Science

Is the earth a self-regulating organism? New study suggests our planet has built-in air conditioning

Is the earth a self-regulating organism?  New study suggests our planet has built-in air conditioning
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The Permian-Triassic extinction event, also called The great death, has definitely earned its nickname. It was the largest mass extinction in the geological record to be wiped out in between 83 and 97 percent of all species that live on earth. Although the exact cause is disputed, extremely volcanic activity that may have cooked the planet was fingered as the main culprit.

But somehow, despite being ravaged by asteroids and cosmic radiation, life on this planet has continued for almost four billion years. When our planet enters a Sixth mass extinctionFueled by a wave of human activity that has wiped out thousands of species, the question of how this works — particularly how Earth appears to recover from major catastrophes or extreme changes in atmosphere or climate — becomes even more pressing.

It turns out that the answer can sometimes be even stranger than anyone imagined. New research in the journal scientific advances suggests that the Earth can regulate its own temperature over hundreds of thousands of years. In other words, there are large-scale geological processes that appear to be absorbing carbon dioxide over vast periods of time. However, the timescales involved are far, far too long to correct for the sudden increase in carbon dioxide caused by burning fossil fuels, meaning the mechanism won’t save us from that climate change.

“You have a planet whose climate has undergone so many dramatic external changes. Why has life survived all this time?”

Constantin Arnscheidt and Daniel Rothman, two researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, processed the data from several datasets documenting global temperature over the past 66 million years. These paleoclimatic records include ice cores from Antarctica and the chemistry of prehistoric marine fossils, which can tell us much about what Earth’s atmosphere was like in the distant past.

“This whole study is only possible because there have been great strides in improving the resolution of these deep-sea temperature records,” said Arnscheidt in a expression. “Now we have data going back 66 million years, with data points being at most thousands of years apart.”

The two MIT scientists found a strong pattern that suggests the Earth uses feedback loops to keep its temperatures in a range where life can thrive. However, this is happening on a timescale of hundreds of thousands of years, meaning our planet will recover from anthropogenic climate change, but not soon enough to save us.

“One argument is that we need some sort of stabilization mechanism to keep temperatures viable,” Arnscheidt said. “But it has never been proven by data that such a mechanism has consistently controlled Earth’s climate.”

The finding has major implications for our understanding of the past, but also how global warming is shaping the future of our homeworld. It even helps us better understand the evolution of planetary temperatures that the search may entail alien-inhabited exoplanets more fertile.

“You have a planet whose climate has been subject to so many dramatic external changes. Why has life survived all this time? One argument is that we need some kind of stabilization mechanism to keep temperatures suitable for life,” Arnscheidt said. “But it has never been proven by data that such a mechanism has consistently controlled Earth’s climate.”

Many scientists have suggested that the Earth has self-regulated its temperature throughout history, but this has been difficult to prove. In the 1960s, the late inventor and environmentalist James Lovelock applied Darwinian processes to the entire planet, rather than a single organism, to explain how such a complex system evolved. He called this the Gaia Hypothesiswhich explains how the Earth and its biological systems formed feedback loops that keep our planet favorable to living organisms.

It also helped explain them Faint Sun Paradoxfirst proposed by astronomers Carl Sagan and George Mullen in 1972. Essentially, our Sun was much smaller and colder 4.5 billion years ago. At that time, based on our current understanding of the life cycle of stars, the sun would have been about 30 percent dimmer than it is today. This, in turn, would have made the earth too cold for liquid water and prevented life from forming – not yet obviously that happened. How did our rocky world manage that?

The answer seems to lie in how carbon circulates through the planet. A prominent theory holds that when our planet formed, it had an atmosphere full of carbon dioxide, a potent greenhouse gas that allowed it to absorb heat even though the sun was colder.

“On one hand, it’s good because we know that today’s global warming will eventually be reversed by this stabilizing feedback. But then again, it will take hundreds of thousands of years for it to happen, so not fast enough to solve our present-day problems.”

A complex process known as silicate weathering then removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and buries it at the bottom of the ocean. Over time, this cools the planet. Then something like large volcanic eruptions or people who drive cars, pumping more carbon dioxide into the air and warming the planet again. Over the eons, the earth seems to balance between being too cold and too hot, which explains why some call the earth a Goldilocks Planet.

The MIT study is helping to correlate existing data with this long-held theory, helping us better understand our past and the consequences of unchecked climate change. And it would make sense that if these feedback loops exist on our planet, they might exist and inform other galaxies as well the hunt for extraterrestrial life.

“On the one hand, it’s good because we know that today’s global warming will eventually be canceled out by this stabilizing feedback,” said Arnscheidt. “But on the other hand, it will take hundreds of thousands of years, so not fast enough to solve our current problems.”

However, Arnscheidt’s model could not explain this equilibrium on time scales longer than a million years, so chance may also have played an oversized role in the success of life on this rock.

“There are two camps: Some say that coincidence is sufficient as an explanation, while others say there must be a stabilizing feedback,” said Arnscheidt. “We can show directly from data that the answer probably lies somewhere in between. In other words, there was some stabilization, but sheer luck also likely played a role in keeping Earth permanently habitable.”

It may have been a mix of randomness and feedback loops like silicate weathering that affected Earth’s temperature in the past. But in humanity’s future, it will be free will – our politics, our consumption, our choices – that will determine the future temperature of the planet. And we can just overwhelm these natural systems so much that they won’t be able to balance each other, much like prominent theories about potentials life on mars.

“The sun’s warming has been slow enough to support life, a process that takes millions of years. Unfortunately, the sun is now too hot for organic life to develop further on Earth,” wrote Lovelock in his 2019 book “Novacene: The Coming Age of Hyperintelligence.” “Our star’s heat output is too great for life to begin again, as it did 4 billion to 2.5 billion years ago by the simple chemicals of the Archaean period. If life is wiped out on earth, it will not begin again.”

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