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Under a

cold sun

How did life on Earth get


W
HY are we here? As questions go, it’s billion years or so from the off. This mismatch,
a big ’un, beloved of philosophers known as the faint young sun paradox, has
started, when our young and theologists in a navel-gazing, many potential solutions. None quite has the
hand-wringing sort of way. Scientists often ring of truth. But as suggestions accumulate
planet should have been find themselves raising an objection before and are discarded, one conclusion seems ever
frozen and inhospitable? the others even start: we probably shouldn’t harder to ignore: we are even luckier to be here
be here to ask the question in the first place. than we thought.
Stuart Clark investigates The existence of life on Earth seems to have The faint young sun paradox has its origins
been the product of many lucky turns of in the 1960s, when astrophysicists ran the
events. Take the sun’s early history. According first crude computer simulations of how
to everything we know about how stars like it changes in chemical composition affect the
develop, it should have been born feebly dim, luminosity and heat output of stars such as
only gradually warming to its present level. our sun. The results were clear: the greater
Earth, born with the sun 4.5 billion years ago, abundance of hydrogen in the early sun’s
should have spent its first 2 billion years core would have given it a higher internal
or so as a frozen ball of ice, devoid of life. pressure, expanding the star’s nuclear heart
Yet in rocks laid down during this time we and lowering its temperature. As a result,
find sediments clearly deposited in aquatic the sun’s output in its early years was
environments, and ample fossil evidence of 25 to 30 per cent lower than it is today. That
bacteria that indicate our planet was already translates into an average surface temperature
a clement, inhabited world, perhaps within a of the early Earth some 20 degrees cooler –

20 | NewScientist: The Collection | Life on Earth: Origins,Evolution,Extinction


about 10 degrees below water’s freezing point. solutions as there were participants,” he says. temperature of 5 degrees above freezing, they
Yet records of liquid water on Earth go back An early proposal is still the most popular: would need to be some 300 times the current
almost as far as the planet itself. Deposits of that some greenhouse gas allowed the early amount – 10 times more than even the most
the mineral zircon in rocks from Jack Hills in Earth’s atmosphere to trap more of the weak generous palaeosol estimates.
Western Australia have been dated to 4.4 billion sun’s rays. The suggestion was first made in James Kasting, a palaeoclimatologist at
years ago, and contain oxygen isotopes that 1972 in Science by astronomers Carl Sagan Penn State University in Philadelphia, still
point to their having formed in a watery and George Mullen. But as they discovered, thinks a CO2-based greenhouse effect is the
environment. In the same region there are finding the right gas is tricky. solution, pointing to other evidence of its
fossil stromatolites, layered structures formed role in mediating Earth’s temperature (see
in shallow water by microbial communities, “Carbon control”, page 23). “I pay attention
thought to date to 3.5 billion years ago. Correct cocktails to those estimates even if I don’t completely
“This clearly tells us that simple models Carbon dioxide seems unlikely to be the agree with some them,” he says. All that is
for planetary habitability are wrong,” says sole culprit. CO2 enters soil either in raindrops needed is to find the correct cocktail of other
David Minton, a planetary scientist at Purdue or through direct diffusion, and drives gases that was mixed in with the CO2.
University in West Lafayette, Indiana. “There chemical weathering that is reflected in the Back in 1972, Sagan and Mullen suggested
was life on Earth when it should have been a mineral composition of rocks known as ammonia and methane. But ammonia is highly
frozen wasteland.” Minton was one of a few palaeosols. Studies of ancient palaeosols do susceptible to ultraviolet light and, with no
dozen astrophysicists and geophysicists suggest atmospheric CO2 levels were higher protective ozone layer around the early Earth,
DEM10/E+/GETTY

who met in Baltimore, Maryland, in 2012 to back in the Archean era, which ran from would have been destroyed easily even by the
discuss ways out of this bind. “It turned out 3.8 billion years ago to 2.5 billion years ago. faint young sun’s rays. Methane is a powerful
that there were almost as many potential But to keep the oceans at a surely liquid greenhouse gas but above a certain >

