To explain how this works, let me tell you more about tourists in the Alps. After the school ended on Friday I stayed for the weekend in Les Houches and, following Alain Leger’s advice, I used Saturday to go up to one of the highest peaks – Aiguille du Midi (3,842m), which offered incredible views of the Chamonix valley. I took a thrilling cable car ride up to the top – a whopping 2,807-meter ascent in just about forty minutes!
Just got back from majestic Sedona, Arizona, where my family and I spent Thanksgiving. Sedona is a charming and crazy amalgam of spectacular geology, amazing Fall foliage, exciting restaurants, and an eclectic mix of new age shops and centers. Believers of aura photos, energy vortices, and natural healing flock from all over the country to the countless psychic and supernatural shops in this beautiful town. Sedona may be infamous for its fortunetellers but deservedly famous for its amazing rock formations, which provided the backdrop for many Western movies, with stars from John Wayne to Clark Gable filming there.
Sedona’s rocks are also exciting for anyone interested in Earth’s past as they provide spectacular and rare insights into the Permian period (299 to 251 million years ago) when the Pangea supercontinent converged. At the time of Pangea, all continents on Earth joined together: one could have walked from the Northern American plate to the Australian, African, or even to the Antarctic plates.
Today, the rock formations cut across about 2,000 feet of Permian deposits: they consist of beautifully exposed wind-deposited (eolian) and coastal deposits. The amazing dark red rock layers that surround Sedona are part of the Supai Group: these interbedded layers have been deposited in the early Permian, when the Colorado plateau has been partly covered by an inland sea and a large desert. The inland sea has extended and receded many times during the early Permian; every time it receded the desert expanded and giant sand dunes covered the region that once was occupied by the sea. The shallow sea and the dunes left deposits that are different in color and deposit grain size; these layers of alternating colors make up the Supai group (seen as the mostly reddish, layered rocks in the photos). On top of the Supai group is the whitish/grayish Coconino Formation – a younger, thick sandstone layer, deposited in the mid-Permian, in giant wind-blown dune fields (such locations are also known as erg, Arabic for sea of sand).
The soft red sandstone Supai group is easily sculpted by wind and rain erosion; harder sections of the Coconino formation on top of the red sandstone can protect somewhat the underlying the softer rocks, leading to the characteristic columns and spires typical to Sedona.
Although I have been to Sedona many times in the past, I somehow missed the Slide Rock State Park. This is a great location where flash floods have cut across the soft Supai sandstone and the creek now hosts a fast stream with beautiful pools — in the summer crowded with bathing families, but pleasantly serene in the Fall.
I may have missed the opportunity to have my aura photograph taken or to learn about my future from a Sedona fortuneteller, I can certainly understand the sense of magic this spectacular and serene scenery invokes in visitor – although for me, the true magic is not the mist in the crystal ball but knowing a bit about the incredible and distant past these majestic rock formation witnessed.
I always found whales fascinating and after a recent workshop in Seattle, WA, I jumped on a whale-watching boat. It was great fun – we have seen a pair of humpback whales and a fin whale, all set in an amazing landscape.
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.
Two weeks ago NASA has announced its new Nexus for Exoplanet System Science, which may prove to be a major change in the way NASA will fund exoplanet science in the future. Our UA-led team was part of the first selection and I, the principal investigator of our project, joined the program’s two-day kick-off meeting at NASA HQ. The meeting was exciting, inspiring, and challenging at the same time. There have been several press releases and articles about the program in various online and printed media; what follows is my own personal perspective on the meeting.
NASA has invited the principal investigators and key members of 16 NASA-funded teams working on topics related to exoplanet habitability, as well as the directors of the new initiative to discuss and debate the best format and goals for the new program. The teams were selected from regular proposal submissions to different NASA programs through the usual peer-review process, but invited to NExSS in addition to their selection to carry out the research they proposed.
The motivation for launching NExSS, as I understand, comes from the rapidly growing importance of extrasolar planet habitability research within many different NASA programs. The recent restructuring of NASA research grant programs (XRP, Habitable Worlds, etc.) further emphasized planetary habitability studies across many programs, which led to different aspects of habitability funded through different channels, without a good way to coordinate research between the programs. In addition, planetary habitability-related proposals accounted for a very large fraction of the major proposals that responded to the latest opportunity to join the NASA Astrobiology Institute.
