International Journal of Astrobiology

Research Article

Swansong biospheres: refuges for life and novel microbial biospheres on terrestrial planets near the end of their habitable lifetimes

Jack T. O'Malley-Jamesa1 c1, Jane S. Greavesa1, John A. Ravena2 and Charles S. Cockella3

a1 School of Physics and Astronomy, University of St Andrews, North Haugh, St Andrews, Fife, UK

a2 Division of Plant Sciences, University of Dundee at The James Hutton Institute, Invergowrie, Dundee, UK

a3 UK Centre for Astrobiology, School of Physics and Astronomy, James Clerk Maxwell Building, The King's Buildings, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK

Abstract

The future biosphere on Earth (as with its past) will be made up predominantly of unicellular micro-organisms. Unicellular life was probably present for at least 2.5 Gyr before multicellular life appeared and will likely be the only form of life capable of surviving on the planet in the far future, when the ageing Sun causes environmental conditions to become more hostile to more complex forms of life. Therefore, it is statistically more likely that habitable Earth-like exoplanets we discover will be at a stage in their habitable lifetime more conducive to supporting unicellular, rather than multicellular life. The end stage of habitability on Earth is the focus of this work. A simple, latitude-based climate model incorporating eccentricity and obliquity variations is used as a guide to the temperature evolution of the Earth over the next 3 Gyr. This allows inferences to be made about potential refuges for life, particularly in mountains and cold-trap (ice) caves and what forms of life could live in these environments. Results suggest that in high latitude regions, unicellular life could persist for up to 2.8 Gyr from present. This begins to answer the question of how the habitability of Earth will evolve at local scales alongside the Sun's main sequence evolution and, by extension, how the habitability of Earth-like planets would evolve over time with their own host stars.

(Received August 07 2012)

(Accepted October 17 2012)

(Online publication November 27 2012)

Key words

  • Biosignatures;
  • Climate;
  • Earth;
  • Exoplanets;
  • Habitability;
  • Solar evolution

Correspondence

c1 e-mail: jto5@st-andrews.ac.uk