For many years, scientists have been studying how supernovae could affect life on Earth. Supernovae are extremely powerful events, and depending on how close they are to Earth, they could have consequences ranging from the cataclysmic to the inconsequential. But now, the scientists behind a new paper say they have specific evidence linking one or more supernova to an extinction event 2.6 million years ago.
About 2.6 million years ago, one or more supernovae exploded about 50 parsecs, or about 160 light years, away from Earth. At that same time, there was also an extinction event on Earth, called the Pliocene marine megafauna extinction. Up to a third of the large marine species on Earth were wiped out at the time, most of them living in shallow coastal waters.
“This time, it’s different. We have evidence of nearby events at a specific time.” – Dr. Adrian Melott, University of Kansas.
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.
In the 1950s, famed physicist Enrico Fermi posed the question that encapsulated one of the toughest questions in the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI): “Where the heck is everybody?” What he meant was, given the age of the Universe (13.8 billion years), the sheer number of galaxies (between 1 and 2 trillion), and the overall number of planets, why has humanity still not found evidence of extra-terrestrial intelligence?
This question, which has come to be known as the “Fermi Paradox”, is something scientists continue to ponder. In a new study, a team from the University of Rochester considered that perhaps Climate Change is the reason. Using a mathematical model based on the Anthropocene, they considered how civilizations and planet systems co-evolve and whether or not intelligent species are capable of living sustainability with their environment.
Today, Climate Change is one of the most pressing issues facing humanity. Thanks to changes that have taken place in the past few centuries – i.e. the industrial revolution, population growth, the growth of urban centers and reliance on fossil fuels – humans have had a significant impact on the planet. In fact, many geologists refer to the current era as the “Anthropocene” because humanity has become the single greatest factor affecting planetary evolution.
In the future, populations are expected to grow even further, reaching about 10 billion by mid-century and over 11 billion by 2100. In that time, the number of people who live within urban centers will also increase dramatically, increasing from 54% to 66% by mid-century. As such, the quesiton of how billions of people can live sustainably has become an increasingly important one.
“Astrobiology is the study of life and its possibilities in a planetary context. That includes ‘exo-civilizations’ or what we usually call aliens. If we’re not the universe’s first civilization, that means there are likely to be rules for how the fate of a young civilization like our own progresses.”
Using the Anthropocene as an example, one can see how civilization-planet systems co-evolve, and how a civilization can endanger itself through growth and expansion – in what is known as a “progress trap“. Basically, as civilizations grow, they consume more of the planet’s resources, which causes changes in the planet’s conditions. In this sense, the fate of a civilization comes down to how they use their planet’s resources.
In order to illustrate this process Frank and his collaborators developed a mathematical model that considers civilizations and planets as a whole. As Prof. Frank explained:
“The point is to recognize that driving climate change may be something generic. The laws of physics demand that any young population, building an energy-intensive civilization like ours, is going to have feedback on its planet. Seeing climate change in this cosmic context may give us better insight into what’s happening to us now and how to deal with it.”
The model was also based on case studies of extinct civilizations, which included the famous example of what became of the inhabitants of Rapa Nui (aka. Easter Island). According to archaeological studies, the people of the South Pacific began colonizing this island between 400 and 700 CE and its population peaked at 10,000 sometime between 1200 and 1500 CE.
By the 18th century, however, the inhabitants had depleted their resources and the population declined to just 2000. This example raises the important concept known as “carrying capacity”, which is the maximum number of species an environment can support. As Frank explained, Climate Change is essentially how the Earth responds to the expansion of our civilization:
“If you go through really strong climate change, then your carrying capacity may drop, because, for example, large-scale agriculture might be strongly disrupted. Imagine if climate change caused rain to stop falling in the Midwest. We wouldn’t be able to grow food, and our population would diminish.”
