Did Earth’s Multicellular Life Depend on Plate Tectonics?

Graphic depicting the last 1.6 billion years of Earth’s tectonic history. (Credit: Figure 2 from Stern & Gerya (2024))

How did complex life emerge and evolve on the Earth and what does this mean for finding life beyond Earth? This is what a recent study published in Nature hopes to address as a pair of researchers investigated how plate tectonics, oceans, and continents are responsible for the emergence and evolution of complex life across our planet and how this could address the Fermi Paradox while attempting to improve the Drake Equation regarding why we haven’t found life in the universe and the parameters for finding life, respectively. This study holds the potential to help researchers better understand the criterion for finding life beyond Earth, specifically pertaining to the geological processes exhibited on Earth.

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What Deadly Venus Can Tell Us About Life on Other Worlds

Earth and Venus. Why are they so different and what do the differences tell us about rocky exoplanet habitability? Image Credit: NASA

Even though Venus and Earth are so-called sister planets, they’re as different as heaven and hell. Earth is a natural paradise where life has persevered under its azure skies despite multiple mass extinctions. On the other hand, Venus is a blistering planet with clouds of sulphuric acid and atmospheric pressure strong enough to squash a human being.

But the sister thing won’t go away because both worlds are about the same mass and radius and are rocky planets next to one another in the inner Solar System. Why are they so different? What do the differences tell us about our search for life?

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What Can Early Earth Teach Us About the Search for Life?

This view of Earth from space is a fusion of science and art, drawing on data from multiple satellite missions and the talents of NASA scientists and graphic artists. This image originally appeared in the NASA Earth Observatory story Twin Blue Marbles. Image Credits: NASA images by Reto Stöckli, based on data from NASA and NOAA.

Earth is the only life-supporting planet we know of, so it’s tempting to use it as a standard in the search for life elsewhere. But the modern Earth can’t serve as a basis for evaluating exoplanets and their potential to support life. Earth’s atmosphere has changed radically over its 4.5 billion years.

A better way is to determine what biomarkers were present in Earth’s atmosphere at different stages in its evolution and judge other planets on that basis.

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When did the First Continents Appear in the Universe?

Continents might be necessary for life, especially complex life. This image shows super-continent Pangaea during the Permian period (300 - 250 million years ago). Credit: NAU Geology/Ron Blakey

On Earth, continents are likely necessary to support life. Continents ‘float’ on top of the Earth’s viscous mantle, and heat from the planet’s core keeps the mantle from solidifying and locking the continents into place.

The core is hot because of the presence of radioactive elements that came from neutron star collisions. It should be possible to calculate when the first continents formed in the Universe.

So that’s what one researcher did.

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Did Life Need Plate Tectonics to Emerge?

New research indicates that mobile plate tectonics—thought to be necessary for the creation of a habitable planet—was not occurring on Earth 3.9 billion years ago. Image Credit: University of Rochester illustration / Michael Osadciw

It’s widely accepted that Earth’s plate tectonics are a key factor in life’s emergence. Plate tectonics allows heat to move from the mantle to the crust and plays a critical role in cycling nutrients. They’re also a key part of the carbon cycle that moderates Earth’s temperature.

But new research suggests that there was no plate tectonic activity when life appeared sometime around 3.9 billion years ago. Does this have implications for our search for habitable worlds?

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The Pacific Ocean Will be Gone in 300 Million Years as the World's Continents Drift and Combine

Earth, seen from space, above the Pacific Ocean. Credit: NASA

Today, the Earth’s seven continents are distributed across the surface, with North and South America occupying one hemisphere, Africa, Europe, Asia, and Australia occupying the other, and Antarctica sitting alone around the South Pole. However, these continents were arranged in entirely different configurations throughout Earth’s history. On occasion, they formed supercontinents like Gondwana (ca. 550 to 180 million) and Pangaea (ca. 335 to 200 million years ago) that were surrounded by “superoceans.”

Eventually, the Earth’s tectonic plates will come together again to form the world’s next supercontinent. According to new research led by Curtin University in Bentley, Australia, this will happen roughly 200 to 300 million years from now. As they determined through a series of simulations, this will involve the Americas drifting westward until they collide with Australia and Asia (eliminating the Pacific Ocean) and Antarctica moving north to join them. This will give rise to the new supercontinent they have named “Amasia,” which will also have profound implications for life on Earth.

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How did Earth go From Molten Hellscape to Habitable Planet?

An artist's impression of the Hadean eon. Image Credit: By Tim Bertelink - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48916334

Earth formed from the Sun’s protoplanetary disk about 4.6 billion years ago. In the beginning, it was a molten spheroid with scorching temperatures. Over time, it cooled, and a solid crust formed. Eventually, the atmosphere cooled, and life became a possibility.

But how did all of that happen? The atmosphere was rich in carbon, and that carbon had to be removed before the temperature could drop and Earth could become habitable.

Where did all the carbon go?

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Eggshell Planets Have a Thin Brittle Crust and No Mountains or Tectonics

'Eggshell planets’ are rocky worlds that have an ultra-thin outer brittle layer and little to no topography. Here, an artist’s rendition of such an exoplanet. (Image: NASA)

Planets without plate tectonics are unlikely to be habitable. But currently, we’ve never seen the surface of an exoplanet to determine if plate tectonics are active. Scientists piece together their likely surface structures from other evidence. Is there a way to determine what exoplanets might be eggshells, and eliminate them as potentially habitable?

The authors of a newly-published paper say there is.

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A Crater on Venus Indicates the Planet Hasn’t Been Volcanic for a Long Time

Venus may not have had Earth-like tectonic plates or volcanism for the last billion years, according to a new study. A deep look at a giant impact crater on Venus suggests the planet hasn’t experienced any tectonic activity in the recent past, and might be covered with a in a single outer plate. If so, this would essentially rule out any recent volcanic activity on the planet that many consider Earth’s twin.  

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There Could Be Carbon-Rich Exoplanets Made Of Diamonds

llustration of a carbon-rich planet with diamond and silica as main minerals. Water can convert a carbide planet into a diamond-rich planet. In the interior, the main minerals would be diamond and silica (a layer with crystals in the illustration). The core (dark blue) might be iron-carbon alloy. Credit: Shim/ASU/Vecteezy

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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