After two hours of hike up on a rocky trail in the Italian Alps, finally I stand at an elevation just above 2,500 meters, staring at a breathtaking and unique mountain range, the Dolomites, that holds an exciting clue to the habitability of our planet.
With gigantic sharp white-gray peaks emerging from the lush green of Alpine meadows, these mountains rise where the African continental plate has been slamming violently into the European plate for millions of years, forcing rocks up thousands of meters — and giving birth to the geologically young Alps.
In a trip zig-zagging Europe — visiting observatories, universities, and workshops — I stopped briefly in South Tirol for a few hikes. The most picturesque of them took me up to the Three Peaks of Lavaredo (or Tre Cime di Lavaredo), three 3,000m-high peaks, one of the gems of the Alps. Dotted by rifugi (mostly little huts, but at the easier trails often with nice cafes) the trails are popular among both tourists and locals. They offer an incredible view ascending towards the peaks, before joining an old network of high-altitude Alpine hiking trails, many of which take a week to complete.
The Dolomites are a unique mountain range within the Alps: their composition and history is different from any other in the Alps. They also hold an exciting clue to the process that keeps our planet habitable. Named after a relatively rare form and unusually stable form of carbonate rocks, dolomite, the mountain range’s unique color and composition was noted long ago and, for some time, posed one of the mysteries of geology. Now we know that the majestic dolomite layers in the Dolomite mountains are — amazingly — the work of tiny organisms: it is a very thick layer of ancient coral reefs. During part of the Triassic period (about 255-199 million years ago) the region was part of a shallow sea, which was slowly pulled deeper and deeper. But corals, only capable of living in the upper photic zone of the sea (where enough light is present for photosynthesis), kept on building their reefs higher and higher, managing to always keep the top layer of the coral reef close to the sea surface. With the sea floor sinking and the coral reef growing higher, these tiny animals constructed one of the giant carbonate deposits of the Triassic period.
As most geological periods, the Triassic also did not end well: in fact, it ended with the Triassic-Jurassic mass extinction, one of the greatest extinctions known, which eradicated about 50% of the known marine species. This extinction — occuring just before the Pangea super-continent began to break apart — paved the way for dinosaurs to become the dominant land animals in the Jurassic period that followed. The giant coral reefs of the Dolomites sank further and were covered by sedimentary layers and laid in depth for the next two hundred million years.
Only recently, when the African continental plate collided again with the European plate, were the ancient coral reefs forced to resurface again. Together with other Triassic layers these rocks — once a seafloor — were now pushed up thousands of meters to become the dramatic high peaks of the new-born Alps. Once exposed to snow, ice, rain, and wind, the layers began to rapidly erode, creating the picturesque formations I was able to see today.
But the Dolomites’s story also holds a clue to why we are here: amazingly, the process that formed them and destroys part of a grander process them keeps Earth habitable. The mean temperature of Earth and its local and seasonal variations — its climate — is relatively stable: although major global changes occurred in the past and will probably occur in the future, Earth’s mean temperature mostly remained close to the current temperature and has seen much smaller changes than Mars and Venus have.
The key long-term stabilizing mechanism that keeps Earth’s climate in the habitable range (allowing liquid water on its surface) is the carbon cycle: it is the journey of carbon through the atmosphere, the ocean, the rocks, and the volcanoes of our planet. It is a journey that may take hundreds of million of years for a given carbon atom to complete, providing a slow connection between key reservoirs of carbon in Earth: CO2 in the atmosphere and carbonate rocks in the lithosphere. What makes this journey a feedback cycle is that it is both sensitive to the temperature and able to regulate it: The amount of CO2 — a powerful greenhouse gas — in the atmosphere directly impacts Earth’s temperature: the more CO2 is in the air, the more of Earth’s own emission is captured by it and re-radiated back to Earth, just like a blanket would provide additional heating to our planet (by slowing its cooling) — just as glass windows do in a greenhouse. However, the higher the temperature, the higher the humidity in the air and the more condensation occurs — and the more it rains, the more CO2 is washed out from the atmosphere forming acidic rain. The rain then interacts with silicate-rocks and forms carbonate rocks in the silicate weathering process — or, in a planet that is so filled with life as ours, tiny organisms can grab the carbon-dioxide dissolved in the ocean to build shells or coral reefs. As the Dolomites also show, vast amounts of carbon dioxide can be captured (over long periods of time) in rocks. Slowly, the carbonate rocks will be eroded and carried by rivers to the oceans, deposited to the ocean floor and, eventually, subducted along the oceanic/continental plate boundaries. There, many kilometers deep, the carbonate rocks will be exposed to very high pressures and temperatures, converting the carbonate rocks back to the silicates and expelling CO2 and water — these gases will then find their ways to the surface through explosive volcanoes near the plate subduction boundaries.
Because the loss of CO2 from the atmosphere is temperature sensitive (higher temperature leads to more rain and more carbonate formation) but the source of the CO2 is temperature insensitive (volcanoes do not care about the surface temperatures), the whole cycle forms a net negative feedback cycle: higher temperatures will result in cooling and lower temperatures will result in warming. The negative cycle means that it is stabilizing the temperature of Earth: because the carbonate reservoirs are vast, the effect is powerful; but because it takes hundreds of millions of years to transport carbonate rocks to subduction zones via plate tectonics, the cycle is also very small. While it has kept Earth habitable on long timescales (~100 Myr), the cycle can’t work well on short timescales (<10-30 Myr).
How would this apply to other Earth-like planets? While on present-day Earth the carbonate formation is dominantly through organic processes (various shell-forming marine organisms are happy to make use of the CO2 dissolved in the ocean), in the early Earth and, presumably, in other Earth-like planets with little or no life the same process can occur inorganically, but somewhat slower, in silicate rock weathering.
Therefore, as long as the overall composition of other Earth-like planets are the similar to ours, we would expect them to sport a carbon cycle (either organic or inorganic), also providing a stable climate for them — as long as the planets remain within the temperature range where the carbon cycle can work.
This means that carbonate deposits should be common even beyond the Solar System — and, just perhaps, a few in the Galaxy will also match the majestic beauty of the Dolomites.