Study shows oceans vital for possibility for alien life

Jul 20, 2014

Researchers at the University of East Anglia have made an important step in the race to discover whether other planets could develop and sustain life.

New research published today in the journal Astrobiology shows the vital role of oceans in moderating climate on Earth-like planets.

Until now, computer simulations of habitable climates on Earth-like planets have focused on their atmospheres. But the presence of oceans is vital for optimal climate stability and habitability.

The research team from UEA's schools of Maths and Environmental Sciences created a computer simulated pattern of circulation on a hypothetical ocean-covered Earth-like planet. They looked at how different planetary rotation rates would impact heat transport with the presence of oceans taken into account.

Prof David Stevens from UEA's school of Maths said: "The number of planets being discovered outside our solar system is rapidly increasing. This research will help answer whether or not these planets could sustain alien life.

"We know that many planets are completely uninhabitable because they are either too close or too far from their sun. A planet's is based on its distance from the sun and temperatures at which it is possible for the planet to have liquid water.

"But until now, most habitability models have neglected the impact of oceans on climate.

"Oceans have an immense capacity to control climate. They are beneficial because they cause the surface temperature to respond very slowly to seasonal changes in solar heating. And they help ensure that temperature swings across a planet are kept to tolerable levels.

"We found that heat transported by oceans would have a major impact on the temperature distribution across a planet, and would potentially allow a greater area of a planet to be habitable.

"Mars for example is in the sun's habitable zone, but it has no oceans – causing air temperatures to swing over a range of 100OC. Oceans help to make a planet's climate more stable so factoring them into is vital for knowing whether the planet could develop and sustain life.

"This new model will help us to understand what the climates of other might be like with more accurate detail than ever before."

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More information: 'The Importance of Planetary Rotation Period for Ocean Heat Transport' is published in the journal Astrobiology on Monday, July 21, 2014.

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5 / 5 (1) Jul 21, 2014
A planet's habitable zone is based on its distance from the sun and temperatures at which it is possible for the planet to have liquid water.

Most planets start out as molten balls of slag (and planets the size of Earth or larger are still mostly that billions of years later - with a miniscule crust on top) I think the argument that "solar warmth/energy is needed" is false. Go down deep enough and you get the right temperature.

We've found life deep in rocks that lives off of radioactive decay. Given that such life is possible the position of the planet relative to its sun seems inconsequential when considering whether alien life can exist on any planet or not.
5 / 5 (1) Jul 21, 2014
A valid point & may thus apply locally to Mars & Europa, the former re internal heat, the latter where gravitational dynamics from Jupiter provide heat. Radiation may be an issue however, though the crust may be thick enough & with millennia of dust and rock impacts accumulated offering some shielding to protect to some degree the watery depths beneath.

Of all the planets and exploration options re environments & biochemistry Europa should likely be only second to Mars in such pursuit. the world as a whole and the technical community could be well galvanised for such a mega-project, the scope of which should not be that much more than the effort into the ISS now that we have advanced in respect of material understanding and at a time of record low interest rates.

What would it take to progress this on a global scale especially so given the sort of war like idiocy we are still seeing...
5 / 5 (2) Jul 21, 2014
What would it take to progress this on a global scale especially so given the sort of war like idiocy we are still seeing...

The formula that brought us the Apollo moon landing worked, albeit briefly. Maybe China can be convinced to set its sights on Europa. Competition, a scaled down version of that war-like idiocy, seems to be key.

It would be interesting to compare the projected cost of a Europa mission to that of an instance of the Olympics, aggregate for all the participating counties.
5 / 5 (2) Jul 21, 2014
@antialias: "I think the argument that "solar warmth/energy is needed" is false. Go down deep enough and you get the right temperature."

It is correct as regards the radiative habitable zone discussed, which applies for oceans to boot. There are also the tidal habitable zone and, yes, planets that are habitable outside the habitable zone due to residual heat and/or recent drift there.

Mind, the radiative & tidal HZs are more likely to result in life emergence at a guess.

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