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The last survivors

Tuesday 02 July 2013

An image of the Upper Geyser Basin region in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, USA.  As the Sun heats up, much of the Earth will come to resemble this landscape. Credit: Jack O’Malley-James

An image of the Upper Geyser Basin region in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, USA. As the Sun heats up, much of the Earth will come to resemble this landscape. Credit: Jack O’Malley-James

In 2 billion years’ time, life on Earth will be confined to pockets of liquid water deep underground, St Andrews researchers revealed at a major conference today (Tuesday 2 July 2013).  

The new research, by astrobiologist Jack O’Malley-James, also suggests that though the hardiest forms of life may have a foothold on similar worlds in orbit around other stars, evidence for it may be very subtle.

The St Andrews PhD student presented his findings at the National Astronomy Meeting in St Andrews, taking place in St Andrews all this week (1-5 July).

All species have finite lifetimes, with each eventually facing an event that leads to its extinction. This can be sudden and catastrophic, like the giant impact that wiped out the dinosaurs, or a slow and gradual process. Ultimately, a combination of slow and rapid environmental changes will result in the extinction of all species on Earth, with the last inhabitants disappearing within 2.8 billion years from now.

The main driver for these changes will be the Sun. As it ages over the next few billion years, the Sun will remain stable but become steadily more luminous, increasing the intensity of its heat felt on Earth and warming the planet to such an extent that the oceans evaporate. In his new work, O’Malley James has created a computer model to simulate these extremely long-range temperature forecasts and has used the results to predict the timeline of future extinctions.

Within the next billion years, increased evaporation rates and chemical reactions with rainwater will draw more and more carbon dioxide from the Earth’s atmosphere. The falling levels of CO2 will lead to the disappearance of plants and animals and our home planet will become a world of microbes. At the same time the Earth will be depleted of oxygen and will be drying out as the rising temperatures lead to the evaporation of the oceans. A billion years after that the oceans will have gone completely.

An electron microscope image of thermophilic (heat-loving) bacteria. These organisms may be amongst the last life on Earth, perhaps surviving 2.8 billion years into the future. Credit: Mark Amend / NOAA Photo Library

An electron microscope image of thermophilic (heat-loving) bacteria. These organisms may be amongst the last life on Earth, perhaps surviving 2.8 billion years into the future. Credit: Mark Amend / NOAA Photo Library

Jack explained, "The far-future Earth will be very hostile to life by this point", "All living things require liquid water, so any remaining life will be restricted to pockets of liquid water, perhaps at cooler, higher altitudes or in caves or underground". This life will need to cope with many extremes like high temperatures and intense ultraviolet radiation and only a few microbial species known on Earth today could cope with this.”

The new model not only tells us a lot about our own planet's future, but it can also help us to recognise other inhabited planets that may be approaching the end of their habitable lifetimes.

The researcher added, "When we think about what to look for in the search for life beyond Earth our thoughts are largely constrained by life as we know it today, which leaves behind telltale fingerprints in our atmosphere like oxygen and ozone. Life in the Earth's far future will be very different to this, which means, to detect life like this on other planets we need to search for a whole new set of clues".

"We have now simulated a dying biosphere composed of populations of the species that are most likely to survive to determine what types of gases they would release to the atmosphere. By the point at which all life disappears from the planet, we're left with a nitrogen:carbon-dioxide atmosphere with methane being the only sign of active life".

Bringing together more than 600 astronomers and space scientists, the RAS National Astronomy Meeting (NAM 2013) is partly sponsored by the University’s 600th Anniversary campaign.  As part of an ambitious £100m fundraising drive, the University is aiming to create an ‘Other Worlds’ Think Tank and Observatory, which will extend the University of St Andrews’ flagship work on extra-solar planets, and provide a creative environment for problem-focused research, education and continuing public engagement.

ENDS

Note to Editors

Science contact

Jack O’Malley-James
University of St Andrews
Mob: +44 (0)7960 754025
Tel: +44 (0)1334 463151
jto5@st-andrews.ac.uk

Media contacts

Dr Robert Massey
Royal Astronomical Society
Mob: +44 (0)794 124 8035
rm@ras.org.uk

Anita Heward
Royal Astronomical Society
Mob: +44 (0)7756 034 243
anitaheward@btinternet.com 

Ms Emma Shea
Head of Development Communications
University of St Andrews
Tel: +44 (0)1334 462 167
Mob: +44 (0)785 090 0352
emma.shea@st-andrews.ac.uk 

Landline numbers in NAM 2013 press room (available from 9am to 5pm on 1-4 July; 9am to 3pm 5 July):
Tel: +44 (0)1334 462231, +44 (0)1334 46 2232 

Images and captions

www.ras.org.uk/images/stories/NAM2013/2July/OM-J%20Yellowstone.jpg
An image of the Upper Geyser Basin region in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, USA.  As the Sun heats up, much of the Earth will come to resemble this landscape. Credit: Jack O’Malley-James

www.ras.org.uk/images/stories/NAM2013/2July/OM-J%20thermophile_bacteria.jpg
An electron microscope image of thermophilic (heat-loving) bacteria. These organisms may be amongst the last life on Earth, perhaps surviving 2.8 billion years into the future. Credit: Mark Amend / NOAA Photo Library

Further information

Jack O’Malley-James is working on a PhD (funded by the STFC Aurora scheme) supervised by Dr Jane Greaves at the University of St Andrews, Prof. John Raven (University of Dundee) and Prof. Charles Cockell (the UK Centre for Astrobiology, University of Edinburgh) investigating the possible biosignatures of diverse microbial life under a variety of exoplanetary environments.

Bringing together more than 600 astronomers and space scientists, the RAS National Astronomy Meeting (NAM 2013) will take place from 1-5 July 2013 at the University of St Andrews, Scotland. The conference is held in conjunction with the UK Solar Physics (UKSP: www.uksolphys.org) and Magnetosphere Ionosphere Solar Terrestrial (MIST: www.mist.ac.uk) meetings. NAM 2013 is principally sponsored by the RAS, STFC and the University of St Andrews and will form part of the ongoing programme to celebrate the University’s 600th anniversary.

Meeting arrangements and a full and up to date schedule of the scientific programme can be found on the official website at www.nam2013.co.uk