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"The biosphere seems to contain a reflection of the sky, in that the evolution of life mirrors the evolution of the Galaxy," according to new research by Henrik Svensmark of the Technical University of Denmark. The new findings suggests that supernovae near the Solar System has strongly influenced the development of life. When the most massive stars exhaust their available fuel and reach the end of their lives, they explode as supernovae, tremendously powerful explosions that are briefly brighter than an entire galaxy of normal stars.

The remnants of these dramatic events also release vast numbers of high-energy charged particles known as galactic cosmic rays (GCR). If a supernova is close enough to the Solar System, the enhanced GCR levels can have a direct impact on the atmosphere of the Earth.

Svensmark looked back through 500 million years of geological and astronomical data and considered the proximity of the Sun to supernovae as it moves around our Galaxy, the Milky Way. In particular, when the Sun is passing through the spiral arms of the Milky Way, it encounters newly forming clusters of stars.

These so-called open clusters, which disperse over time, have a range of ages and sizes and will have started with a small proportion of stars massive enough to explode as supernovae. From the data on open clusters, Svensmark was able to deduce how the rate at which supernovae exploded near the Solar System varied over time.Comparing this with the geological record, he found that the changing frequency of nearby supernovae seems to have strongly shaped the conditions for life on Earth.

Whenever the Sun and its planets have visited regions of enhanced star formation in the Milky Way Galaxy, where exploding stars are most common, life has prospered. 

In the new work, the diversity of life over the last 500 million years seems remarkably well explained by tectonics affecting the sea-level together with variations in the supernova rate, and virtually nothing else. To obtain this result on the variety of life, or biodiversity, he followed the changing fortunes of the best-recorded fossils. These are from invertebrate animals in the sea, such as shrimps and octopuses, or the extinct trilobites and ammonites.

They tended to be richest in their variety when continents were drifting apart and sea levels were high and less varied when the land masses gathered 250 million years ago into the supercontinent called Pangaea and the sea-level was lower. But this geophysical effect was not the whole story. When it is removed from the record of biodiversity, what remains corresponds closely to the changing rate of nearby stellar explosions, with the variety of life being greatest when supernovae are plentiful. A likely reason, according to Svensmark, is that the cold climate associated with high supernova rates brings a greater variety of habitats between polar and equatorial regions, while the associated stresses of life prevent the ecosystems becoming too set in their ways.

Svensmark also notices that most geological periods seem to begin and end with either an upturn or a downturn in the supernova rate. The changes in typical species that define a period, in the transition from one to the next, could then be the result of a major change in the astrophysical environment.

Life's prosperity, or global bioproductivity, can be tracked by the amount of carbon dioxide in the air at various times in the past as set out in the geological record. When supernova rates were high, carbon dioxide was scarce, suggesting that flourishing microbial and plant life in the oceans consumed it greedily to grow. Support for this idea comes from the fact that microbes and plants dislike carbon dioxide molecules that contain a heavy form of carbon atom, carbon-13. As a result, the ocean water is left enriched by carbon-13.

The geological evidence shows high carbon-13 when supernovae were commonest – again pointing to high productivity. As to why this should be, Prof. Svensmark notes that growth is limited by available nutrients, especially phosphorus and nitrogen, and that cold conditions favour the recycling of the nutrients by vigorously mixing the oceans.

Although the new analysis suggests, perhaps surprisingly, that supernovae are on the whole good for life, high supernova rates can bring the cold and changeable climate of prolonged glacial episodes. And they can have nasty shocks in store. Geoscientists have long been puzzled by many relatively brief fall in sea-level by 25 metres or more that show up in seismic soundings as eroded beaches.

Svensmark finds that they are what can be expected when chilling due to very close supernovae causes short-lived glacial episodes. With frozen water temporarily bottled up on land, the sea-level drops.The data also support the idea of a long-term link between cosmic rays and climate, with these climatic changes underlying the biological effects. And compared with the temperature variations seen on short timescales as a consequence of the Sun's influence on the influx of cosmic rays, the heating and cooling of the Earth due to cosmic rays varying with the prevailing supernova rate have been far larger.

"When this enquiry into effects of cosmic rays from supernova remnants began 16 years ago, we never imagined that it would lead us so deep into time, or into so many aspects of the Earth's history," added director of DTU Space, Eigil Friis-Christensen. "The connection to evolution is a culmination of this work."

Svensmark presented his novel work in a paper in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

The image below shows the correlation between the rate of nearby supernovae and the diversity of life on Earth. The black curve is the changing rate of supernova explosions in the vicinity of the Solar System over the past 440 million years. The blue curve is the diversity of marine invertebrate animals (number of genera) after subtracting the influence of changing sea-levels. The grey area is an estimate of errors. The scale at the top shows the geological periods (abbreviations for each period are given). 



More information: The new work appears in "Evidence of nearby supernovae affecting life on Earth", H. Svensmark, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, in press. The paper can be seen at http://onlinelibra … 3.x/abstract 

The Daily Galaxy via Royal Astronomical Society

Image credit: H. Svensmark / DTU Space

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That is wicked cool science! Thanks for sharing!

yes this is good but you not think this is weird?

Really and useful and readable information, I like the supernova mysteries always...

The correlation between these phenomena certainly give pause for thought.

Patterns of this kind are also consistent with the model of an evolutionary continuum that is informally outlined in my latest book "The Goldilocks Effect: What Has Serendipity Ever Done For Us?", a free download in e-book formats from the "Unusual Perspectives" website

Very thought provoking but also exasperating as it doesnt give us the most vital information, which is fairly typical of the abstract approach of theoretical scientists! The obvious thing we need to know is - are we currently in an active supernovae producing region of the galaxy or not? Perhaps Mr Svensmark assumes his readers know this already, but unfortunately as a layman I dont! Anybody know?

Just as we get meteor showers around the same time every year, due to our orbit around the sun, I always assumed our system would run into a smattering of new particles at points around our galactic orbit too. Considering one galactic year is approximately 225 million solar years, that would mean that life started ~14-15 Gyears ago we've had plenty of passes through old material to spice up our life (literally!)

There was a poem 'Desiderata' supposedly dated from the 17th Century it had a line in it with something like "Your are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars you have a right to be here and whether or not it is clear to you the universe is unfolding as it should...." I don't want to sound to new age metaphysical, but...

This seems to fit in nicely with the possibility of supernovae affecting the molecular chirality:

@Steven: Currently, we are not in an active supernova producing area of the Milky Way. The most recent 'local' supernova occurred in 1054, as noted by ye olde Chinese astronomers.We can still see the remnants, known today as M1, or the famous Crab Nebula. There's a little vid about it on Wikidpedia..

Wow, what a well-designed article!
Milky Way has always been a mystery for me and as a writer for, I have done a lot of researching in this topic and frankly, I got the most information here. Well done!

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