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Tiny Habitable Zones for Complex Life

By Hugh Ross - March 4, 2019

Scientists’ quest to find a habitable planet like Earth continues to drive extraterrestrial research. However, new studies show that planets capable of sustaining complex life must be extremely rare. Astronomers have discovered eleven different planetary habitability zones—locations relative to the distance from the host star where life could conceivably exist. See table 1 for a list of these habitability zones.

Table 1: Known Habitable Zones
This list includes planetary habitable zones that have been discovered as of February 2019. In addition to the planetary habitable zones, scientists have identified galactic habitable zones and extragalactic habitable zones; that is, regions within a galaxy and within a galaxy cluster and supergalaxy cluster where life conceivably could exist. The citation attached to each planetary habitable zone directs readers to a definition for the zone and details on how it operates.

  1. liquid water (temperature)1
  2. ultraviolet2
  3. photosynthetic3
  4. tropospheric ozone4
  5. planet rotation rate5
  6. planet rotation axis tilt6
  7. tidal7
  8. astrosphere8
  9. atmospheric electric field9
  10. Milankovitch cycles10
  11. stellar magnetic wind11

Narrowing the Habitability Zone
The most well-known of these planetary habitable zones is the liquid water habitable zone: a planet’s distance range from its host star within which liquid water could conceivably exist somewhere on its surface. Of all the known habitable zones, the liquid water habitable zone is the widest. For life to truly exist on a planet, however, liquid water must exist on a large fraction of the planet’s surface for long periods of time. This more practical definition significantly narrows the width of the liquid water habitable zone.

Now, a research paper by five astrobiologists demonstrates that the liquid water habitable zone “for complex aerobic life is significantly limited relative to that for simple microbial life.”12 The five astrobiologists define complex aerobic life as “large (mm- to m-scale), tissue-grade aerobic heterotrophs with blood vascular (circulatory) systems.”13 This definition would include all animals possessing internal organs.

The researchers show that near the inner edge of the liquid water habitable zone (that part of the zone that is closest to the host star), clement surface temperatures for complex life can be maintained where the life-essential greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, exists in the atmosphere at concentrations similar to that of modern Earth, namely 0.0002–0.0004 bars. (A bar is a unit of atmospheric pressure. One bar is very slightly less than the average atmospheric pressure on Earth at sea level.) However, for the middle and outer parts of the liquid water habitable zone, atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations need to be much higher—higher than 1 bar.

Severe Health Consequences for Complex Life
High carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere pose catastrophic problems for complex life. Such high concentrations not only produce acidosis (low pH) in oceans, lakes, and rivers but also in aquatic animal tissues and body fluids. This acidosis is detrimental to the long-term health of all aquatic animals and to the short-term health of high-metabolic-rate aquatic animals.14

Elevated carbon dioxide levels impact air-breathing animals as well. They disrupt respiration, pH buffering, and the autoregulation of the blood supply.15 For large high-metabolic-rate animals like humans, elevated carbon dioxide levels bring on “acute reduced cognitive performance, respiratory failure, and circulatory arrest.”16

For the equivalent of human beings, carbon dioxide concentrations that are only a small fraction of a bar can be devastating. Deleterious health consequences occur at a carbon dioxide level of 0.005 bar.17 A carbon dioxide level of 0.05 bar causes serious respiratory acidosis, resulting in depression of respiration and circulation. Carbon dioxide at 0.10 bar, if sustained, causes convulsions, coma, and death.18 At 0.30 bar, loss of consciousness occurs in seconds. These consequences are for young, healthy humans. Carbon dioxide tolerance decreases with age.

Lungs surpass all other known and conceivable respiratory organs in respiratory efficiency. They function best at 1 bar of atmospheric pressure. At 3 bars they cease to function, resulting in the rapid death of the organism. Whatever greenhouse gases that a planet’s atmosphere needs to compensate for its host star’s luminosity—where the planet orbits farther out from the host star than the inner edge of the liquid water habitable zone—will raise the atmospheric pressure beyond the limit for effective lung function.

