Earth’s atmosphere could save us from nearby supernova explosions

Earth’s atmosphere could save us from nearby supernova explosions
Earth’s atmosphere could save us from nearby supernova explosions

Earth’s atmosphere could save us from nearby supernova explosionsCredit: ESO.

Supernovae are dangerous and the closer a planet is to them, the more lethal their effects are. Scientists have speculated about the consequences of supernova explosions on Earth, wondering whether they have triggered mass extinctions or at least partial extinctions. It is known that once every million years a supernova explodes at a distance of 326 light years from our planet: a new study concludes that the Earth’s atmosphere, crucial for life, would be effective in protecting us against such an event.

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Research recently published in the journal Communications Earth & Environment and led by Professor Theodoros Christoudias, from the Climate and Atmosphere Research Center of the Cyprus Institute (CyI), concludes that Earth’s atmosphere is effective at protecting the biosphere from nearby supernovae. These cosmic events can be harmful to our planet, due to the impact of cosmic radiation.

The supernovas They are gigantic stellar explosions, generating gamma rays and ionizing radiation with the potential to negatively affect their immediate environment. This type of radiation is harmful to life: in our case, it can damage DNA and make the Earth uninhabitable. Specialists estimate that a supernova occurs near our planet every million years, at a distance of approximately 326 light years.

A protective shield

Previous studies have proven that radioactive isotopes produced by nearby supernovae millions of years ago still persist in the Earth’s oceanic sediments: based on these data, some theories maintain that certain mass or partial extinctions of species could have been caused by the impact of supernovae. Analyzing this scenario, Christoudias and his colleagues tested the effectiveness of the Earth’s atmosphere as “protective shield” in the face of new nearby supernovae.

It is worth noting that the new work is part of the CERN CLOUD collaboration, in a team that includes experts from the Max Planck Institute of Chemistry (MPIC) and the University of Helsinki, among other institutions. According to an article published in Universe Today, scientists conclude that The atmosphere and geomagnetic field of our planet effectively protect the biosphere from the effects of nearby supernovae, which has allowed life to evolve on Earth over the past hundreds of millions of years.

A contained impact

At the same time, Christoudias himself indicates in an article published in Springer Nature that although nearby supernovae can produce an intense burst of gamma rays and increase cosmic rays by 100 times, in an effect that can last several centuries, the consequences for our planet are strongly attenuated before reaching the lower stratosphere. In the past, specialists consider it unlikely that nearby supernovae have caused mass extinctions on Earth.

The intense cosmic radiation affects stratospheric ozone, but the compensatory effects of chemical cycles cause ozone depletion to be moderate and comparable to that caused by current anthropogenic emissions. Due to these conditions, it is unlikely that changes in ozone have a major impact on the biosphere, especially since most ozone loss occurs at high latitudes.

However, the scientists clarified that the new study focuses in the general impact on the entire biosphere, but does not consider the direct and specific risks to the health of humans and animals derived from exposure to high ionizing radiation. In short, the atmosphere and magnetosphere seem effectively protect the planet from supernovaeat least within the distance ranges analyzed.

Reference

Earth’s atmosphere protects the biosphere from nearby supernovae. Theodoros Christoudias et al. Communications Earth & Environment (2024). DOI:https://doi.org/10.1038/s43247-024-01490-9

 
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