When the most massive stars exhaust their available fuel and reach the end of their lives, they explode as supernovae, tremendously powerful explosions that are brighter than an entire galaxy of normal stars. The remnants of these dramatic events also release vast numbers of high-energy charged particles known as galactic cosmic rays (GCR). If a supernova is close enough to the Solar System, the enhanced GCR levels can have a direct impact on the atmosphere of the Earth.
Prof. Henrik Svensmark of the Technical University of Denmark looked back through 500 million years of geological and astronomical data and considered the proximity of the Sun to supernovae as it moves around our Galaxy, the Milky Way. In particular, when the Sun is passing through the spiral arms of the Milky Way, it encounters newly forming clusters of stars. These so-called open clusters, which disperse over time, have a range of ages and sizes and will have started with a small proportion of stars massive enough to explode as supernovae. From the data on open clusters, Svensmark was able to deduce how the rate at which supernovae exploded near the Solar System varied over time.
Comparing this with the geological record, he found that the changing frequency of nearby supernovae seems to have strongly shaped the conditions for life on Earth. Whenever the Sun and its planets have visited regions of enhanced star formation in the Milky Way Galaxy, where exploding stars are most common, life has prospered. Prof. Svensmark remarks in the paper, “The biosphere seems to contain a reflection of the sky, in that the evolution of life mirrors the evolution of the Galaxy.”
A figure showing the correlation between the rate of nearby supernovae and the diversity of life on Earth. The black curve is the changing rate of supernova explosions in the vicinity of the Solar System over the past 440 million years. The blue curve is the diversity of marine invertebrate animals (number of genera) after subtracting the influence of changing sea-levels. The grey area is an estimate of errors. The scale at the top shows the geological periods (abbreviations for each period are given). Credit: H. Svensmark / DTU Space
In the new work, the diversity of life over the last 500 million years seems remarkably well explained by tectonics affecting the sea-level together with variations in the supernova rate, and virtually nothing else. To obtain this result on the variety of life, or biodiversity, he followed the changing fortunes of the best-recorded fossils. These are from invertebrate animals in the sea, such as shrimps and octopuses, or the extinct trilobites and ammonites.
They tended to be richest in their variety when continents were drifting apart and sea levels were high and less varied when the land masses gathered 250 million years ago into the supercontinent called Pangaea and the sea-level was lower. But this geophysical effect was not the whole story. When it is removed from the record of biodiversity, what remains corresponds closely to the changing rate of nearby stellar explosions, with the variety of life being greatest when supernovae are plentiful. A likely reason, according to Prof. Svensmark, is that the cold climate associated with high supernova rates brings a greater variety of habitats between polar and equatorial regions, while the associated stresses of life prevent the ecosystems becoming too set in their ways.
He also notices that most geological periods seem to begin and end with either an upturn or a downturn in the supernova rate. The changes in typical species that define a period, in the transition from one to the next, could then be the result of a major change in the astrophysical environment.
Life’s prosperity, or global bioproductivity, can be tracked by the amount of carbon dioxide in the air at various times in the past as set out in the geological record. When supernova rates were high, carbon dioxide was scarce, suggesting that flourishing microbial and plant life in the oceans consumed it greedily to grow. Support for this idea comes from the fact that microbes and plants dislike carbon dioxide molecules that contain a heavy form of carbon atom, carbon-13. As a result, the ocean water is left enriched by carbon-13. The geological evidence shows high carbon-13 when supernovae were commonest – again pointing to high productivity. As to why this should be, Prof. Svensmark notes that growth is limited by available nutrients, especially phosphorus and nitrogen, and that cold conditions favour the recycling of the nutrients by vigorously mixing the oceans.
An image of the Pleiades (M45), a famous star cluster about 135 million years old. This age means that any massive stars in the cluster would have exploded as supernovae when ammonites were prominent in the sea. According to Henrik Svensmark, the rate of nearby supernovae strongly influenced the diversity of such marine invertebrates. Credit: NASA, ESA and AURA/Caltech
Although the new analysis suggests, perhaps surprisingly, that supernovae are on the whole good for life, high supernova rates can bring the cold and changeable climate of prolonged glacial episodes. And they can have nasty shocks in store. Geoscientists have long been puzzled by many relatively brief falls in sea-level by 25 metres or more that show up in seismic soundings as eroded beaches. Prof. Svensmark finds that they are what can be expected when chilling due to very close supernovae causes short-lived glacial episodes. With frozen water temporarily bottled up on land, the sea-level drops.
The data also support the idea of a long-term link between cosmic rays and climate, with these climatic changes underlying the biological effects. And compared with the temperature variations seen on short timescales as a consequence of the Sun's influence on the influx of cosmic rays, the heating and cooling of the Earth due to cosmic rays varying with the prevailing supernova rate have been far larger.
The director of DTU Space, Prof. Eigil Friis-Christensen, comments: “When this enquiry into effects of cosmic rays from supernova remnants began 16 years ago, we never imagined that it would lead us so deep into time, or into so many aspects of the Earth’s history. The connection to evolution is a culmination of this work.”
Citation: “Evidence of nearby supernovae affecting life on Earth”, H. Svensmark, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, in press.