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.
Every few dozen million years there’s a devastating event on Earth that kills nearly all the living creatures on our planet. Dr. Michael Habib explains how life always finds a way of recovering.
“Hello, my name is Michael Habib, and I’m an assistant professor of Cell and Neurobiology at the University of Southern California. I’m a biomechanist and paleontologist.”
How does life survive a mass extinction?
“One of the most amazing things about life on earth is that if you don’t kill EVERYTHING, it will eventually recover. Extinction is forever – if you kill a group, you’ll never have that group again, but what we find is that often the same ecologies show up again after a major extinction, because other groups end up diversifying to do the same things as groups we’d seen elsewhere.”
“So the world doesn’t end up looking entirely different after a mass extinction, although it would be quite different in a lot of ways. And even the great End Permian extinction killed about 99 percent of all species, or at least all the ones we can measure in the fossil record, and left that one percent, that’s all it takes to eventually recover.”
“Now, I imagine if you took a time machine to the first six months of the Triassic, it would be a very lonely, kinda ugly world. You’d notice that animals and plants were missing. The massive extinction affected all sorts of organisms.But, at the scales we’re looking at in the geologic record – tens of millions of years, a time span that’s pretty much unfathomable to human experience, you can eventually recover that diversity, with speciation event after speciation event kicks in and eventually creates a new diversity.”
“But after each mass extinction event, the world looks a bit different. You know, if I were to drop you in a time machine before the End Permian extinction, you’d notice a lot of things different about the world. You’d notice strange large mammal-like reptiles with large saber teeth running around as the large terrestrial organisms. You would see a few of the major groups of vertebrates that exist today, especially marine, but a lot of the terrestrial groups would be very different.”
“If I jump to after the End Permian extinction, enough that life had recovered, you’ll see those ancestors to dinosaurs, those terrasaurs, would show up in the mid to late Triassic. Then you start to see some plant groups that look more familiar to us, like plants that look a little bit more like modern conifers, things like that. So the world would definitely look different, but life does go on.”
Hey, remember that one time when 90% of all life on Earth got wiped out?
I don’t either. But it’s a good thing it happened because otherwise none of us would be here to… not remember it. Still, the end-Permian Extinction — a.k.a. the Great Dying — was very much a real crisis for life on Earth 252 million years ago. It makes the K-T extinction event of the dinosaurs look like a rather nice day by comparison, and is literally the most catastrophic event known to have ever befallen Earthly life. Luckily for us (and pretty much all of the species that have arisen since) the situation eventually sorted itself out. But how long did that take?
The Permian Extinction was a perfect storm of geological events that resulted in the disappearance of over 90% of life on Earth — both on land and in the oceans. (Or ocean, as I should say, since at that time the land mass of Earth had gathered into one enormous continent — called Pangaea — and thus there was one ocean, referred to as Panthalassa.) A combination of increased volcanism, global warming, acid rain, ocean acidification and anoxia, and the loss of shallow sea habitats (due to the single large continent) set up a series of extinctions that nearly wiped our planet’s biological slate clean.
Exactly why the event occurred and how Earth returned to a state in which live could once again thrive is still debated by scientists, but it’s now been estimated that the recovery process took about 10 million years.
Research by Dr. Zhong-Qiang Chen from the China University of Geosciences in Wuhan, and Professor Michael Benton from the University of Bristol, UK, show that repeated setbacks in conditions on Earth continued for 5 to 6 million years after the initial wave of extinctions. It appears that every time life would begin to recover within an ecological niche, another wave of environmental calamities would break.
“Life seemed to be getting back to normal when another crisis hit and set it back again,” said Prof. Benton. “The carbon crises were repeated many times, and then finally conditions became normal again after five million years or so.”
“The causes of the killing – global warming, acid rain, ocean acidification – sound eerily familiar to us today. Perhaps we can learn something from these ancient events.”
– Michael Benton, Professor of Vertebrate Palaeontology at the University of Bristol
It wasn’t until the severity of the crises abated that life could gradually begin reclaiming and rebuilding Earth’s ecosystems. New forms of life appeared, taking advantage of open niches to grab a foothold in a new world. It was then that many of the ecosystems we see today made their start, and opened the door for the rise of Earth’s most famous prehistoric critters: the dinosaurs.
“The event had re-set evolution,” said Benton. “However, the causes of the killing – global warming, acid rain, ocean acidification – sound eerily familiar to us today. Perhaps we can learn something from these ancient events.”
The team’s research was published in the May 27 issue of Nature Geoscience. Read more on the University of Bristol’s website here.