Where Will Doomed Earth's Last Organisms Live?
Artist’s conception of the view of a hypothetical planet around a distant red giant star. Our sun is expected to swell in a few billion years to first fry Earth then engulf it. CREDIT: James Gitlin (STScI)
Billions of years from now, life on Earth will be extinguished when the
dying sun scorches the surface of our planet. New research has aimed to
determine what the last life forms on Earth will be, and what kind of
abodes they will cling to before the Earth becomes sterilized.
We are fortunate that our planet orbits a star that has a long main-sequence lifetime.
However, the sun’s luminosity is gradually increasing, and in about one
billion years the effects of this will start to be felt on Earth.
Surface temperatures will start to creep relentlessly upwards over
the next few billion years, which will increase the amount of water
vapor in the air. This will act to further increase temperatures and
will thus signify the beginning of the end for life on Earth.
The rising temperatures will cause excessive amounts of rain and wind,
and thus increase the weathering of silicate rocks, which will suck
extra carbon from the atmosphere. (Top 10 Ways to Destroy Earth)
Ordinarily, the carbon is replaced via plate tectonics in the
carbon-silicate cycle as it is released in volcanic gases. However, the
oceans will start to evaporate as the temperatures continue to rise,
which will probably put a stop to plate tectonics as
scientists believe that water is an essential lubricant for the motion
of tectonic plates on Earth. This will deplete the number of active
volcanoes, and the carbon will not be replenished in the atmosphere.
The lack of carbon dioxide will effectively choke plant life on Earth,
since plants require atmospheric CO2 for their respiration. The death of
oxygen-producing plants will in turn lead to less oxygen in the
atmosphere over a few million years. This will spell disaster for the
remaining animal life on Earth, with mammals and birds being the first
to become extinct. Fish, amphibians and reptiles would survive a little longer, as they need less oxygen and have a greater tolerance to heat.
The last type of animal present on the far-future Earth would likely be
invertebrates. Once the insects finally succumb to the increasing
temperatures, the Earth will once again be solely populated by microbial
life, just as it had been for the first few billion years of our
planet’s history. The last lingering life will desperately seek out
niches of the planet that are still habitable, but even extremophile forms of life will find this to be a challenge.
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A habitable niche in an inhospitable world
As the Earth’s oceans evaporate, the few remaining pools of water could
provide a last refuge for some microbes. The present average depth of
the oceans is 2.5 miles (4 kilometers), but this extends to 6.8 (11 km)
in the Mariana Trench, which is the deepest known ocean trench.
Trenches carved in the sea bed could be among the last places to harbor
liquid water, with the looming walls offering some source of shade from
the unforgiving sun. However, this potential haven is not quite as
inviting as it may first seem. Air moving into the trench will become
compressed as it sinks lower, and this pressure will greatly increase
the air temperature above the water.
“By the time we get to the point where there’s a trench with a small
pool of water at the bottom, a large mass of ocean water would have
evaporated, so surface temperatures on the planet would be rapidly
increasing,” said Jack O’Malley-James of the University of St. Andrews,
and lead author of the new study. “Therefore, water at the bottom of a
trench wouldn’t remain cool enough for long enough to make a good refuge
Another potential haven for the last microbial life on Earth could be in underground caves. Microbes have been found living in caves on
the present-day Earth without any need for sunlight. Most caves in the
far-future Earth would not be suitable for life, as temperatures
increase with depth. However, caves that have large chambers below a
narrow entrance might be colder, as the dense cold air is sucked in, but
lighter warmer air is barricaded out.
Ice caves could be a final abode for microbial life in a far-future Earth with horrendous surface temperatures. CREDIT: Einreisenwelt
Such caves are formed from collapsed lava tubes,
and the cold air in the caves will cause in-falling snow to compact
into ice during the winter, as well as freeze any incoming water. When
the outside temperature climbs again, the cold air is still trapped
within the cave, along with the ice. However, the ice will melt
eventually as heat is conducted through the walls of the cave, so it
must be continually replaced and therefore some source of water would
still be necessary on the far-future Earth for such a cave to retain its
Life could also exist in subsurface environments other than ice caves.