LifeonEarth:Origins,Evolution,Extinction | NewScientist:TheCollection| 21
”Atmospheric composition, rotation, albedo, the effect of clouds
could all be the answer – or they could be red herrings”

concentration forms an organic haze that underestimated the cooling effects of faster
absorbs sunlight, radiating it back into space.
Five ways to a warmer Earth rotation and ice cover, making the faint young
Too much methane cools a planet’s surface For its irst two billion years or so the sun should not sun paradox even more of a problem.
instead of warming it – an effect astronomers have been warm enough to make Earth hospitable However, other studies using sophisticated
to life. Many solutions have been proposed to this
have seen on Saturn’s moon Titan. paradox - but all have their own problems atmosphere models but without the
Titan suggests other ways of making Earth’s important effects of ocean and sea-ice
early atmosphere more of a comforting A HOTTER GREENHOUSE dynamics, did not find this.
blanket. While at the University of Chicago in A few years down the line, he hopes to bring
A more powerful
2013, Robin Wordsworth and Raymond blanket of
together the teams working on simulations of
Pierrehumbert, investigated whether high greenhouse gases the early Earth’s climate to compare results.
levels of nitrogen and hydrogen, such as are around the early That way they can see which effects are a result
found on Titan, can have a warming effect. Earth trapped of the theoretical assumptions that go into
EARTH more heat
While the answer is yes, there is no evidence making individual models. Any warming
that Earth’s atmosphere was ever dense PROBLEM effects that pop up in all models, regardless of
enough to hold the required quantities. Which gases? the assumptions, stand a greater chance of
“It turns out that all the gases are more being the key to the problem.
problematic than you hope,” says Georg HIGHER ALBEDO
Meanwhile some geophysicists continue to
Feulner of the Potsdam Institute for Climate cast a suspicious eye at the sun. Is it possible
Impact Research in Germany. He believes Land relects more that astrophysicists have not got the workings
heat than ocean –
one reason the paradox has yet to be resolved of our star nailed down? “Every 10 years or so,
so if the early Earth
is that the computer models generally used had more ocean someone proposes that the sun must have
to study ancient climates are too crude to cover it would have been more massive in the past,” says Kasting.
Land Sea
provide meaningful results. retained more heat The excess would have to have been
PROBLEM How do
substantial – about 2.5 per cent, or 8250 Earth
you test it? masses – to have made the sun shine brightly
Relentless activity enough. Although the sun is constantly
The models are crude because they typically flinging particles into space, creating the solar
FASTER ROTATION
ignore factors such as Earth’s rotation, which wind, it currently takes 150 million years to
has slowed over the years owing to the effect Earth’s faster past lose the mass equivalent to a single Earth. That
of the moon’s gravity. This slowing would have spinning could means the solar wind must have been stronger
have transferred
altered the pattern of heat transport from the in the past – a great deal stronger. “That’s a
heat to the poles
equator to the poles, perhaps changing the more quickly than sustained mass loss which is at least 10 times
extent of ice cover and so the amount of today, melting larger than anything we infer through the
energy that was reflected straight back up into relective ice there observation of other stars,” says Minton.
space rather than being absorbed by Earth. The book is not closed on all astronomical
PROBLEM Efect is
This quantity, the albedo, is a general too small on its own suggestions. Minton’s own involves a game of
problem. “We know nothing at all about the planetary billiards, and is inspired by the work
albedo of the early Earth,” says Kasting. A BIGGER SUN of Jacques Laskar of the Paris Observatory in
Oceans tend to absorb more heat than land The early sun was France. In 2009, Laskar made headlines with a
does, so the albedo will be affected by factors more massive to series of computer simulations that showed
such as the arrangement of the continents. compensate for its that the orbits of the solar system’s inner
Thanks to Earth’s relentless tectonic activity, lower luminosity planets are not necessarily stable over
this would have been very different in the SUN billions of years. In one particularly alarming
PROBLEM Where
distant past. Minik Rosing and his colleagues did all that extra scenario, the gravity of the outer solar system’s
at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, mass go? giant, Jupiter, might destabilise Mercury’s
have even controversially argued that orbit, flinging it outwards and potentially
considerably reduced continental cover, plus causing collisions between it, Venus, Earth and
chemical differences in cloud cover, would PLANETARY BILLIARDS Mars in about 3.5 billion years’ time.
have reduced the albedo enough to explain
A collision of two
the faint young sun paradox without the
need to invoke higher levels of greenhouse
other planets Orbital shift
nudged Earth out of
gases at all. a warm nursery Minton thinks what may be possible in the
All of these factors – atmospheric closer to the sun future could also be true of the past. He
composition, rotation, albedo, the effect investigated what it would have taken for
of clouds – could be the key to solving the PROBLEM Earth to form closer to the sun and only move
paradox. Or they could be red herrings. We No evidence out to its present orbit later, neatly solving the
simply do not know. Feulner’s own latest faint young sun paradox. In work yet to be
attempt at a more sophisticated climate published, he has found that it would not have
model (albeit with a simplified atmosphere) taken much. “You only need to change the
suggests that previous studies have orbit of Earth by a few per cent,” he says. Even