Using their mathematical model, the team identified four potential scenarios that might occur on a planet. These include the Die-Off scenario, the Sustainability scenario, the Collapse Without Resource Change scenario, and the Collapse With Resource Change scenario. In the Die-Off scenario, the population and the planet’s state (for example, average temperatures) rise very quickly.
This would eventually lead to a population peak and then a rapid decline as changing planetary conditions make it harder for the majority of the population to survive. Eventually, a steady population level would be achieved, but it would only be a fraction of what the peak population was. This scenario occurs when civilizations are unwilling or unable to change from high-impact resources (i.e. oil, coal, clear-cutting) to sustainable ones (renewable energy).
In the Sustainability scenario, the population and planetary conditions both rise, but eventually come to together with steady values, thus avoiding any catastrophic effects. This scenario occurs when civilizations recognize that environmental changes threaten their existence and successfully make the transition from high-impact resources to sustainable ones.
The final two scenarios – Collapse Without Resource Change and Collapse With Resource Change – differ in one key respect. In the former, the population and temperature both rise rapidly until the population reaches a peak and begins to drop rapidly – though it is not clear if the species itself survives. In the latter, the population and temperature rise rapidly, but the populations recognizes the danger and makes the transition. Unfortunately, the change comes too late and the population collapses anyway.
At present, scientists cannot say with any confidence which of these fates will be the one humanity faces. Perhaps we will make the transition before it is too late, perhaps not. But in the meantime, Frank and his colleagues hope to use more detailed models to predict how planets will respond to civilizations and the different ways they consume energy and resources in order to grow.
From this, scientists may be able to refine their predictions of what awaits us in this century and the next. It is during this time that crucial changes will be taking place, which include the aforementioned population growth, and the steady rise in temperatures. For instance, based on two scenarios that measured CO2 increases by the year 2100, NASA indicated that global temperatures could rise by either 2.5 °C (4.5 °F) or 4.4 °C (8 °F).
In the former scenario, where CO2 levels reached 550 ppm by 2100, the changes would be sustainable. But in the latter scenario, where CO2 levels reached 800 ppm, the changes would cause widespread disruption to systems that billions of humans depends upon for their livelihood and survival. Worse than that, life would become untenable in certain areas of the world, leading to massive displacement and humanitarian crises.
In addition to offering a possible resolution for the Fermi Paradox, this study offers some helpful advice for human beings. By thinking of civilizations and planets as a whole – be they Earth or exoplanets – researchers will be able to better predict what changes will be necessary for human civilization to survive. As Frank warned, it is absolutely essential that humanity mobilize now to ensure that the worst-case scenario does not occur here on Earth:
“If you change the earth’s climate enough, you might not be able to change it back. Even if you backed off and started to use solar or other less impactful resources, it could be too late, because the planet has already been changing. These models show we can’t just think about a population evolving on its own. We have to think about our planets and civilizations co-evolving.”
And be sure to enjoy this video that addresses Prof. Frank and his team’s research, courtesy of the University of Rochester:
Like all living creatures, stars have a natural lifespan. After going through their main sequence phase, they eventually exhaust their nuclear fuel and begin the slow process towards death. In our Sun’s case, this will consist of it growing in size and entering the Red Giant phase of its evolution. When that happens, roughly 5.4 billion years from now, the Sun will encompass the orbit’s of Mercury, Venus, and maybe even Earth.
However, even before this happens, astronomers theorize that the Sun will dramatically heat up, which will render Earth uninhabitable to most species. But according to a new study by a team of researchers from Oxford and the University of Harvard, the species known as tardigrades (aka. the “water bear”) will likely survive even after humanity and all other species have perished.
This study, which was recently published in the journal Scientific Reports under the title “The Resilience of Life to Astrophysical Events“, was conducted by Dr. David Sloan, Dr. Rafael Alves Batista – from the Department of Astrophysics at Oxford University – and Dr. Abraham Loeb of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA). As they indicate, previous studies into the effect Solar evolution will have on life have been rather lopsided.