Microbial life today has been found at depths of 3.3 miles (5.3 km)
below the Earth’s surface. The increase of temperature with depth is
around 86 degrees Fahrenheit (48 degrees Celsius) per mile (1.6 km);
however, the exact increase depends on the type of rock. Such a
subsurface refuge could be one of the last to contain life on Earth.
At the other end of the scale, temperatures will decrease by around
18.9 degrees Fahrenheit (10.5 degrees Celsius) per mile above the
Earth’s surface. This is because the surface of the Earth re-radiates
heat that has been received from the sun, thus heating the lower
The lower temperatures at high altitude would encourage microbial life
on the far-future Earth to reach for the skies and seek refuge in the
last remaining lakes in the mountains in an attempt to escape the heat.
However, as tectonic plates cease to crash into each other, there will
no longer be a force to drive mountains upwards. Instead, the mountains
will succumb to weathering and eventually there will be fewer regions of
high altitude on the planet.
The remaining high-altitude regions would likely be comprised of
volcanoes, as convection of molten rock in the mantle of the Earth will
still occur even after the cessation of plate movement. The lack of
plate tectonics will allow these “hot spot” volcanoes to reach heights
that are currently impossible to achieve today.
“Sites around active volcanoes on Earth today host life, so living near
an active volcano shouldn’t be a challenge for extremophilic
microorganisms,” said O’Malley-James. “It’s likely that volcanic
activity would decline as the planet cools, but it may not stop
completely during the time period in which planet is still habitable.”
Isolated pools from the remnants of the ocean will have high salt
concentrations, meaning that bacterial life would have to withstand high
saline as well as high temperatures.
Such microbes are called thermohalophiles, and they exist today in such
conditions around hydrothermal vents. Microbes on the far-future Earth
would also have to contend with being bombarded with high doses of
ultraviolet radiation, as the ozone layer would have been stripped away
when the oxygen in the atmosphere diminished. (Wipe Out: History’s Most Mysterious Extinctions)
Biosignatures of a dying planet
Studying what life will be like on Earth at the end of the habitable
era helps scientists narrow down what kind of biosignatures might exist
on Earth-like exoplanets orbiting aging stars near the end of their main sequence. So what kind of biosignatures would the last life on Earth exhibit?
Thermohalophiles, such as those found at volcanoes in Chile’s Atacama
Desert, use carbon monoxide to obtain energy, and the by-products of
their metabolic processes include carbon dioxide, hydrogen, and ethanol.
Carbon dioxide could be seen as an indicator of life, considering that
the carbon dioxide inherent to the planet would have been severely
reduced million of years previously. Carbon dioxide by itself is not a
biosignature and its presence, such as on Mars, does not indicate that
life exists on a planet. However, biologically produced carbon dioxide
would cause a disequilibrium of the CO2 in the atmosphere that could
reveal the presence of microbial life.
Similarly, the biological production of hydrogen by the
thermohalophiles could create an excess of hydrogen in the atmosphere,
which could be used as an indicator of life. However, all of these
biosignatures would likely be weak, as biological productivity would be
severely diminished in a dying world. (7 Potentially Habitable Alien Planets)
Microbes can adapt to extreme conditions, such as the harsh conditions
that existed on the early Earth. The first life to appear on Earth, as
far back as 3.8 billion years ago, was unicellular life. Similarly,
microbes will be the sole occupants of the Earth during its final days as a habitable planet.
Microbial biospheres would exhibit biosignatures that are very
dissimilar to what is present on the current Earth, but whether
late-type biospheres would appear similar to early-type biospheres is
“It looks like they would be similar to the biosignatures for
early-type microbial biospheres, but the strength of the various
atmospheric signatures would be much lower for the late-type microbial
biospheres,” said O’Malley-James. “So it may be possible to distinguish
between early and late microbial biospheres purely by looking at the
strength of the various biosignature gases in the atmospheric spectra of
Future work will seek to refine what these biosignatures could be, and
ultimately search for the telltale signs of a dying habitable planet
among the Earth-like planets that have been discovered so far.
The paper has been published in the International Journal of
Astrobiology. The preprint can be found here.
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