It’s become something of an action movie cliche: an asteroid is hurling towards Earth, its impact will cause a mass extinction, and the only hope for humanity is a ragtag group of astronauts and average Joes who will fly to the asteroid and blow it to pieces using nukes. The idea has been explored so many times by Hollywood that it seems like this is actually something space agencies have planned.
And in truth, they are, though the execution may be a little more sophisticated. For decades, space agencies have considered various methods for destroying asteroids that threaten Earth. But according to a new study led by researchers from John Hopkins University, incoming asteroids may be harder to break apart than we thought.
Everyone knows about the extinction of the dinosaurs. A cataclysmic asteroid strike about 66 million years ago (mya) caused the Death of the Dinosaurs. But there’ve been several mass extinctions in the Earth’s history, and they didn’t involve killer asteroids. The worst extinction was caused by a rapid rise in temperature.
Earth’s most severe extinction occurred long before the killer asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs. It happened some 252 mya, and it marked the end of what’s called the Permian Period. The extinction is known as the Permian-Triassic Extinction Event, the End-Permian Extinction, or more simply, “The Great Dying.” Up to 70% of terrestrial vertebrates and up to 96% of all marine species were extinguished during The Great Dying.
There are a lot of ways that life on Earth could come to an end: an asteroid strike, global climate catastrophe, or nuclear war are among them. But perhaps the most haunting would be death by supernova, because there’s absolutely nothing we could do about it. We’d be sitting ducks.
New research suggest that a supernova’s kill zone is bigger than we thought; about 25 light years bigger, to be exact.
Iron in the Ocean
In 2016, researchers confirmed that Earth has been hit with the effects from multiple supernovae. The presence of iron 60 in the seabed confirms it. Iron 60 is an isotope of iron produced in supernova explosions, and it was found in fossilized bacteria in sediments on the ocean floor. Those iron 60 remnants suggest that two supernovae exploded near our solar system, one between 6.5 to 8.7 million years ago, and another as recently as 2 million years ago.
Iron 60 is extremely rare here on Earth because it has a short half life of 2.6 million years. Any of the iron 60 created at the time of Earth’s formation would have decayed into something else by now. So when researchers found the iron 60 on the ocean floor, they reasoned that it must have another source, and that logical source is a supernova.
This evidence was the smoking gun for the idea that Earth has been struck by supernovae. But the questions it begs are, what effect did that supernova have on life on Earth? And how far away do we have to be from a supernova to be safe?
“…we can look for events in the history of the Earth that might be connected to them (supernova events).” – Dr. Adrian Melott, Astrophysicist, University of Kansas.
In a press release from the University of Kansas, astrophysicist Adrian Melott talked about recent research into supernovae and the effects they can have on Earth. “This research essentially proves that certain events happened in the not-too-distant past,” said Melott, a KU professor of physics and astronomy. “They make it clear approximately when they happened and how far away they were. Knowing that, we can consider what the effect may have been with definite numbers. Then we can look for events in the history of the Earth that might be connected to them.”
Earlier work suggested that a supernova kill zone is about 25-30 light years. If a supernova exploded that close to Earth, it would trigger a mass extinction. Bye-bye humanity. But new work suggests that 25 light years is an under-estimation, and that a supernova 50 light years away would be powerful enough to cause a mass extinction.
Supernovae: A Force Driving Evolution?
But extinction is just one effect a supernova could have on Earth. Supernovae can have other effects, and they might not all be negative. It’s possible that a supernovae about 2.6 million years ago even drove human evolution.
“Our local research group is working on figuring out what the effects were likely to have been,” Melott said. “We really don’t know. The events weren’t close enough to cause a big mass extinction or severe effects, but not so far away that we can ignore them either. We’re trying to decide if we should expect to have seen any effects on the ground on the Earth.”
There are a number of variables that come into play when trying to determine the effects of a supernova, and one of them is the idea of the Local Bubble. The Local Bubble itself is the result of one or more supernova explosion that occurred as long as 20 million years ago. The Local Bubble is a 300 light year diameter bubble of expanding gas in our arm of the Milky Way galaxy, where our Solar System currently resides. We’ve been travelling through it for the last five to ten million years. Inside this bubble, the magnetic field is weak and disordered.
Melott’s paper focused on the effects that a supernova about 2.6 million years ago would have on Earth in two instances: while both were within the Local Bubble, and while both were outside the Local Bubble.
The disrupted magnetic field inside the Local Bubble can in essence magnify the effects a supernova can have on Earth. It can increase the cosmic rays that reach Earth by a factor of a few hundred. This can increase the ionization in the Earth’s troposphere, which mean that life on Earth would be hit with more radiation.
Outside the Local Bubble, the magnetic field is more ordered, so the effect depends on the orientation of the magnetic field. The ordered magnetic field can either aim more radiation at Earth, or it could in a sense deflect it, much like our magnetosphere does now.
Focusing on the Pleistocene
Melott’s paper looks into the connection between the supernova and the global cooling that took place during the Pleistocene epoch about 2.6 million years ago. There was no mass extinction at that time, but there was an elevated extinction rate.
According to the paper, it’s possible that increased radiation from a supernova could have changed cloud formation, which would help explain a number of things that happened at the beginning of the Pleistocene. There was increased glaciation, increased species extinction, and Africa grew cooler and changed from predominantly forests to semi-arid grasslands.
Cancer and Mutation
As the paper concludes, it is difficult to know exactly what happened to Earth 2.6 million years ago when a supernova exploded in our vicinity. And it’s difficult to pinpoint an exact distance at which life on Earth would be in trouble.
But high levels of radiation from a supernova could increase the cancer rate, which could contribute to extinction. It could also increase the mutation rate, another contributor to extinction. At the highest levels modeled in this study, the radiation could even reach one kilometer deep into the ocean.
