A stellar revision of the story of life


Climate Change: News and Comments and The Svensmark Hypothesis

Svensmark’s Cosmic Jackpot

Visible to the naked eye as the Seven Sisters, the Pleiades are the most famous of many surviving clusters of stars that formed together at the same time. The Pleiades were born during the time of the dinosaurs, and the most massive of the siblings would have exploded over a period of 40 million years. Their supernova remnants generated cosmic rays. From the catalogue of known star clusters, Henrik Svensmark has calculated the variation in cosmic rays over the past 500 million years, without needing to know the precise shape of the Milky Way Galaxy. Armed with that astronomical history, he digs deep into the histories of the climate and of life on Earth. Image ESA/NASA/Hubble

Today the Royal Astronomical Society in London publishes (online) Henrik Svensmark’s latest paper entitled “Evidence of nearby supernovae affecting life on Earth”. After years of effort Svensmark shows how the variable frequency of stellar explosions not far from our planet has ruled over the changing fortunes of living things throughout the past half billion years. Appearing in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, It’s a giant of a paper, with 22 figures, 30 equations and about 15,000 words. See the RAS press release athttp://www.ras.org.uk/news-and-press/219-news-2012/2117-did-exploding-stars-help-life-on-earth-to-thrive

By taking me back to when I reported the victory of the pioneers of plate tectonics in their battle against the most eminent geophysicists of the day, it makes me feel 40 years younger. Shredding the textbooks, Tuzo Wilson, Dan McKenzie and Jason Morgan merrily explained earthquakes, volcanoes, mountain-building, and even the varying depth of the ocean, simply by the drift of fragments of the lithosphere in various directions around the globe.

In Svensmark’s new paper an equally concise theory, that cosmic rays from exploded stars cool the world by increasing the cloud cover, leads to amazing explanations, not least for why evolution sometimes was rampant and sometimes faltered. In both senses of the word, this is a stellar revision of the story of life.

Here are the main results:

The long-term diversity of life in the sea depends on the sea-level set by plate tectonics and the local supernova rate set by the astrophysics, and on virtually nothing else.

The long-term primary productivity of life in the sea – the net growth of photosynthetic microbes – depends on the supernova rate, and on virtually nothing else.

Exceptionally close supernovae account for short-lived falls in sea-level during the past 500 million years, long-known to geophysicists but never convincingly explained..

As the geological and astronomical records converge, the match between climate and supernova rates gets better and better, with high rates bringing icy times.

Presented with due caution as well as with consideration for the feelings of experts in several fields of research, a story unfolds in which everything meshes like well-made clockwork. Anyone who wishes to pooh-pooh any piece of it by saying “correlation is not necessarily causality” should offer some other mega-theory that says why several mutually supportive coincidences arise between events in our galactic neighbourhood and living conditions on the Earth.

An amusing point is that Svensmark stands the currently popular carbon dioxide story on its head. Some geoscientists want to blame the drastic alternations of hot and icy conditions during the past 500 million years on increases and decreases in carbon dioxide, which they explain in intricate ways. For Svensmark, the changes driven by the stars govern the amount of carbon dioxide in the air. Climate and life control CO2, not the other way around.

By implication, supernovae also determine the amount of oxygen available for animals like you and me to breathe. So the inherently simple cosmic-ray/cloud hypothesis now has far-reaching consequences, which I’ve tried to sum up in this diagram.

Cosmic rays in action. The main findings in the new Svensmark paper concern the uppermost stellar band, the green band of living things and, on the right, atmospheric chemistry. Although solar modulation of galactic cosmic rays is important to us on short timescales, its effects are smaller and briefer than the major long-term changes controlled by the rate of formation of big stars in our vicinity, and their self-destruction as supernovae. Although copyrighted, this figure may be reproduced with due acknowledgement in the context of Henrik Svensmark's work.