Essentially, much attention has been dedicated to whether or not humanity will survive our Sun leaving its main sequence phase. Comparatively, very little research has been conducted on whether or not life itself (and which lifeforms) will be able to survive this change. As such, they considered the most statistically-likely events that would be capable of completely sterilizing an Earth-like planet, and sought to determine what lifeforms could endure them.
As Dr. Loeb told Universe Today via email, their team wanted to consider if there was an extinction-level event that could eliminate all life on Earth (not just humans):
“We wanted to find out how long life may survive on a planet once formed. Most previous studies focused on the survival of humans which are very sensitive to changes in the atmosphere or climate of the Earth and can be eliminated by the impact of an asteroid (nuclear winter) or bad politics.”
What they found was that the species Milnesium tardigradum would survive all potential astrophysical catastrophes. What’s more, they estimated that these creatures will be around for another 10 billion years at least – far longer than what is anticipated for the human race! As Loeb indicates, this was not an outcome that they were expecting.
“To our surprise, tardigrades are likely to survive all astrophysical catastrophes,” he said. “Most likely, the DNA of tardigrades is able to repair itself quickly due to damage encountered by the environment. The process is not fully understood, and there is a group at Harvard University who studies the SNA of tardigrades with the hope of understanding it better.”
To be fair, it has been known for some time that Tardigrades are the most resilient life form on Earth. Not only can they survive for up to 30 years without food or water (half their natural lifespan), they can also survive temperatures of up to 150 °C (302 °F) and as low as -200 °C (-328 °F). They have also shown themselves to be capable of enduring extremes in pressure, ranging from the 6000 atmospheres to the vacuum of open space.
Under these conditions, the research team concluded that they are likely to survive the Sun becoming a red giant and irradiating Earth, and will likely be alive even after the Sun has winked out of existence. On top of that, tardigrades can even be brought back to life, under the right circumstances. Much like all life on Earth, tradigrades need water to survive, even though they can survive in a dry state for extended periods of time – up to ten years, in fact.
But even after being deprived of water to the point of death, scientists have found that these organisms can be reanimated once water is reintroduced. This was demonstrated in 2007 when a batch of tardigrades was dehydrated before being launched to Low Earth Orbit (LEO). After being exposed to the hard vacuum of space and UV radiation for 10 days, they were returned to Earth and rehydrated – at which point, the majority were revived and able to produce viable embryos.
The team also concluded that other cataclysmic events – such as an asteroid strike, exploding stars (i.e. a supernovae) or gamma ray bursts – pose no existential threat to tardigrades. As Loeb explained:
“We have found that asteroid impacts are capable of boiling off all the oceans on Earth, but only if the asteroid is more massive than 1018 kg [10,000 trillion metric tons]. Such events are extremely rare and will not happen before the Sun will die; the probability of them happening earlier is less than one part in a million.”
In fact, the last time an object large enough to boil the oceans (2 x 1018 kg) collided with Earth occurred roughly 4.51 billion years ago. On this occasion, Earth was struck by a Mars-sized object named Theia, which is believed to be what caused the formation of the Moon. Today, there are only a dozen known asteroids or dwarf planets in the Solar System that have this kind of mass, and none of them will intersect the Earth’s orbit in the future.
As for supernova, they indicated that an exploding star would need to be 0.14 light-years from Earth in order for it to boil the oceans from its surface. Since the closest star to our Sun (Proxima Centauri) is 4.25 light years away, this scenario is not a foreseeable risk. As for gamma-ray bursts, which are even rarer than supernova, the team determined that they too are too far away from Earth to pose a threat.