Advanced life on planets orbiting stars less massive than the Sun face a catastrophic carbon monoxide problem. Stars less massive than the Sun promote photochemical conditions that lead to relatively high levels of carbon monoxide in the atmospheres of planets orbiting them.19 Carbon monoxide is extremely toxic for organisms with circulatory systems since oxygen-carrying molecules like hemoglobin possess an affinity for carbon monoxide that is thousands of times greater than for free oxygen (O2).20

Stringent Habitability Requirements Point to Design
The team of five astrobiologists drew the following conclusions. First, complex aerobic life is ruled out for any planet that needs substantially more (50 times more) atmospheric greenhouse gases than Earth to possess liquid water on its surface. Second, conceivably habitable planets orbiting M- and K-dwarf stars (88 percent of all stars) will possess atmospheric carbon monoxide levels that will be lethal for aerobic complex life. Third, limitations on aerobic complex life by carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide explain why we find ourselves on a planet that is very near the inner edge of the liquid water habitable zone of a G-dwarf star.

One can reasonably draw two more conclusions implied by the five astrobiologists’ research paper, but not presented. First, planets capable of sustaining complex life must be exceedingly rare. Second, when one takes into account that the existence of aerobic complex life requires a planet that simultaneously resides in all eleven habitable zones, the number of planets in the universe capable of sustaining such life most probably is just one. In other words, given the enormous degree of fine-tuning needed to make a planet habitable for aerobic advanced life, that single planet cannot be a cosmic accident. Its features testify of divine design and divine love for aerobic advanced life. I leave it to readers to determine the identity of that single planet.