By way of explanation

The text of “Evidence of nearby supernovae affecting life on Earth” is available via  ftp://ftp2.space.dtu.dk/pub/Svensmark/MNRAS_Svensmark2012.pdf The paper is highly technical, as befits a professional journal, so to non-expert eyes even the illustrations may be a little puzzling. So I’ve enlisted the aid of Liz Calder to explain the way one of the most striking graphs, Svensmark’s Figure 20, was put together. That graph shows how, over the past 440 million years, the changing rates of supernova explosions relatively close to the Earth have strongly influenced the biodiversity of marine invertebrate animals, from trilobites of ancient times to lobsters of today. Svensmark’s published caption ends: “Evidently marine biodiversity is largely explained by a combination of sea-level and astrophysical activity.” To follow his argument you need to see how Figure 20 draws on information in Figure 19. That tells of the total diversity of the sea creatures in the fossil record, fluctuating between times of rapid evolution and times of recession.

The count is by genera, which are groups of similar animals. Here it’s shown freehand by Liz in Sketch A. Sketch B is from another part of Figure 19, telling how the long-term global sea-level changed during the same period. The broad correspondence isn’t surprising because a high sea-level floods continental margins and gives the marine invertebrates more extensive and varied habitats. But it obviously isn’t the whole story. For a start, there’s a conspicuous spike in diversity about 270 million years ago that contradicts the declining sea-level. Svensmark knew that there was a strong peak in the supernova rate around that time. So he looked to see what would happen to the wiggles over the whole 440 million years if he “normalized” the biodiversity to remove the influence of sea-level. That simple operation is shown in Sketch C, where the 270-million-year spike becomes broader and taller. Sketch D shows Svensmark’s reckoning of the changing rates of nearby supernovae during the same period. Let me stress that these are all freehand sketches to explain the operations, not to convey the data. In the published paper, the graphs as in C and D are drawn precisely and superimposed for comparison.

This is Svensmark's Figure 20, with axes re-labelled with simpler words for the RAS press release. Biodiversity (the normalized marine invertebrate genera count) is in blue, with vertical bars indicating possible errors. The supernova rates are in black.

There are many fascinating particulars that I might use to illustrate the significance of Svensmark’s findings. To choose the Gorgon’s story that follows is not entirely arbitrary, because this brings in another of those top results, about supernovae and bio-productivity.

The great dying at the end of the Permian

Out of breath, poor gorgon? Gasping for some supernovae? Named after scary creatures of Greek myth, the Gorgonopsia of the Late Permian Period included this fossil species Sauroctonus progressus, 3 metres long. Like many of its therapsid cousins, near relatives of our own ancestors, it died out during the Permo-Triassic Event. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gorgonopsia

Luckiest among our ancestors was a mammal-like reptile, or therapsid, that scraped through the Permo-Triassic Event, the worst catastrophe in the history of animal life. The climax was 251 million years ago at the end of the Permian Period. Nearly all animal species in the sea went extinct, along with most on land. The event ended the era of “old life”, the Palaeozoic, and ushered in the Mesozoic Era, when our ancestors would become small mammals trying to keep clear of the dinosaurs. So what put to death our previously flourishing Gorgon-faced cousins of the Late Permian? According to Henrik Svensmark, the Galaxy let the reptiles down.

Forget old suggestions (by myself included) that the impact of a comet or asteroid was to blame, like the one that did for the dinosaurs at the end of the Mesozoic. The greatest dying was less sudden than that. Similarly the impressive evidence for an eruption 250 million years ago – a flood basalt event that smothered Siberia with noxious volcanic rocks covering an area half the size of Australia – tells of only a belated regional coup de grâce. It’s more to the point that oxygen was in short supply – geologists speak of a “superanoxic ocean”. And there was far more carbon dioxide in the air than there is now.

Well there you go,” some people will say. “We told you CO2 is bad for you.” That, of course, overlooks the fact that the notorious gas keeps us alive. The recently increased CO2 shares with the plant breeders the credit for feeding the growing human population. Plants and photosynthetic microbes covet CO2 to grow. So in the late Permian its high concentration was a symptom of a big shortfall in life’s productivity, due to few supernovae, ice-free conditions, and a lack of weather to circulate the nutrients. And as photosynthesis is also badly needed to turn H2O into O2, the doomed animals were left gasping for oxygen, with little more than half of what we’re lucky to breathe today.