The implications of this study are quite fascinating. For one, it reminds us just how fragile human life is compared to basic, microscopic life forms. It also demonstrates that similarly hardy organisms could exist in a variety of locations that we may have once considered too hostile for life. As Dr Rafael Alves Batista, one of the co-authors on the study, said in a University of Oxford press release:
“Without our technology protecting us, humans are a very sensitive species. Subtle changes in our environment impact us dramatically. There are many more resilient species’ on earth. Life on this planet can continue long after humans are gone. Tardigrades are as close to indestructible as it gets on Earth, but it is possible that there are other resilient species examples elsewhere in the Universe. In this context there is a real case for looking for life on Mars and in other areas of the Solar System in general. If Tardigrades are earth’s most resilient species, who knows what else is out there?’”
And as Dr. Loeb explained, studies like this have potential benefits that go far beyond assessing our own survivability. Not only do they help us understand life’s ability to endure catastrophic events – which is essential to understanding how and where life could emerge in the Universe – but they also offer possibilities on how we might better our own chances of survival.
“We get a better understanding of the conditions under which life will persist,” he said. “In about a billion years, when the Sun will heat up life will cease, but until then it will continue in some form. Understanding the self-repair mechanism of the DNA on tardigrades could potentially help in combating disease for humans as well.”
And all his time, we thought cockroaches were the toughest critters on the planet, what with their ability to withstand a nuclear holocaust. But these eight-legged creatures, which are arguably cuter than cockroaches too, clearly have the market on toughness cornered. We’re just lucky they only get up to 0.5 mm (0.02 in) in size, otherwise we might have something to worry about!
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.
It’s an apocryphal image. The ignorant faces of the dinosaurs, roaring helplessly at their fate, and looking skyward as an asteroid plunged to Earth. And the sneaky, clever little mammals coming out of their hiding holes to take their rightful place. If you grew up reading about this version of things, you’re not alone.
The line of reasoning says that mammals were present during the dinosaur’s reign, but their potential to thrive was suppressed by the dinosaurs, which were supremely evolved to dominate conditions on Earth at the time. It took the extinction of the dinosaurs to allow mammals to flourish. But according to new studies, that might not have been the case. As it turns out, mammals may have been well on their way to displacing the dinos long before the Chicxulub meteor hastened the dinosaur’s demise.
One such study, from researchers at the Universities of Southampton and Chicago, focused on hundreds of fossilized mammal teeth. As you know if you’ve been paying attention to how you eat, different teeth have different purposes. Carnivores have sharp teeth designed to rip and shred flesh, while herbivores have duller teeth for grinding up vegetation. Omnivores, like us, have a bit of both. That’s a simplification, of course, but its generally true.
What this study showed is that mammals with varied diets began to appear 10 to 20 million years before the dinosaurs were extinguished. It focused on early therian mammals, which are the ones that gave rise to the modern marsupials (ones with pouches) and placentals (ones where a fetus is carried inside the uterus). The third class of mammal, monotremes, were egg-laying mammals like the platypus.
In recent years, more and more early mammal fossils have been discovered, and they show that mammals were well on their way to diversifying long before the dinosaurs disappeared. The mammal fossil record also shows that mammal diversity suffered from the meteor strike, but mammals recovered and diversified into a greater number of species in the new conditions.
Another study, by Manabu Sakamoto and Chris Venditti from the University of Reading, and by Michael Benton from the University of Briston, shows that the opposite is true for dinosaurs. For tens of millions of years before their extinction, dinosaur species were becoming extinct and new species were not taking their place. This made the dinosaurs more vulnerable to extinction, whereas the diversifying mammals were in a better position to thrive, regardless of dinosaur extinction.
The main threat posed by the asteroid strike was the climate change that followed it. With greater species diversity in place immediately preceding the strike, mammals had a greater probability to survive the changing climate than did their dinosaur counterparts.
Evolutionary biologist and co-author of the study, Dr. Chris Venditti, told BBC News, “The current widespread view is that dinosaurs were reigning strong right up to the impact that hit the Earth – and it’s the impact that drove their final extinction,” he said. “And while that’s certainly true, what we found was that they were on the decline long before that.”
