Harsh environments ok for planets… not for life

by | December 13, 2023, 12:10 PM | Earth Science, Solar Systems

Artist’s impression of the massive star-forming region, with the planet-forming disk XUE-1 in the foreground. The region is drenched in UV light from massive stars, one of which is visible in the top left corner. The structure near the disk represents the molecules and the dust found by the researchers in their new observations. Credit: Maria Cristina Fortuna

It’s important to remember that we live in an evolving universe. We are experiencing just one moment in time when things are as we see them. Earlier in time and later, everything will change. That is the way of a dynamic universe.

Not all times and places are the same, and one of the tricks to modern planetary science is trying to sort out which terrible places are capable of forming and supporting the requirements for life. 

On the positive side of things, new observations by the JWST have demonstrated that healthy planetary systems can form around sunlike stars in star-forming regions shared with massive, ultraviolet-blasting, young stars. These results, for the planet-forming disk XUE-1, expand the number of places where planets can successfully form.

On the negative side of things, we are learning that once habitable worlds can very quickly become inhospitable to life. And the world we’re studying is our own.

New research appearing in Nature Communications and led by Jennifer Vanos looks at the survivability of regions where temperatures are starting to and will continue to hit 50 degrees Celsius and hotter. For those of you used to Fahrenheit, that’s 122F.

In the past year, we’ve seen temperatures creep into the 130s, and in the heat islands of big cities, there is just nowhere to cool off. At temperatures this high, dehydration isn’t your only fear. Meat will cook, and we are meat. A rare steak has a core temperature of just 120-125 degrees Fahrenheit!

So far, concerns about climate change have largely focused on rising water levels and loss of ecosystems. This paper makes it clear that we need to go a step further and discuss survivability. As team researcher Ollie Jay puts it, “If we start using a more realistic, human-based model [for evaluating climate outcomes], the impacts are going to be more severe. They’re going to be more widespread and they’re going to happen sooner than we are projecting.” 

As Vanos explains, “As we move forward in extreme heat conditions, we need to give people the tools they need to make the unsurvivable days survivable.”

This is your reminder: Earth science is planetary science, and as much as we might want to look away to the stars, we need to sometimes look at the world around us. 

And then look at the stars…