  1. Edward W. Schwieterman et al., “A Limited Habitable Zone for Complex Life,” eprint arXiv:1902.04720, submitted to AAS journals (February 13, 2019), https://arxiv.org/pdf/1902.04720.pdf; Kevin J. Zahnle, “Limits to Creation of Oxygen-Rich Atmospheres on Planets in the Outer Reaches of the Conventional Habitable Zone,Habitable Worlds 2017: A System Science Workshop, held November 13–17, 2017 in Laramie, Wyoming, LPI Contribution No. 2042, id. 4078; Adiv Paradise and Kristen Menou, “GCM Simulations of Unstable Climates in the Habitable Zone,” Astrophysical Journal 848, no. 1 (October 10, 2017): id. 33, doi:10.3847/1538-4357/aa8b1c; I provide a review of the scientific literature up through 2016 on the liquid water habitable zone in Improbable Planet: How Earth Became Humanity’s Home (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2016), 80–84.
  2. Midori Oishi and Hideyuki Kamaya, “A Simple Evolutional Model of the UV Habitable Zone and the Possibility of Persistent Life Existence: The Effects of Mass and Metallicity,” Astrophysical Journal 833, no. 2 (December 20, 2016): id. 293, doi:10.3847/1538-4357/833/2/293; I provide a review of the scientific literature up through 2016 on the ultraviolet habitable zone in Improbable Planet, 84–85.
  3. I provide a review of the scientific literature on the photosynthetic habitable zone in Improbable Planet, 85–86.
  4. I provide a review of the scientific literature on the photosynthetic habitable zone in Improbable Planet, 86–87.
  5. Jun Yang et al., “Strong Dependence of the Inner Edge of the Habitable Zone on Planetary Rotation Rate,” Astrophysical Journal Letters 787, no. 1 (May 20, 2014): id. L2, doi:10.1088/2041-8205/787/1/L2.
  6. Yutong Shan and Gongjie Li, “Obliquity Variations of Habitable Zone Planets Kepler-62f and Kepler-186f,” Astronomical Journal 155, no. 6 (May 17, 2018): doi:10.3847/1538-3881/aabfd1; Gregory S. Jenkins, “Global Climate Model High-Obliquity Solutions to the Ancient Climate Puzzles of the Faint-Young Sun Paradox and Low-Altitude Proterozoic Glaciation,” Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres 105, no. D6 (March 27, 2000): 7357–70, doi:10.1029/1999JD901125.
  7. I provide a review of the scientific literature on the tidal habitable zone in Improbable Planet, 88–90.
  8. Vladimir S. Airapetian, “Space Weather Affected Habitable Zones around Active Stars,AASTCS5 Radio Exploration of Planetary Habitability, Proceedings of the Conference, May 7–12, 2017 in Palm Springs, CA, published in the Bulletin of the American Astronomical Society 49, no. 3, id. 101.05; I provide a review of the scientific literature on the astrosphere habitable zone in Improbable Planet, 90–91.
  9. Glyn A. Collinson et al., “The Electric Wind of Venus: A Global and Persistent ‘Polar Wind’-Like Ambipolar Electric Field Sufficient for the Direct Escape of Heavy Ionospheric Ions,” Geophysical Research Letters 43, no. 12 (June 28, 2016): 5926–34, doi:10.1002/2016GL068327; Glyn Collinson et al., “Electric Mars: The First Direct Measurement of an Upper Limit for the Martian ‘Polar Wind’ Electric Potential,” Geophysical Research Letters 42, no. 21 (November 16, 2015): 9128–34, doi:10.1002/2015GL065084; Hugh Ross, “‘Electric Wind’ Becomes 9th Habitable Zone,” Today’s New Reason to Believe (blog), Reasons to Believe, July 4, 2016, https://www.reasons.org/explore/blogs/todays-new-reason-to-believe/read/todays-new-reason-to-believe/2016/07/04/electric-wind-becomes-9th-habitable-zone.
  10. Russell Deitrick et al., “Exo-Milankovitch Cycles. I. Orbits and Rotation States,” Astronomical Journal 155, no. 2 (January 16, 2018): id. 60, doi:10.3847/1538-3881/aaa301; Russell Deitrick et al., “Exo-Milankovitch Cycles. II. Climates of G-Dwarf Planets in Dynamically Hot Systems,” Astronomical Journal 155, no. 6 (June 4, 2018): id. 266, doi:10.3847/1538-3881/aac214; Hugh Ross, “Exoplanets’ Climate Instabilities Reveal Earth’s Fine-Tuning,” Today’s New Reason to Believe (blog), Reasons to Believe, July 30, 2018, https://www.reasons.org/explore/blogs/todays-new-reason-to-believe/read/todays-new-reason-to-believe/2018/07/30/exoplanets-climate-instabilities-reveal-earth-s-fine-tuning.
  11. Vladimir S. Airapetian et al., “Space Weather Affected Habitable Zones,” Habitable Worlds 2017, id. 4076; Vladimir S. Airapetian et al., “How Hospitable Are Space Weather Affected Habitable Zones? The Role of Ion Escape,” Astrophysical Journal Letters 836, no. 1 (February 10, 2017): id. L3, doi:10.3847/2041-8213/836/1/L3.
  12. Schwieterman et al, “A Limited Habitable Zone,” p. 1.
  13. Schwieterman et al, “A Limited Habitable Zone,” p. 3.
  14. Hans O. Pörtner, Martina Langenbuch, and Anke Reipschläger, “Biological Impact of Elevated Ocean CO2 Concentrations: Lessons from Animal Physiology and Earth History,” Journal of Oceanography 60, no. 4 (August 2004): 705–18, doi:10.1007/s10872-004-5763-0.
  15. Zaher S. Azzam et al., “The Physiological and Molecular Effects of Elevated CO2 Levels,” Cell Cycle 9, no. 8 (April 20, 2010): 1528–32, doi:10.4161/cc.9.8.11196.
  16. Kris Permentier et al., “Carbon Dioxide Poisoning: A Literature Review of an Often Forgotten Cause of Intoxication in the Emergency Department,” International Journal of Emergency Medicine 10 (April 4, 2017): id. 14, p. 1, doi:10.1186/s12245-017-0142-y.
  17. Schwieterman et al, “A Limited Habitable Zone,” p. 5.
  18. Nigel J. Langford, “Carbon Dioxide Poisoning,” Toxicological Reviews 24, no. 24 (December 2005): 229–35, doi:10.2165/00139709-200524040-00003.
  19. E. Schwieterman, C. T. Reinhard, and S. L. Olson, Astrophysical Journal (2019), in press.
  20. Hui Liu et al., “Association of Short-Term Exposure to Ambient Carbon Monoxide with Hospital Admissions in China,” Scientific Reports 8 (September 6, 2018): id. 13336, doi:10.1038/s41598-018-31434-1.

  • Fine-Tuning
  • Requirements for Life
  • Solar System Design
  • Life on Other Planets
  • Stars
  • Exoplanets
  • Earth Design
  • Atmosphere
  • M-Dwarf Stars
  • lungs
  • K-Dwarf Stars
  • habitable zones
  • G dwarf stars
  • complex life
  • carbon monoxide
  • Carbon Dioxide
  • aerobic life
  • acidosis
  • Blogs

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