“If they were reigning strong perhaps they would have fared much better than they did,” said Venditti. Dinosaurs had been around for 160 million years and had faced pressures and had dips in their diversity before.
This begs the question, why were dinosaurs in decline?
It likely all revolves around the environmental conditions. At the dawn of the dinosaurs 230 million years ago, Earth was a warm, lush place. Not just near the equators, but all the way to the poles. And there was one single continent, called Pangaea. But it’s the nature of things to change, and change it did.
The climate cooled, the sea level changed, and the dinosaurs were facing new environmental pressures. And as the record shows, the dinosaurs were losing species faster than they could replace them. Chicxulub was more than they could recover from.
Study co-author Mike Benton also talked to the BBC about this study. He said, “World climates were getting cooler all the time. Dinosaurs rely on quite warm climates and mammals are better adapted to the cold.”
“So there might have been a switch over in any case without the asteroid impact.”
Looking back on the older narrative, that the asteroid strike wiped out the dinosaurs, and mammals took their place and became dominant, it looks a little simplistic. But it has a nice narrative hook, and there is the matter of the cataclysmic asteroid strike, which no doubt had a huge effect on life on Earth, any way you want to slice it.
It’s possible that had the asteroid not struck, or had struck a few million years earlier or later, Earth would be a much different place. Perhaps we would not be here, and maybe intelligent dinosaurs would be in our place.
We’ll never know, of course, but it’s a fun narrative.
All over the Earth, there is a buried layer of sediment rich in iridium called the Cretaceous Paleogene-Boundary (K-Pg.) This sediment is the global signature of the 10-km-diameter asteroid that killed off the dinosaurs—and about 50% of all other species—66 million years ago. Now, in an effort to understand how life recovered after that event, scientists are going to drill down into the site where the asteroid struck—the Chicxulub Crater off the coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.
The end-Cretaceous extinction was a global catastrophe, and a lot is already known about it. We’ve learned a lot about the physical effects of the strike on the impact area from oil and gas drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. According to data from that drilling, released on February 5th in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth, the asteroid that struck Earth displaced approximately 200,000 cubic km (48,000 cubic miles) of sediment. That’s enough to fill the largest of the Great Lakes—Lake Superior—17 times.
The Chicxulub impact caused earthquakes and tsunamis that first loosened debris, then swept it from nearby areas like present-day Florida and Texas into the Gulf basin itself. This layer is hundreds of meters thick, and is hundreds of kilometers wide. It covers not only the Gulf of Mexico, but also the Caribbean and the Yucatan Peninsula.
In April, a team of scientists from the University of Texas and the National University of Mexico will spend two months drilling in the area, to gain insight into how life recovered after the impact event. Research Professor Sean Gulick of the University of Texas Institute for Geophysics told CNN in an interview that the team already has a hypothesis for what they will find. “We expect to see a period of no life initially, and then life returning and getting more diverse through time.”
Scientists have been wanting to drill in the impact region for some time, but couldn’t because of commercial drilling activity. Allowing this team to study the region directly will build on what is already known: that this enormous deposit of sediment happened over a very short period of time, possibly only a matter of days. The drilling will also help paint a picture of how life recovered by looking at the types of fossils that appear. Some scientists think that the asteroid impact would have lowered the pH of the oceans, so the fossilized remains of animals that can endure greater acidity would be of particular interest.
The Chicxulub impact was a monumental event in the history of the Earth, and it was extremely powerful. It may have been a billion times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Other than the layer of sediment laid down near the site of the impact itself, its global effects probably included widespread forest fires, global cooling from debris in the atmosphere, and then a period of high temperatures caused by an increase in atmospheric CO2.
We already know what will happen if an asteroid this size strikes Earth again—global devastation. But drilling in the area of the impact will tell us a lot about how geological and ecological processes respond to this type of devastation.
If you’re thinking of having yourself cryogenically suspended and awakened in some future paradise, you might want to set your alarm clock for no later than 1,000 years from now. According to the BBC, Stephen Hawking will be saying this much in the 2016 Reith Lectures – a series of lectures organized by the BBC that explore the big challenges faced by humanity.
