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Small red stars, known by astronomers as “M-dwarfs”, are the most abundant type of star in the sky and are also the most long-lived of all stars. This means there are plenty nearby of M-dwarfs to search for possible habitable planets, and many current and planned exoplanet surveys emphasize the search for potential worlds orbiting within the habitable zone of these low-mass stars. Astrobiologists often use the term “habitability” to indicate a planet’s ability to sustain liquid water on its surface, thereby providing conditions where life might be able to develop and thrive. The corresponding “habitable zone” describes the range of orbital distances that can support these clement conditions and not lose the water to a rapid runaway greenhouse (from too close an orbit) or a cool condensing atmosphere (from too far an orbit).

The problem with planets orbiting M-dwarfs is that they are prone to fall into “synchronous rotation” so that one side of the planet always faces the star, while the other side remains in perpetual darkness. Synchronous rotation can occur as a result of tidal forces from gravitational interactions between two orbiting bodies (Earth’s moon is an example of an object in synchronous rotation, so that we only ever see one side from the ground). For a planet orbiting an M-dwarf, the “sub-stellar point” beneath a constant stream of starlight is ceaselessly warmed, while the opposing “anti-stellar point” receives no starlight at all and resides in total darkness. One potential problem is that the atmosphere may condense into large ice caps on the frigid night side of these planets, which could result in total atmosphere collapse and the loss of habitable conditions.

Fortunately, the large-scale motions of the atmosphere help to redistribute this energy and, in many studies with climate models, can help avoid this atmospheric freeze-out. In a paper published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, my co-author and I use a three-dimensional computer climate model to examine the role of geothermal heating on planets orbiting M-dwarfs. Geothermal heating is another consequence of tidal forces from a close orbit, and this additional surface warming can help to amplify the asymmetric distribution of energy transport toward the night side of the planet. This can help to induce the melting of ice near the anti-stellar point and create additional habitable area surrounding the night-time hemisphere.

We also examine the large-scale dynamical circulations on these synchronous rotating planets in comparison to the general circulation patterns on Earth. We demonstrate that the direction of of the meridional (i.e. north-south) circulation changes directions from one side of the sub-stellar point to the other. That is, a global average of the meridional circulation provides an incomplete picture of the large-scale dynamics because the eastern and western hemispheres each show strong motion but in opposite directions that cancel when summed together. Additionally, we examine the presence of a cross-polar circulation that transports energy and mass from the sub-stellar to anti-stellar point across the northern and southern poles. This also contributes toward maintaining climate stability and avoiding atmospheric freeze-out with a circulation pattern atypical of those observed on Earth.

Our study emphasizes the need for careful analysis when considering how the atmospheric dynamics of a synchronously rotating terrestrial planet may differ from our own. The study of Earth-like exoplanets must begin with analogies to observations on Earth, and studies like ours help to apply Earth system models toward more general planetary system. As research into planetary habitability continues, through theory as well as observations, we will indeed continue to observe how even basic physical principles can manifest in very different ways on these alien worlds.

Geologic records over the past million years indicate cycles in the extent of Earth’s surface covered by ice. These ice age cycles are a result of variations in Earth’s orbital geometry, but it is unclear how these variations will continue in the presence of significant human emissions. In a paper published in the Journal of Advances in Modeling Earth Systems, I develop a simple climate model to demonstrate the potential for human-induced climate change to damp out variations in ice coverage, which suggests that human actions today could have long-lasting impacts into the future.

Long-term patterns in Earth’s climate show glacial cycles that correspond to variations in Earth’s orbital geometry and affect the overall amount of sunlight that the planet receives. Known as “Milankovitch cycles”, these variations are observed in geologic reconstructions of temperature and isotopes to show periodic changes every 23,000, 41,000 and 100,000 years. The first two of these correspond directly to changes in Earth’s tilt (i.e. obliquity) and wobble (i.e. precession), but the longer 100,000 year variations in orbit seem too weak in magnitude to drive the strong climate signals we observe.

One solution to this problem is that the climate system itself amplifies these small changes to create more noticeable periodic signals. These amplification mechanisms could be the large thermal intertia of the oceans, the vast energy required to move giant ice sheets, or long-term cycles in greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane. Any combination of mechanisms such as these could magnify small changes in sunlight from Milankovitch cycles and create the dominant 100,000 year cycle in ice coverage seen in the geologic record.