22 | NewScientist: The Collection | Life on Earth: Origins, Evolution, Extinction


so, such an orbital shift is something that is
easier to make happen with a catastrophe,
rather than gradually. The catastrophe Minton
imagined was a collision between two planets
about 2.5 billion years ago that created the
present-day Venus. The resulting small change
in the gravitational environment would have
been enough to nudge Earth outwards to its
present location, ensuring that as the sun
warmed up, life on Earth did not roast.
Even Minton admits the idea is a little
wacky – and almost impossible to test.
A planet’s age can often be estimated by the
density of craters on its face, but those on
Venus are hidden well. A simple count of its
craters suggests a figure of just 500 million to
a billion years – far too young to be a plausible
age under any scenario. Something must have
RGB VENTURES/LLC DBA/SUPERSTOCK/ALAMY

happened to Venus’s surface to smooth out


earlier wrinkles. Until we work out what, we
are at a loss to work out the planet’s true age.
Kasting, too, is sceptical of Minton’s idea,
and invokes Occam’s razor. “You should keep
solutions simple,” he says. Unfortunately, Our home star was
simple solutions are what we currently lack. not always as warm
Indeed, all the indications are that no single and life-promoting
factor can explain away the faint young sun as it is now

Carbon control
All the evidence suggests that Earth’s in this process, so Earth cooled. paradox. And that raises a wider question.
Archean era, which ended 2.5 billion But how then did our planet If Earth’s habitability is indeed a product of
years ago, was substantially warmer escape its ice age again? The answer a finely tuned combination of events, how
than models of the sun’s early probably lies in how atmospheric many other planets have been able to tread
development allow (see main story), CO2 dissolves in rainwater and enters a similarly unlikely path?
But there is no doubt as to how the soils, chemically weathering the Feulner shrugs off the question, saying we
era ended: our planet abruptly chilled existing rocks and building carbonate need to put our own house in order before
into its first ice age. Known as the minerals that are eventually taken going on to speculate about other worlds. “As
Huronian glaciation, this was one deep into the Earth through tectonic our understanding of ancient climates is still
of the longest, most severe ice ages action. After many millions of years, so preliminary, I’d be happy to understand the
in Earth’s history – and it took place volcanoes reprocess these rocks and solution to the faint young sun paradox first,
just when the sun should have been return the CO2 to the atmosphere and then wonder about the consequences.”
reaching temperatures capable of as part of their gaseous outpourings. Minton takes a different view. If there are
turning our planet into a clement When temperatures drop, as at many feasible solutions to the paradox – even
world. Why? the start of the Huronian glaciation, if only one of them can be true for the Earth –
James Kasting of Penn State chemical weathering slows down others could be playing out on other planets
University in Philadelphia points to because the chemistry involved is around the galaxy. The many different ways
a possible culprit: life – in particular partly driven by temperature, but to achieve habitability may overwhelm the
the oxygen given out by the first the volcanoes continue to release implausibility of any single solution.
photosynthesising bacteria. Oxygen the previously stored CO2. This builds “There may be so many complicating factors
tears apart methane, a powerful a larger greenhouse effect, boosting that the whole thing just opens up,” he says.
greenhouse gas, to create carbon the temperature and ending the “Biospheres may be much more robust than
dioxide and water. “Before the rise ice age. we think, and planetary environments we
of oxygen, methane was stable in Such effects convince Kasting that currently consider to be utterly hostile could
the atmosphere for 10,000 years,” the regulatory role of CO2 holds the themselves be perfectly hospitable.”
he says. Afterwards, the average key to the faint young sun paradox. For those prone to loneliness and existential
molecule lasted just a decade or so. “Carbon dioxide will always tend to angst that is perhaps a comforting thought.
Methane is a much more efficient rise to a level that keeps the Earth Although it still doesn’t answer the question:
greenhouse gas than the CO2 created from freezing,” he says. why are we here? ■

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