In Hawking’s first lecture, which will be broadcast on February 26th on the BBC, Hawking covers the topic of black holes, whether or not they have hair, and other concepts about these baffling objects.
But at the end of the lecture, he responded to audience questions about humanity’s capacity for self destruction. Hawking said that 1,000 years might be all we have until we meet our demise at the hands of our own scientific and technological advances.
As we have become increasingly advanced both scientifically and technologically, Hawking says, we will be creating “new ways that things can go wrong.” Hawking mentioned nuclear war, global warming, and genetically engineered viruses as things that could cause our extinction.
Through the Cold War, annihilation at the hands of our own nuclear weapons was a real danger. The threat of a nuclear launch in response to a real or perceived threat was real. The resulting retaliation and counter-retaliation was a risk faced by everyone on the planet. And the two superpowers had enough warheads between them to potentially wipe out life on Earth.
The USA and the USSR have reduced their stockpiles of nuclear weapons in recent decades, but there are still enough warheads around to wipe us out. The possibility of a rogue state like North Korea setting off a nuclear confrontation is still very real. By the time Hawking’s 1,000 year time-frame has passed, we’ll either have solved this problem, or we won’t be here.
Earth is getting warmer, and though the Earth has warmed and cooled many times in its history, this time we only have ourselves to blame. We’ve been inadvertently enriching our atmosphere with carbon since the Industrial Revolution. All that carbon is creating a nice insulating layer around Earth, as it traps heat that would normally radiate into space. If we reach some of the “tipping points” that scientists talk about, like the melting of permafrost and the subsequent release of methane, we could be in real trouble.
Different climate engineering schemes have been thought up to counteract global warming, like seeding the upper atmosphere with reflective molecules, and having fleets of ships around the equator spraying sea mist into the air to partially block out the sun. Or even extracting carbon from the atmosphere. But how realistic or effective those counter-measures might be is not clear.
Genetically Engineered Viruses
As a weapon, a virus can be cheap and effective. There’ve been programs in the past to develop biological weapons. The temptation to use genetic science to create extremely deadly viruses may prove too great.
Smallpox and Viral Hemorrhagic Fevers have been weaponized, and as our genetic manipulation abilities grow, it’s possible, or even likely, that somebody somewhere will attempt develop even more dangerous viral weapons. They may be doing it right now.
Hawking never mentioned AI in his talk, but it fits in with the discussion. As our machines get smarter and smarter, will they deduce that the only chance for survival is to remove or reduce the human population? Who knows. But Hawking himself, as well as other thinkers, have been warning us that there may be a catastrophic downside to our achievements in AI.
We may love the idea of driverless cars, and computer assistants like SIRI. But as numerous science fiction stories have warned us (Skynet in the Terminator series being my favorite,) it may be a small step from very helpful AI that protects us and makes our lives easier, to AI that decides existence would be a whole lot better without us pesky humans around.
The Technological Singularity is the point at which artificially intelligent systems “wake up” and become—more or less—conscious. These AI machines would start to improve themselves recursively, or build better and smarter machines. At this point, they would be a serious danger to humanity.
Drones are super popular right now. They flew off the shelves at Christmas, and they’re great toys. But once we start seeing drones with primitive but effective AI, patrolling the property of the wealthy, it’ll be time to start getting nervous.
Extinction May Have To Wait
As our scientific and technological prowess grows, we’ll definitely face new threats, just like Hawking says. But, that same progress may also protect us, or make us more resilient. Hawking says, “We are not going to stop making progress, or reverse it, so we have to recognise the dangers and control them. I’m an optimist, and I believe we can.” So do we.
Maybe you’ll be able to hit the snooze button after all.