NExSS is a new approach to study extrasolar planets: the program’s idea is to combine various studies of planetary habitability funded through existing NASA programs into a new framework – one in which the teams collaborate and have influence over the broader, longer-term research directions.
Although many people at NASA have been involved in and contributed to launching NExSS, Mary Voytek, senior scientist for astrobiology, is the chief architect of the new program and program officers Christina Richey and Doug Hudgins, among others, also played important roles. Shawn Domagal-Goldman has also provided important input and advice for the new program.
Our meeting began with short talks at a NASA HQ auditorium, which included welcomes by Jim Green and Paul Hertz, the directors of the NASA Planetary Sciences and Astrophysics divisions. They expressed excitement about exoplanet research, emphasized the need for studying planets as “systems” and they strongly endorsed connecting research projects in different disciplines that address exoplanet habitability. Their enthusiastic support of NExSS was a clear demonstration of how strongly NASA is supporting the new interdisciplinary research coordination network.
Next, lightning talks by the leads of each of the 16 teams introduced the scope of the teams; the single-slide presentations gave the first insights into the surprising breadth of NExSS. The NExSS teams have been selected from a set of projects submitted and selected for regular NASA programs (e.g., XRP, Habitable Worlds, Astrobiology, Heliophysics), so the sixteen teams brought very different expertise and perspectives to the table.
The projects also covered a broad spectrum in size, ranging from a few 1-2 investigator grants through a number of medium-sized teams to a few really large teams with multi-million dollar grants. These latter programs are our University of Arizona-led Earths in Other Solar Systems team (PI: Apai), the Arizona State University-led team (PI: Desch), a team led by NASA Goddard Institute for Space Sciences (PI: Del Genio), a team led by Berkeley (PI: Graham), and the one at Hammond University (PI: Moore). NASA’s press release and the team websites provide more information about the teams; I will instead focus on the kick-off meeting.
In contrast to the more usual top-down approach, our group’s first task is to brainstorm on its own purpose and definition. This has been an unusual responsibility; most committees are tasked to chart a course to reach a specific goal on a well-defined timescale. Defining our own goals and purpose is much more challenging; however, it also gave us the valuable opportunity to brainstorm and debate on the importance and achievability of different science goals over various timescales.
NASA has contracted a small company, KnowInnovate, to facilitate the creative process; this small team — two brothers — helped us move forward in the complex debate. Indeed, it has proven challenging for our team to converge on a set of well-defined goals in its first meeting; but by the end of the meeting we did identify our next steps and, I believe, made progress forward in surveying the questions, problems, and goals for the field.
The 2-day discussion resulted in covering most vertical surfaces of the meeting room with neon-colored sticky post-it notes, each with a question, problem, goal, or idea relevant for exoplanet studies. Arranged thematically, by importance, or by timescale, these stickies captured well the complexity and the heavily connected nature of next decade’s exoplanet research.
There discussion was productive and interesting; the number of questions and problems identified, and their complexity, is daunting, to say the least. Questions ranged from the impact of stellar hosts on the habitable planets through the importance of the formation and evolution of planetary systems to the unknowns of planetary interiors and life’s impact on the planet.
Nevertheless, in a process that built on large quantities of coffee, snacks, and post-it notes, we identified some short-term steps and topics of immediate interests. These included establishing working groups on topics relevant for many questions (missing experimental data, cloud physics and chemistry), plans for workshops/conferences to connect to the community, blog-type snippets on new exoplanet research papers, just to name a few.
It has been exciting to see a launch of a new program and one the exoplanet community can so actively shape. From my perspective, the NExSS group’s most important goal is interfacing and connecting: both within the group – in which we had a great start – and also with the broader community. The NExSS Executive Council will gradually change as PIs rotate in and out of the group over the next years, but I am very hopeful that the group will maintain its collaborative spirit as we put together the pieces of this exciting, but complex extrasolar puzzle.
You can follow our team’s work and results on Twitter (@EOSNExSS) or by subscribing to email announcements on our website ( http://otherearths.org ).