temperatures that are even close to the melting point,” said Robin Wordsworth, assistant professor of environmental science and engineering at SEAS, and first author of the paper.

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft looks toward the night side of Saturn’s largest moon and sees sunlight scattering through the periphery of Titan’s atmosphere and forming a ring of color. The breakdown of methane at Titan into hydrogen and oxygen may also have occurred on Mars. The addition of hydrogen in the company of methane and carbon dioxide would have created a powerful greenhouse gas mixture, significantly warming the planet. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Carbon dioxide isn’t the only gas capable of preventing heat from escaping into space. Methane or CH4 will do the job, too. Billions of years ago, when the planet was more geologically active, volcanoes could have tapped into deep sources of methane and released bursts of the gas into the Martian atmosphere. Similar to what happens on Saturn’s moon Titan, solar ultraviolet light would snap the molecule in two, liberating hydrogen gas in the process.

When Wordsworth and his team looked at what happens when methane, hydrogen and carbon dioxide collide and then interact with sunlight, they discovered that the combination strongly absorbed heat.

Carl Sagan, American astronomer and astronomy popularizer, first speculated that hydrogen warming could have been important on early Mars back in 1977, but this is the first time scientists have been able to calculate its greenhouse effect accurately. It is also the first time that methane has been shown to be an effective greenhouse gas on early Mars.

This awesome image of the Tharsis region of Mars taken by Mars Express shows several prominent shield volcanoes including the massive Olympus Mons (at left). Volcanoes, when they were active, could have released significant amounts of methane into Mars’ atmosphere. Click for a larger version. Credit: ESA

When you take methane into consideration, Mars may have had episodes of warmth based on geological activity associated with earthquakes and volcanoes. There have been at least three volcanic epochs during the planet’s history — 3.5 billion years ago (evidenced by lunar mare-like plains), 3 billion years ago (smaller shield volcanoes) and 1 to 2 billion years ago, when giant shield volcanoes such as Olympus Mons were active. So we have three potential methane bursts that could rejigger the atmosphere to allow for a mellower Mars.

The sheer size of Olympus Mons practically shouts massive eruptions over a long period of time. During the in-between times, hydrogen, a lightweight gas, would have continued to escape into space until replenished by the next geological upheaval.

“This research shows that the warming effects of both methane and hydrogen have been underestimated by a significant amount,” said Wordsworth. “We discovered that methane and hydrogen, and their interaction with carbon dioxide, were much better at warming early Mars than had previously been believed.”

I’m tickled that Carl Sagan walked this road 40 years ago. He always held out hope for life on Mars. Several months before he died in 1996, he recorded this:

” … maybe we’re on Mars because of the magnificent science that can be done there — the gates of the wonder world are opening in our time. Maybe we’re on Mars because we have to be, because there’s a deep nomadic impulse built into us by the evolutionary process, we come after all, from hunter gatherers, and for 99.9% of our tenure on Earth we’ve been wanderers. And, the next place to wander to, is Mars. But whatever the reason you’re on Mars is, I’m glad you’re there. And I wish I was with you.”