Can a supernova affect the Earth System?

By Steve Drury PUBLISHED ON August 21, 2020

The easy answer is yes, simply because chemical elements with a greater relative atomic mass than that of iron are thought to be created in supernovae when dying giant stars collapse under their own gravity and then explode. Interstellar dust and gas clouds accumulate their debris. If the clouds are sufficiently dense gravity forms clumps that may become new stars and the planets that surround them. Matter from every once-nearby supernova enters these clouds and thus contributes to the formation of a planet.

This was partly proven when pre-solar grains were found in the Murchison meteorite, some of which are as old as 7.5 billion years (Ga) – 3 Ga older than the Solar System (see: Mineral grains far older than the Solar System; January 15, 2020). Murchison is a carbonaceous chondrite, a class of meteorite which likely contributed lots of carbon-based compounds to the early Earth, setting the stage for the emergence of life.

It has been estimated that a near-Earth supernova (closer than 1000 light years) would have noticeable effects on the biosphere, mainly because of the effects on atmospheric composition of the associated high-energy gamma-ray burst. That would create sufficient nitrogen oxides to destroy the ozone layer that shields the surface from harmful radiation.

There are reckoned to have been 20 nearby supernovae during the last 10 Ma or so from the presence of anomalously high levels of the isotope 60Fe in marine sediment layers on the Pacific floor. Yet there is no convincing evidence that they coincided with detectable extinctions in the fossil record. But supernovae have been suggested as a possible cause of more ancient mass extinctions, such as that at the end of the Ordovician Period (but see: The late-Ordovician mass extinction: volcanic connections; July 2017).

The Late Devonian is generally accepted to be one of the ‘Big Five’ mass extinction events. However, unlike the others, the event was a protracted decline in biodiversity, with several extinction peaks). In particular it marked the end of Palaeozoic reef-building corals.

Diorama of an Early Devonian reef with tabulate and rugose corals and trilobites (Credit: Richard Bizley)

Some have put down the episodic faunal decline to the effects of species moving from one marine basin to another as global sea levels fluctuated: much like the effects of the ‘invasion’ of the coral-eating Crown of Thorns sea urchin that has helped devastate parts of the Great Barrier Reef during present-day global warming (see: Late Devonian: mass extinction or mass invasion? January 2012).

[See also Predator Loss & Climate Change – A Lethal Combination for more on today’s reef loss in Alaska. Eds comment]

Recently, attention has switched to evidence for ultra-violet damage to the morphology of spores found in the strata that display faunal extinction; i.e. to the possibility of the ozone layer having been lost or severely depleted. One suggestion has been sudden peaks in volcanic activity, hinted at by spikes in the abundance of mercury of marine sediments. Brian Fields of the University of Illinois, with colleagues from the USA, UK, Estonia and Switzerland, have closely examined the possibility and the testability of a supernova’s influence (Fields. B.D. et al. 2020.  Supernova triggers for end-Devonian extinctionsProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, v. 117, article 202013774; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2013774117).

They propose the deployment of mass-spectrometric analysis for anomalous stable-isotope abundances in the sediments that contain faunal evidence for accelerated extinction, particularly those of 146Sm, 235U and the long-lived plutonium isotope 244Pu (80 Ma hal-life). They suggest that the separation of the extinction into several events, may be a clue to a supernova culprit. A gamma-ray burst would arrive at light speed, but dust – containing the detectable isotopes –  although likely to be travelling very quickly would arrive hundred to thousands of years later, depending on the distance to the supernova.

Cosmic rays generated by the supernova, also a possible kill mechanism, given a severely depleted ozone layer, travel about half the speed of light. Three separate arrivals for the products of a single stellar explosion are indeed handy as an explanation for the Late Devonian extinctions. But someone needs to do the analyses. The long-lived  plutonium isotope is the best candidate: even detection of a few atoms in a sample would be sufficient proof. But that would require a means of ruling out contamination by anthropogenic plutonium, such as analysing the interior of fossils. But would even such an exotic discovery prove the sole influence of a galactic even?

If you’d like to read more of Steve’s blog…..

Many thanks to Steve Drury for permission to republish his article in The Orkney News and to Bernie Bell for sending it in.

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