Studying this problem has proven to be challenging because of the long time scales involved. Most contemporary climate models are focused on patterns of climate on Earth today and in the near future of a few hundred years from now, but few modelers have focused their attention on the more distant future of climate. In my paper I develop a simple climate model that uses stochastic (i.e. randomly generated) forcing to achieve a state of resonance that displays a 100,000 year cycle in ice coverage. The model is an idealization of the more complicated Earth system and provides a tool for exploring the behavior of climate over these long time scales.

Calculations with this model show that the influence of human emissions into the atmosphere can affect the presence of the ice age cycles, either by damping the magnitude of changes or by ceasing the cycles altogether. The simplified calculations here cannot predict exactly when this should occur, but this study points toward the existence of a threshold beyond which ice age cycles may cease as a result of human emissions.

The future of Earth’s climate is becoming increasingly marked by the presence of human activity. Depending on the course of events over the next few hundred years, we may find that the damping or cessation of ice age cycles is yet another indicator of the dawning of the age of the anthropocene.

If geoengineering by injection of aerosol particles into the stratosphere is deployed, then the occurrence of a global catastrophe could cause intermittency in geoengineering and lead to total damages far greater than if either situation occurred in isolation. While the outcomes of the double catastrophe are difficult to predict, plausible worst-case scenarios include human extinction. In a paper published this month in the journal Environment Systems & Decisions, on which I am a co-author, we develop this double catastrophe scenario, which strengthens arguments for greenhouse gas emissions reductions and demonstrates the value of integrative, systems-based global catastrophic risk analysis.

Global catastrophic risks are risks of events that would significantly harm or even destroy humanity at the global scale, such as climate change, nuclear war, and pandemics. To date, most research on global catastrophes analyzes one risk at a time. A better approach uses systems analysis to capture the many important interactions between risks. This paper analyzes a global catastrophe scenario involving climate change, geoengineering, and another catastrophe. We call the scenario “double catastrophe”.

The rising temperatures of global climate change pose great risks to humanity and ecosystems. Climate change can be slowed by reducing emissions of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane. But humanity has been struggling to reduce emissions. One alternative is geoengineering, the intentional manipulation of Earth systems. The most promising geoengineering option may be stratospheric geoengineering, in which aerosol particles are put into the stratosphere. The particles block sunlight, lowering temperatures on Earth’s surface.

One problem with stratospheric geoengineering, known as intermittency, is that the particles must be continuously replaced in the stratosphere. If they’re not, then in a few years they fall out, and temperatures rapidly rise back to where they would have been without the geoengineering. The rapid temperature increase would be very damaging to society. Because of this, society is unlikely to let intermittency occur–unless some other catastrophe occurs, knocking out society’s ability to continue the geoengineering. Then, the rapid temperature increase hits a population already vulnerable from the initial catastrophe. This double catastrophe could be a major global catastrophe.

Because of how damaging global catastrophes would be to human civilization, decision making is often oriented towards minimizing the risk of global catastrophe. Stratospheric geoengineering can prevent global catastrophe from climate change alone, but it can also lead to global catastrophe from the double catastrophe scenario. If global catastrophe is more likely from climate change alone, then society should decide to implement stratospheric geoengineering. Otherwise, society is better off without stratospheric geoengineering. This assumes (among other things) that the goal should be minimizing global catastrophic risk and that stratospheric geoengineering is the best form of geoengineering.

Shape of the Tropopause

Earth’s atmosphere includes several distinct layers that can be identified from one another by differences in temperature, chemical composition, density, and other properties. Most of Earth’s weather occurs in the lower layer of the troposphere, with the layer of the stratosphere residing above. The boundary between these two layers is known as the tropopause and shows variation at different latitudes on Earth. A characteristic tropopause shape shows low heights near the poles, high heights near the equator, and a significant jump (or discontinuity) at about 30 degrees latitude. This variation in tropopause height contributes to variations in weather and climate at different latitudes.

We propose an explanation for the shape of the tropopause in our paper published in Journal of the Atmospheric Sciences. Using a computer climate model (a three-dimensional general circulation model), we create a series of climate states that systematically isolate contributions such as moisture or large-scale weather systems. Although differences in moisture have often been cited as the reason for tropopause variation with latitude, we find that large-scale weather systems (known as eddies in fluid dynamics) alone are necessary to create the characteristic tropopause shape. This leads us to suggest that circulation patterns in the stratosphere may actually be a significant contributor to the troposphere. Or to put it another way: weather patterns on the surface of Earth are significantly influenced by processes in the atmospheric layers above.

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