Enveloping Unvierse

October 4, 2011

Carl Sagan wrote that if the Earth were the size of a globe our atmosphere at that scale would be about as thin as a single sheet of paper. Yet the air we breathe is so fundamental to life that even the tiniest changes in the composition of our air could cause cascading climate change on a global scale. While carbon dioxide is present in only trace amounts, scientific consensus indicates at a change from 292 parts per million today to 380 parts per million by the next century could spell disaster for human civilization through rising sea levels, changes in established wind and ocean currents, melting ice caps and desertification associated with the overall average trend of global warming. And so atmospheric regulation is essential to the continuing survival of all life; this biogeochemical process is mainly controlled by single-celled organisms.

Our atmosphere on Earth is mostly made of nitrogen, but it’s also about 20% oxygen. Oxygen is a corrosive gas that is dangerous under high concentrations because of how reactive it is with other chemicals. But this concentration of oxygen has been by no means stable over the last four-and-a-half billion years; oxygen levels in our atmosphere have been virtually non-existent until about half a billion years ago, when the so-called Great Oxidiation Event (GOE) took place. The GOE released huge plume of oxygen into the sky over the course of a few million years, radically altering the compostition of life on Earth and giving rise to the ancestors of the eukaryotes. Early life on Earth was anaerobic, meaning that it could function without oxygen. While aerobic animal life takes in oxygen and burns it during metabolism to create carbon dioxide and energy as waste, anaerobic life uses a myriad of metabolic pathways to produce energy, reducing molten iron, acetate, sulfate, hydrogen gas, or other inorganic molecules to produce their energy.

It wasn’t until the rise of cyanobacteria that any appreciable oxygen could be produced. These cyanobacteria are blue-green algae that performed photosynthesis by taking in sunlight, carbon dioxide and water to grow. One byproduct of this reaction was oxygen gas. The early Earth environment was highly reducing, meaning that it would readily absorb any oxygen and quickly oxidize something in the environment. Substrate like iron (III) dissolved in the water would readily oxidize and become iron (II) oxide, which was insoluble in water and would sink to the bottom of primordial seas. We find these banded iron deposits around the world and they are a ready source of the iron we use in modern manufacturing. The presence of banded iron formations would indicate the presence of oxygen being produced by cyanobacteria at the time, so we can reasonable assume that aerobic photosynthesis was going on around 2.1 billion years ago. In fact, cyanobacteria were so pervasive on Earth that their combined exhalations of oxygen radically altered the composition of air.

Areios’s atmosphere is mostly nitrogen, like the Earth’s atmosphere, but the outgassing of volcanoes and the rapid destruction and creation of crust means that oxygen is less abundant in the atmosphere, which has profound implications for the development of animal life. Combine this with the later start for photosynthesis, and this means that aerobic life doesn’t appear until about 12 billion years into Areios’ existence, yet this kind of more complex life persists for over 3 billion years before the surface temperature gets too hot for photosynthesis to maintain itself permanently. Fifteen billion years after creation, the planet’s atmosphere undergoes another profound change. As Hemera gets brighter, the atmosphere would start to slump off and this would alleviate some of the heat that gets trapped in the Areiosan atmosphere. Eventually the atmosphere becomes so thin with carbon dioxide that there isn’t enough CO2 to fuel photosynthesis and plants would die off en-masse. This drop in carbon dioxide would eliminate the greenhouse effect on Areios, and in turn this massive die-off would incite the next ratcheting up of carbon dioxide, which would in turn lead to a positive temperature feedback loop. Oceans would boil over until the last life left on the planet would paradoxically resemble the earliest life; a halophilic thermophile. Eventually, even this hardy creature wouldn’t be able to survive Areios would once again be a world sterile of all life. Temperature would still rise, though, and would boil the carbon dioxide out of the carbonate rocks in the crust, causing a runaway greenhouse effect like the one that we see on Venus. Sadly, this is the fate of all terrestrial planets as their parent star grows old; the same fate awaits our own planet earth in the coming eons.

Long after the Earth's atmosphere boils away, our Sun will evolve into a Red giant star.