Skip to Content
Uncategorized

A Solution to the Faint Young Sun Paradox

The strange behavior of a nearby, young, sun-like star could help solve one of the outstanding mysteries in astronomy.

When it comes to the origin of life on Earth some four billion years ago, there’s a problem. At that time, the young Sun was approximately 75 percent dimmer than it is now. That would have made the Earth significantly colder, in fact, too cold for liquid water.

However, we know that liquid water is essential for life and we know from the fossil record that life existed on Earth at the time. Liquid water must have been present. So what was keeping the water warm?

This problem, known as the faint young Sun paradox, has troubled astronomers since the 1970s, when it was pointed out by Carl Sagan and friends. He proposed that the Earth’s atmosphere at that time must have been rich in carbon dioxide and that the consequent greenhouse effect was responsible for the warming. Other evidence, however, suggests that the atmosphere could not have had enough CO2 to do the trick. The arXiv Blog has looked at other possible solutions in the past too.

Today, Christoffer Karoff at the University of Birmingham and a mate make a new suggestion based on their study of kappa Ceti, a star some 30 light years away in the constellation of Cetus which is very much like our Sun as it would have been four billion years ago.

It turns out that Kappa Ceti is little more interesting than astronomers once thought. This young star, says Karoff, produces flares and coronal mass ejections at a rate that is three orders of magnitude greater than our Sun today. The implication, of course, is that our Sun must have been just as active when it was the same age as kappa Ceti (about 700 million years old).

But so what? How can coronal mass ejections have made the Earth hotter? The answer lies in a phenomenon known as the Forbush decrease, after the astronomer Scott Forbush who studied galactic comsic rays in the 1930s and 1940s.

Forbush discovered that the number of galactic cosmic rays hitting Earth drops by up to 30 per cent within a day or so of the Sun producing a coronal mass ejection. The reason is that these ejections are giant clouds of ionised gas enveloped in powerful magnetic fields. These fields simply steer the cosmic rays away from Earth.

So if the early Sun was producing far more coronal mass ejections, far fewer cosmic rays would have arrived on Earth.

And that’s where another idea comes into play. In recent years, various climatologists have speculated that cosmic rays seed the formation of clouds in the lower atmosphere. The idea is that they ionise molecules and dust particles which then become focal points for droplets to condense on.

So fewer cosmic rays lead to fewer clouds. There is even some evidence that cloud cover drops during a Forbush decrease, although it’s fair to say there is some dispute over this.

So Karoff’s thinking goes like this. More coronal mass ejections in Earth’s past lead to fewer cosmic rays hitting Earth which lead to less cloud cover. Less cloud cover meant that less sunlight would have been reflected back into space which would have allowed the surface to heat up.

And that’s what kept water liquid on the Earth’s surface four billion years ago.

Got that?

Ref: arxiv.org/abs/1003.6043: How Did The Sun Affect The Climate When Life Evolved On The Earth? - A Case Study On The Young Solar Twin Kappa Ceti

Keep Reading

Most Popular

conceptual illustration of a heart with an arrow going in on one side and a cursor coming out on the other
conceptual illustration of a heart with an arrow going in on one side and a cursor coming out on the other

Forget dating apps: Here’s how the net’s newest matchmakers help you find love

Fed up with apps, people looking for romance are finding inspiration on Twitter, TikTok—and even email newsletters.

computation concept
computation concept

How AI is reinventing what computers are

Three key ways artificial intelligence is changing what it means to compute.

still from Embodied Intelligence video
still from Embodied Intelligence video

These weird virtual creatures evolve their bodies to solve problems

They show how intelligence and body plans are closely linked—and could unlock AI for robots.

We reviewed three at-home covid tests. The results were mixed.

Over-the-counter coronavirus tests are finally available in the US. Some are more accurate and easier to use than others.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.