When Svensmark comments briefly on the Permo-Triassic Event in his new paper,Evidence of nearby supernovae affecting life on Earth,” he does so in the context of the finding that high rates of nearby supernovae promote life’s productivity by chilling the planet, and so improving the circulation of nutrients needed by the photosynthetic organisms.Here’s a sketch from Figure 22 in the paper, simplified to make it easier to read. Heavy carbon, 13C, is an indicator of how much photosynthesis was going on. Plumb in the middle is a downward pointing green dagger that marks the Permo-Triassic Event. And in the local supernova rate (black curve) Svensmark notes that the Late Permian saw the largest fall in the local supernova rate seen in the past 500 million years. This was when the Solar System had left the hyperactive Norma Arm of the Milky Way Galaxy behind it and entered the quiet space beyond. “Fatal consequences would ensue for marine life,” Svensmark writes, “if a rapid warming led to nutrient exhaustion … occurring too quickly for species to adapt.”

One size doesn’t fit all, and a fuller story of Late Permian biodiversity becomes subtler and even more persuasive. About 6 million years before the culminating mass extinction of 251 million years ago, a lesser one occurred at the end of the Guadalupian stage. This earlier extinction was linked with a brief resurgence in the supernova rate and a global cooling that interrupted the mid-Permian warming. In contrast with the end of the Permian, bio-productivity was high. The chief victims of this die-off were warm-water creatures including gigantic bivalves and rugose corals.

Why it’s tagged as “astrobiology”

So what, you may wonder, is the most life-enhancing supernova rate? Without wanting to sound like Voltaire’s Dr Pangloss, it’s probably not very far from the average rate for the past few hundred million years, nor very different from what we have now. Biodiversity and bio-productivity are both generous at present.

Svensmark has commented (not in the paper itself) on a closely related question – where’s the best place to live in the Galaxy?

Too many supernovae can threaten life with extinction. Although they came before the time range of the present paper, very severe episodes called Snowball Earth have been blamed on bursts of rapid star formation. I’ve tagged the paper as ‘Astrobiology’ because we may be very lucky in our location in the Galaxy. Other regions may be inhospitable for advanced forms of life because of too many supernovae or too few.”

Astronomers searching for life elsewhere speak of a Goldilocks Zone in planetary systems. A planet fit for life should be neither too near to nor too far from the parent star. We’re there in the Solar System, sure enough. We may also be in a similar Goldilocks Zone of the Milky Way, and other galaxies with too many or too few supernovae may be unfit for life. Add to that the huge planetary collision that created the Earth’s disproportionately large Moon and provided the orbital stability and active geology on which life relies, and you may suspect that, astronomically at least, Dr Pangloss was right — “Everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.”

Don’t fret about the diehards

If this blog has sometimes seemed too cocky about the Svensmark hypothesis, it’s because I’ve known what was in the pipeline, from theories, observations and experiments, long before publication. Since 1996 the hypothesis has brought new successes year by year and has resisted umpteen attempts to falsify it.

New additions at the level of microphysics include a previously unknown reaction of sulphuric acid, as in a recent preprint. On a vastly different scale, Svensmark’s present supernova paper gives us better knowledge of the shape of the Milky Way Galaxy.

A mark of a good hypothesis is that it looks better and better as time passes. With the triumph of plate tectonics, diehard opponents were left redfaced and blustering. In 1960 you’d not get a job in an American geology department if you believed in continental drift, but by 1970 you’d not get the job if you didn’t. That’s what a paradigm shift means in practice and it will happen sometime soon with cosmic rays in climate physics.

