Life at the end of worlds : modelling the biosignatures of microbial life in diverse environments at the end of the habitable lifetimes of Earth-like planets
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This thesis investigates how increased global mean temperatures on Earth, induced by the increase in the luminosity of the Sun as it ages, change the types of habitable environments on the planet at local scales over the next 3 Gyr. Rising temperatures enhance silicate weathering rates, reducing atmospheric CO₂ levels to below the threshold for photosynthesis, while simultaneously pushing environments past the temperature tolerances of plant and animal species. This leads to the end of all plant life and animal life (due to reduced food, O₂ and H₂O availability, as well as higher temperatures) within the next 1 Gyr. The reduction in the extent of the remaining microbial biosphere due to increasing temperatures and rapid ocean evaporation is then modelled, incorporating orbital parameter changes until all known types of life become extinct; a maximum of 2.8 Gyr from the present. The biosignatures associated with these changes are determined and the analysis extended to Earth-like extrasolar planets nearing the end of their habitable lifetimes. In particular, the stages in the main sequence evolutions of Sun-like stars within 10 pc are evaluated and used to extrapolate the stage that an Earth-analogue planet would be at in its habitable evolution, to determine the best candidate systems for a far-future Earth-analogue biosphere, highlighting the Beta Canum Venaticorum system as a good target. One of the most promising biosignatures for a microbial biosphere on the far-future Earth (and similar planets) may be CH₄, which could reach levels in the atmosphere that make it more readily detectable than it is for a present-day Earth-like atmosphere. Determining these biosignatures will help expand the search for life to the wider range of environments that will be found as the habitable exoplanet inventory grows and planets are found at different stages in their habitable evolution.
Thesis, PhD Doctor of Philosophy