Gamma ray bursts (GRBs) are some of the brightest, most dramatic events in the Universe. These cosmic tempests are characterized by a spectacular explosion of photons with energies 1,000,000 times greater than the most energetic light our eyes can detect. Due to their explosive power, long-lasting GRBs are predicted to have catastrophic consequences for life on any nearby planet. But could this type of event occur in our own stellar neighborhood? In a new paper published in Physical Review Letters, two astrophysicists examine the probability of a deadly GRB occurring in galaxies like the Milky Way, potentially shedding light on the risk for organisms on Earth, both now and in our distant past and future.
There are two main kinds of GRBs: short, and long. Short GRBs last less than two seconds and are thought to result from the merger of two compact stars, such as neutron stars or black holes. Conversely, long GRBs last more than two seconds and seem to occur in conjunction with certain kinds of Type I supernovae, specifically those that result when a massive star throws off all of its hydrogen and helium during collapse.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, long GRBs are much more threatening to planetary systems than short GRBs. Since dangerous long GRBs appear to be relatively rare in large, metal-rich galaxies like our own, it has long been thought that planets in the Milky Way would be immune to their fallout. But take into account the inconceivably old age of the Universe, and “relatively rare” no longer seems to cut it.
In fact, according to the authors of the new paper, there is a 90% chance that a GRB powerful enough to destroy Earth’s ozone layer occurred in our stellar neighborhood some time in the last 5 billion years, and a 50% chance that such an event occurred within the last half billion years. These odds indicate a possible trigger for the second worst mass extinction in Earth’s history: the Ordovician Extinction. This great decimation occurred 440-450 million years ago and led to the death of more than 80% of all species.
Today, however, Earth appears to be relatively safe. Galaxies that produce GRBs at a far higher rate than our own, such as the Large Magellanic Cloud, are currently too far from Earth to be any cause for alarm. Additionally, our Solar System’s home address in the sleepy outskirts of the Milky Way places us far away from our own galaxy’s more active, star-forming regions, areas that would be more likely to produce GRBs. Interestingly, the fact that such quiet outer regions exist within spiral galaxies like our own is entirely due to the precise value of the cosmological constant – the factor that describes our Universe’s expansion rate – that we observe. If the Universe had expanded any faster, such galaxies would not exist; any slower, and spirals would be far more compact and thus, far more energetically active.
In a future paper, the authors promise to look into the role long GRBs may play in Fermi’s paradox, the open question of why advanced lifeforms appear to be so rare in our Universe. A preprint of their current work can be accessed on the ArXiv.
If too close to an environment harboring complex life, a gamma ray burst could spell doom for that life. But could GRBs be the reason we haven’t yet found evidence of other civilizations in the cosmos? To help answer the big question of “where is everybody?” physicists from Spain and Israel have narrowed the time period and the regions of space in which complex life could persist with a low risk of extinction by a GRB.
GRBs are some of the most cataclysmic events in the Universe. Astrophysicists are astounded by their intensity, some of which can outshine the whole Universe for brief moments. So far, they have remained incredible far-off events. But in a new paper, physicists have weighed how GRBs could limit where and when life could persist and evolve, potentially into intelligent life.
In their paper, “On the role of GRBs on life extinctions in the Universe”, published in the journal Science, Dr. Piran from Hebrew University and Dr. Jimenez from University of Barcelona consider first what is known about gamma ray bursts. The metallicity of stars and galaxies as a whole are directly related to the frequency of GRBs. Metallicity is the abundance of elements beyond hydrogen and helium in the content of stars or whole galaxies. More metals reduce the frequency of GRBs. Galaxies that have a low metal content are prone to a higher frequency of GRBs. The researchers, referencing their previous work, state that observational data has shown that GRBs are not generally related to a galaxy’s star formation rate; forming stars, including massive ones is not the most significant factor for increased frequency of GRBs.
As fate would have it, we live in a high metal content galaxy – the Milky Way. Piran and Jimenez show that the frequency of GRBs in the Milky Way is lower based on the latest data available. That is the good news. More significant is the placement of a solar system within the Milky Way or any galaxy.