Plate tectonics was never much of a political issue, except in the Communist bloc. There, the immobility of continents was doctrinally imposed by the Soviet Academy of Sciences. An analagous diehard doctrine in climate physics went global two decades ago, when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was conceived to insist that natural causes of climate change are minor compared with human impacts.

Don’t fret about the diehards. The glory of empirical science is this: no matter how many years, decades, or sometimes centuries it may take, in the end the story will come out right.

Planck’s whole sky


Pick of the pics

Planck’s first overview of the cosmos

Credit: ESA / LFI and HFI Consortia

Microwaves from the entire sky, surveyed by Europe’s Planck spacecraft since August 2009, are here mapped in galactic coordinates. The centre of the Milky Way Galaxy, in Sagittarius, is in the middle. The ribbon of the Milky Way (the flat disc of the Galaxy) extends horizontally across the map, with Cygnus conspicuous towards the left and Orion towards the right. Streamers above and below the disc are regions of star formation. The more subtle mottled regions top and bottom show the cosmic microwave background, from the formation of the first atoms 400,000 years after the Big Bang. The strong microwaves from the Galaxy will have to be gauged and subtracted to reveal hidden parts of that background. Crucial for making the distinction is Planck’s range of nine different microwave frequencies, 30 to 850 Ghz, and its ability to measure the temperature of the sky to one-sixth of a degree.

In Magic Universe I call it “looking for the pattern on the cosmic wallpaper”. Named after the quantum theory pioneer, Planck is the successor to NASA’s WMAP mission. In 2003 WMAP returned wonderful information about the cosmic microwave background but did not quite pin down the theory of the Big Bang that best fits the facts. Maybe Planck will do that, and there seems little point in updating Magic Universe about the cosmic wallpaper until the full Planck results are in, after four surveys of the whole sky, in 2012.

George Efstathiou of Cambridge, the Planck Survey Scientist, says “It has taken sixteen years of hard work by many scientists in Europe, the USA and Canada, to produce this new image of the early Universe. Planck is working brilliantly and we expect to learn a lot about the Big Bang and the creation of our Universe.”

Reference for Efstathiou quote: UK Space Agency press release 5 July 2010.

Freeze and evolve


Updating The Chilling Stars and Magic Universe

When cosmic rays freeze the world, you’d better evolve

2100 million year-old multicellular fossil found in Gabon. Image: Kaksonen CNRS

Transforming the story of life on the Earth is a report in Nature today about multicellular creatures more than 2 billion years old, at a time when single-celled bacteria supposedly reigned supreme. Fossils you can pick up with your fingers, found in Gabon, West Africa, are far, far older than the multicellular animals that become detectable about 600 million years ago (Ediacaran period) and conspicuous 542 million years in the “Cambrian explosion”. The age is fixed with remarkable precision at 2070 to 2130 million years.

Exterior and interior of a fossil imaged by micro-tomography. Image: El Albani & Mazurier, CNRS

A team of 21 experts from France, Sweden, Denmark, Canada, Germany and Belgium make the report. The lead author is Abderrazak El Albani, at the University of Poitiers, France. He tells Agence France Press that “More than 250 specimens have been found so far. They have different body shapes, and vary in size from one to 12 centimetres.”

What excites me about the discovery is that here was a far-reaching evolutionary response to the rise of oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere beginning more than 2000 million years ago. It occurred in the aftermath of a planet-wide freeze for which there is a cosmic explanation.

Chapter 6 in The Chilling Stars includes the story of “Snowball Earth” events. Here are some extracts.

In 1986, George Williams and Brian Embleton in Australia used the magnetism in grains of iron oxide dropped from ancient ice to show that they were released within a few degrees of the Equator. A few years later, Joseph Kirschvink of the California Institute of Technology confirmed this result in magnetism associated with other rock formations in Australia produced by ice action, and well dated as 700 million years old. He called it ‘bullet-proof evidence’.

It now seems clear that these extensive, sea-level deposits … were formed by widespread continental glaciers which were within a few degrees of the equator. The data are difficult to interpret in any fashion other than that of a widespread, equatorial glaciation.”