There is no real record of increased cancer in the fossil record, so this study is hampered in that sense. But overall, it’s a fascinating look at the possible interplay between cosmic events and how we and the rest of life on Earth evolved.
For decades, scientists have debated the cause of the mass extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs and other life 65 million years ago. While the majority of researchers agree that a massive asteroid impact at Chicxulub, Mexico is the culprit, there have been some dissenters. Now, new research is questioning just a portion of the asteroid/Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction scenario. While the scientists involved in the study don’t doubt that such an asteroid impact actually happened, their research shows it is just not possible that vast global firestorms could have ravaged our planet and be the main cause of the extinction.
Researchers from the University of Exeter, University of Edinburgh and Imperial College London recreated the vast energy released from a 15-km wide asteroid slamming into Earth, which occurred around the time that dinosaurs became extinct.
They found that close to the impact site — a 180 km wide crater in Mexico — the heat pulse would have lasted for less than a minute. This intense but short-lived heat, the team says, could not have ignited live plants, challenging the idea that the impact led to global firestorms.
However, they did find that the effects of the impact would actually be worse on the other side of the planet, where less intense but longer periods of heat could have ignited live plant matter.
“By combining computer simulations of the impact with methods from engineering we have been able to recreate the enormous heat of the impact in the laboratory,” said Dr. Claire Belcher from the University of Exeter. “This has shown us that the heat was more likely to severely affect ecosystems a long distance away, such that forests in New Zealand would have had more chance of suffering major wildfires than forests in North America that were close to the impact. This flips our understanding of the effects of the impact on its head and means that palaeontologists may need to look for new clues from fossils found a long way from the impact to better understand the mass extinction event.”
The Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction was one of the biggest in Earth’s history and geologic evidence of the impact has been discovered in rock layers around the world from this time period. Some critics of the asteroid impact theory as a cause of the extinction have pointed to some of the microfossils from the Gulf of Mexico that show the impact occurred well before the extinction and could not have been its primary cause. Others point to volcanism that produced the Deccan traps of India around this time as a possible cause of the extinction.
But multiple models have showed such an impact would have instantly caused devastating shock waves, tsunamis, and the release of large amounts of dust, debris and gases that would have led to a low light levels and a prolonged cooling of Earth’s surface. The darkness and a global winter would have decimated the planet life and the dependent animals.
So while fire and brimstone may not have played a big role in the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction, there was plenty of destruction and mayhem for the resulting extinction of more than 70% of known species.
Here’s a video from the researchers that shows their findings that close to the impact site, the heat pulse was too short to ignite live plant material.
Gamma ray bursts are the most energetic explosions in the Universe, outshining the rest of their entire galaxy for a moment. So, it stands to reason you wouldn’t want to be close when one of these goes off.
If comics have taught me anything, it’s that gamma powered superheroes and villains are some of the most formidable around.
Coincidentally, Gamma Ray bursts, astronomers say, are the most powerful explosions in the Universe. In a split second, a star with many times the mass of our Sun collapses into a black hole, and its outer layers are ejected away from the core. Twin beams blast out of the star. They’re so bright we can see them for billions of light-years away. In a split second, a gamma ray burst can release more energy than the Sun will emit in its entire lifetime. It’s a super-supernova.
You’re thinking “Heck, if the gamma exposure worked for Banner, surely a super-supernova will make me even more powerful than the Hulk.” That’s not exactly how this plays out.
For any world caught within the death beam from a gamma ray burst, the effects are devastating. One side of the world is blasted with lethal levels of radiation. Our ozone layer would be depleted, or completely stripped away, and any life on that world would experience an extinction level event on the scale of the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs.
Astronomers believe that gamma ray bursts might explain some of the mass extinctions that happened on Earth. The most devastating was probably one that occurred 450 million years ago causing the Ordovician–Silurian extinction event. Creatures that lived near the surface of the ocean were hit much harder than deep sea animals, and this evidence matches what would happen from a powerful gamma ray burst event. Considering that, are we in danger from a gamma ray burst and why didn’t we get at least one Tyrannosaurus Hulk out of the deal?
There’s no question gamma ray bursts are terrifying. In fact, astronomers predict that the lethal destruction from a gamma ray burst would stretch for thousands of light years. So if a gamma ray burst went off within about 5000-8000 light years, we’d be in a world of trouble.
Astronomers figure that gamma ray bursts happen about once every few hundred thousand years in a galaxy the size of the Milky Way. And although they can be devastating, you actually need to be pretty close to be affected. It has been calculated that every 5 million years or so, a gamma ray burst goes off close enough to affect life on Earth. In other words, there have been around 1,000 events since the Earth formed 4.6 billion years ago. So the odds of a nearby gamma ray burst aren’t zero, but they’re low enough that you really don’t have to worry about them. Unless you’re planning on living about 5 million years in some kind of gamma powered superbody.
We might have evidence of a recent gamma ray burst that struck the Earth around the year 774. Tree rings from that year contain about 20 times the level of carbon-14 than normal. One theory is that a gamma ray burst from a star located within 13,000 light-years of Earth struck the planet 1,200 years ago, generating all that carbon-14.
Clearly humanity survived without incident, but it shows that even if you’re halfway across the galaxy, a gamma ray burst can reach out and affect you. So don’t worry. The chances of a gamma ray burst hitting Earth are minimal. In fact, astronomers have observed all the nearby gamma ray burst candidates, and none seem to be close enough or oriented to point their death beams at our planet. You’ll need to worry about your exercise and diet after all.
So what do you think? What existential crisis makes you most concerned, and how do gamma ray bursts compare?