Monday, April 04, 2011

Speaking of complex systems

Caleb Scharf discusses possibilities for earth's climate 4 billion years ago.
Understanding the climate and overall environment of the very young Earth continues to be an extremely tricky business. Previous posts on several issues (I, II) surrounding the so-called Faint Young Sun paradox have discussed some of the sticking points. In a nutshell; 4 billion years ago the Sun was about 30% fainter than it is today, a direct consequence of the fundamentals of stellar evolution. So the puzzle is that as far as we can tell the surface environment harbored liquid water, yet today's atmospheric composition would have resulted in a vastly colder climate. Boosts to greenhouse gases might solve the problem, but it remains at the hairy edge of plausibility.

Now a new study by Court and Sephton casts an even murkier pall over the problem, literally. We have high confidence (from the record of lunar cratering, as well as the orbital evolution of the outer planets) that some 4.1 to 3.8 billion years ago the Earth was subjected to period of sustained impact over about 100 million years by asteroidal-type material. The so-called Late Heavy Bombardment (LHB) was quite a pounding. It likely provided the major constituents of the juvenile Earth's outer layers. Court and Sephton have studied the effect of the sand-grain sized components of material that may have poured into the Earth's atmosphere as micrometeorites during this era. Atmospheric friction as these tiny particles raced into the upper atmosphere produces high temperatures and the grains ablate, releasing sulfur dioxide - among other gases.

Sulfur dioxide is great for making particulates in a planetary atmosphere. This increases reflectivity, and can dramatically lower the solar radiation reaching the surface. Net result; planet cools. During the LHB roughly 20 million tonnes of sulfur dioxide a year may have been dumped into the atmosphere by this flux of tiny meteorites. That's equivalent to having a massive volcano erupt into the stratosphere every year for a hundred million years. The problem of keeping the Earth warm is greatly exacerbated. Court and Sephton also point out that Mars would have received a significant flux of these sulfur-bearing micrometeorites, seemingly creating an even bigger problem for an early temperate martian climate.

There are still a lot of questions. Was the sulfur content of these particles really as high as claimed? Do we really know the rate at which such tiny grains hit the Earth? Could the atmospheric chemistry of the young Earth have mitigated the production of sulfate aerosols?

Understanding what happened on the young Earth is a major issue. It seems for every solution to keeping the planetary surface warm there is an opposing mechanism that will plunge it into deep freeze. Yet the evidence remains for the presence of substantial liquid surface water during at least the tail end of the LHB and likely much earlier. Clearly somewhere we're missing a piece of the equation, or perhaps several pieces. Being able to study the deep geological history of Mars could help enormously, since it would allow us to separate out some of the planet-specific mechanisms at play. It may also be time to think a little more radically. Putting aside the mineralogical evidence for an early aqueous environment then perhaps a deep-frozen young Earth offers some advantage for the subsequently rapid emergence of life?

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