Kirschvink invented the name Snowball Earth for that dire climatic state. You have to visualise ice sheets, glaciers and frozen seas even at the Equator itself. The degree of ocean freezing is still debated. Some investigators imagine vistas of ice a kilometre thick or more, others prefer a ‘slushball’picture with drifting sea ice and icebergs. Either way the impact on life was severe.

Evidence from all the world’s continents unpacks into about three separate snowball episodes in the interval 750 to 580 million years ago. Worms that survived by scavenging the sea-bed detritus evolved the body-plans that made possible the explosion of animal life mentioned in the previous chapter, when the world became reliably warmer again in the Cambrian Period that started 542 million years ago.

Those cold Neo-Proterozoic times, as geologists call them, were not the only occasion of such radical events involving ice and evolution. By the end of the 20th century, geologists had amassed evidence from South Africa, Canada and Finland that confirmed two Snowball Earth episodes between 2,400 and 2,200 million years ago, in Palaeo-Proterozoic times. Our planet was then only half its present age.

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Star positions matter


Updating The Chilling Stars

Why star positions matter for climate physics

The Making of History’s Greatest Star Map is an excellent account of the European Space Agency’s Hipparcos mission by the project scientist, Michael Perryman. It brings back vivid recollections:

  • of dismay after the launch in 1989, when the satellite failed to go into the right orbit and frantic steps were needed to improvise a survivable orbit and re-configure the observing programme.
  • of satisfaction when operations continued despite unplanned exposure to the Earth’s radiation belts, as well as some nasty solar flares, until the radiation damage became fatal in 1993.
  • of the appetizer in 1994, when early results of the Hipparcos star mapping helped in accurate prediction of the impacts of the fragmented Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 on the planet Jupiter.
  • of joy on Isola di San Giorgo, Venice, in 1997 when the Hipparcos science team announced their first large-scale results, after a huge computational effort.

Hipparcos in an ESA impression

Astrometry took that great leap forward 30 years after Pierre Lacroute of the Strasbourg Observatory first proposed a space mission to measure the positions of stars, 20 years after Erik Høg of the Copenhagen Observatory refined the concept, and 17 years after ESA earmarked it as something to do. Ground-based astrometry had stalled, because of imprecisions due the turbulence of the atmosphere, and its remaining aficionados had little lobbying power. As a result, Hipparcos remained a distinctly European space project – the first in which there was no competition with the US or Soviet space science programmes.

Applications of the Hipparcos Catalogue of 100,000 plus stars and the Tycho 2 Catalogue with 2.5 million stars (to a lesser but still unprecedented accuracy) have ranged from detecting a bend in the Milky Way Galaxy to checking Einstein’s theory of gravity, General Relativity. But wanting to pursue here the relevance of Hipparcos to climate physics, I’m pleased to see that Michael Perryman points the way.

Michael Perryman. Photo by Richard Perryman

In The Making of History’s Greatest Star Map, pp. 236-243, Perryman notes the role of Hipparcos in refining observations the wobbles of the Earth’s axis, which are involved in the pacing of ice ages (the Milankovitch theory). Then he points to the link between solar activity and climate change, as evidenced by the Little Ice Age, the Medieval Warm Period and other variations. As to the mechanism for the solar connection, Perryman singles out the suggestion that cosmic rays, modulated by solar activity, influence cloud cover.

He continues the story with the Sun’s journey through the Galaxy and the icy intervals on Earth that correspond to exposure to intense cosmic rays when passing through spiral arms. That’s a major topic in The Chilling Stars and, as Perryman says, the Hipparcos data have improved our knowledge of motions in the Galaxy.

It’s reassuring when a professor of astronomy with no scientific or political axe to grind gives serious attention to the cosmic-ray/climate link (the Svensmark hypothesis). Let me reciprocate by reviewing what’s said about the climate-related significance of Hipparcos and its successor Gaia in The Chilling Stars and see if it needs updating or extending.

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