The paper states that there is a 50% chance of a lethal GRB’s having occurred near Earth within the last 500 million years. If a stellar system is within 13,000 light years (4 kilo-parsecs) of the galactic center, the odds rise to 95%. Effectively, this makes the densest regions of all galaxies too prone to GRBs to permit complex life to persist.
The Earth lies at 8.3 kilo-parsecs (27,000 light years) from the galactic center and the astrophysicists’ work also concludes that the chances of a lethal GRB in a 500 million year span does not drop below 50% until beyond 10 kilo-parsecs (32,000 light years). So Earth’s odds have not been most favorable, but obviously adequate. Star systems further out from the center are safer places for life to progress and evolve. Only the outlying low star density regions of large galaxies keep life out of harm’s way of gamma ray bursts.
The paper continues by describing their assessment of the effect of GRBs throughout the Universe. They state that only approximately 10% of galaxies have environments conducive to life when GRB events are a concern. Based on previous work and new data, galaxies (their stars) had to reach a metallicity content of 30% of the Sun’s, and the galaxies needed to be at least 4 kilo-parsecs (13,000 light years) in diameter to lower the risk of lethal GRBs. Simple life could survive repeated GRBs. Evolving to higher life forms would be repeatedly set back by mass extinctions.
Piran’s and Jimenez’s work also reveals a relation to a cosmological constant. Further back in time, metallicity within stars was lower. Only after generations of star formation – billions of years – have heavier elements built up within galaxies. They conclude that complex life such as on Earth – from jelly fish to humans – could not have developed in the early Universe before Z > 0.5, a cosmological red-shift equal to ~5 billion years ago or longer ago. Analysis also shows that there is a 95% chance that Earth experienced a lethal GRB within the last 5 billion years.
The question of what effect a nearby GRB could have on life has been raised for decades. In 1974, Dr. Malvin Ruderman of Columbia University considered the consequences of a nearby supernova on the ozone layer of the Earth and on terrestrial life. His and subsequent work has determined that cosmic rays would lead to the depletion of the ozone layer, a doubling of the solar ultraviolet radiation reaching the surface, cooling of the Earth’s climate, and an increase in NOx and rainout that effects biological systems. Not a pretty picture. The loss of the ozone layer would lead to a domino effect of atmospheric changes and radiation exposure leading to the collapse of ecosystems. A GRB is considered the most likely cause of the mass extinction at the end of the Ordovician period, 450 million years ago; there remains considerable debate on the causes of this and several other mass extinction events in Earth’s history.
The paper focuses on what are deemed long GRBs – lGRBs – lasting several seconds in contrast to short GRBs which last only a second or less. Long GRBs are believed to be due to the collapse of massive stars such as seen in supernovas, while sGRBs are from the collision of neutron stars or black holes. There remains uncertainty as to the causes, but the longer GRBs release far greater amounts of energy and are most dangerous to ecosystems harboring complex life.
The paper narrows the time and space available for complex life to develop within our Universe. Over the age of the Universe, approximately 14 billion years, only the last 5 billion years have been conducive to the creation of complex life. Furthermore, only 10% of the galaxies within the last 5 billion years provided such environments. And within only larger galaxies, only the outlying areas provided the safe distances needed to evade lethal exposure to a gamma ray burst.
This work reveals how well our Solar System fits within the ideal conditions for permitting complex life to develop. We stand at a fairly good distance from the Milky Way’s galactic center. The age of our Solar System, at approximately 4.6 billion years, lies within the 5 billion year safe zone in time. However, for many other stellar systems, despite how many are now considered to exist throughout the Universe – 100s of billions in the Milky Way, trillions throughout the Universe – simple is probably a way of life due to GRBs. This work indicates that complex life, including intelligent life, is likely less common when just taking the effect of gamma ray bursts into consideration.