Snowball and Greenhouse Atmospheres Around Other Stars

Earth’s climate has been shown by a wide range of climate models to be bistable, which means that it can exist in both a frozen state or a warm, ice-free state with the same amount of solar energy. Earth today resides in a warm state with small ice caps, but geologic evidence suggests that the Neoproterozoic Earth, about 500 Myr ago, may have been frozen all the way down to the equator.

Other terrestrial planets orbiting other stars should behave similarly, although the transition point between climate states may differ for stars that are brighter and dimmer than the sun. In a recent paper published in The Astrophysical Journal, titled “Constraints on climate and habitability for Earth-like exoplanets determined from a general circulation model,” my co-authors and I analyze three-dimensional climate simulations of planets orbiting a range of stars. We show that planets can exist around such stars as a frozen snowball, partial melt with an equatorial waterbelt, temperature conditions everywhere, and a hothouse with gradual water loss. Stars slightly cooler than the sun could maintain habitable conditions for longer periods of time, due to the slower rate of water loss.

Why do we live around a yellow star?

Red dwarf stars outnumber yellow dwarf stars like our sun by over a factor of ten. Observations of exoplanets have also shown that rocky, and potentially habitable, planets are just as common around red dwarfs as yellow dwarfs. But if these much smaller stars are more commonplace, then why do we find ourselves around a yellow star like the sun, instead of a red dwarf?

My co-authors and I attempt to address this question of selection bias in a recent paper titled “Why do we find ourselves around a yellow star instead of a red star?” and published in International Journal of Astrobiology. We take a statistical approach to thinking about the region around all stars where life is most likely to develop. The liquid water habitable zone provides the best observational constraint on where we would expect to find planets that could support conscious observers like us, and this study examines the probability of finding oneself on a planet in the habitable zone of a yellow dwarf star, compared to a red dwarf. The results show that even though red dwarfs are much more numerous, they have a narrower habitable zone than yellow dwarfs, so our existence around a star like the sun is actually to be expected.

This study also considers that red dwarf stars will be even more numerous in the distant future of the universe, due to their much longer lifetimes than other stars. If these red dwarf stars will eventually become the predominant place for conscious observers to develop, then why do we not instead find ourselves around a red dwarf star billions or trillions of years into the future? The statistics for this aspect of the problem suggest that our existence around a yellow dwarf star today, compared to a red dwarf star in the future, might be a slight statistical anomaly—perhaps on the order of finding oneself born ambidextrous or with perfect pitch. But this statistical unlikelihood might also suggest that life is wholly impossibly around red dwarf stars, or else any type of conscious observers that do develop around such stars will be drastically different from our type of conscious life.

Climate Cycles Complicate Habitability

The outer edge of the habitable zone is traditionally defined as the outermost orbital distance at which a planet could sustain liquid water on its surface. At this distance orbit, Earth-like planets with plate tectonics (or a similar process for recycling volatiles) should build up dense carbon dioxide atmospheres that help offset the reduction in starlight. Carbon dioxide released from volcanoes provides additional greenhouse warming, although rainwater dissolves some of this. The amount of carbonic acid that dissolves in rainwater and reaches the ground depends upon the temperature: the colder it gets, the less carbon dioxide gets rained out of the atmosphere. This feedback is part of the carbonate-silicate cycle, which regulates an Earth-like planet’s carbon dioxide over geologic (million year) time scales.

In a recent paper published in The Astrophysical Journal, titled “Limit cycles can reduce the width of the habitable zone,” my co-authors and I examine the propensity of this carbonate-silicate cycle to cause a planet to oscillate between completely frozen and completely ice-free climate states. We update a simplified climate model to account for the increase in weathering that occurs as a planet builds up a dense carbon dioxide atmosphere. Beginning with a planet in completely ice-covered conditions, we allow volcanic outgassing of carbon dioxide to continue until the planet melts from the enhanced greenhouse effect. However, under certain conditions, the planet will then start to rain out and weather the atmospheric carbon dioxide at such a fast rate that the greenhouse effect decreases and the planet again plummets into global glaciation.

This type of climate cycle between glacial and ice-free states is not likely to occur on Earth today, but such cycles might have been possible on early Earth during the Hadean eon. Extrasolar planets may also be prone to this type of climate cycling, although predicting whether or not this should occur depends upon knowing a planet’s volcanic outgassing rate. Our climate calculations place boundaries on the conditions under which we should expect such climate cycles to occur for Earth-like planets orbiting a range of different stars.

How Habitable are Planets Orbiting Red Dwarfs?

Planets in the habitable zone of low-mass, cool stars are expected to be in synchronous rotation, where one side of the planet always faces the host star (the substellar point) and the other side experiences perpetual night (the anti-stellar point). Previous studies using three-dimensional climate models have shown that slowly rotating plants orbiting these low-mass stars should develop thick water clouds form at substellar point, at the point at which the star is directly overhead, which should increase the reflectivity, and thus stabilize the planet against increased warming at the inner edge of the habitable zone.

However these studies did not use self-consistent orbital and rotational periods for synchronously rotating planets placed at different distances from the host star, which are a requirement from Kepler’s laws of motion. We address this issue in a new study led by Dr. Ravi Kopparapu, on which I am a co-author, titled “The inner edge of the habitable zone for synchronously rotating planets around low-mass stars using general circulation models.” In this study, we use correct relations between orbital and rotational periods to show that the inner edge of the habitable zone around low mass, cool stars is not as close as the estimates from previous studies. We also discuss how the stellar composition, or ‘metallicity,’ can affect the orbital distance of the habitable zone.