Supernova at the start of the Pleistocene

This brief note takes up a thread begun in Can a supernova affect the Earth System? (August 2020). In February 2020 the brightness of Betelgeuse – the prominent red star at the top-left of the constellation Orion – dropped in a dramatic fashion. This led to media speculation that it was about to ‘go supernova’, but with the rise of COVID-19 beginning then, that seemed the least of our worries. In fact, astronomers already knew that the red star had dimmed many times before, on a roughly 6.4-year time scale. Betelgeuse is a variable star and by March 2020 it brightened once again: shock-horror over; back to the latter-day plague.

When stars more than ten-times the mass of the Sun run out of fuel for the nuclear fusion energy that keeps them ‘inflated’ they collapse. The vast amount of gravitational potential energy released by the collapse triggers a supernova and is sufficient to form all manner of exotic heavy isotopes by nucleosynthesis. Such an event radiates highly energetic and damaging gamma radiation, and flings off dust charged with a soup of exotic isotopes at very high speeds. The energy released could sum to the entire amount of light that our Sun has shone since it formed 4.6 billion years ago. If close enough, the dual ‘blast’ could have severe effects on Earth, and has been suggested to have caused the mass extinction at the end of the Ordovician Period.

Betelgeuse is about 700 light years away, massive enough to become a future supernova and its rapid consumption of nuclear fuel – it is only about 10 million years old – suggests it will do so within the next hundred thousand years. Nobody knows how close such an event needs to be to wreak havoc on the Earth system, so it is as well to check if there is evidence for such linked perturbations in the geological record. The isotope 60Fe occurs in manganese-rich crusts and nodules on the floor of the Pacific Ocean and also in some rocks from the Moon. It is radioactive with a half-life of about 2.6 million years, so it soon decays away and cannot have been a part of Earth’s original geochemistry or that of the Moon. Its presence may suggest accretion of debris from supernovas in the geologically recent past: possibly 20 in the last 10 Ma but with apparently no obvious extinctions. Yet that isotope of iron may also be produced by less-spectacular stellar processes, so may not be a useful guide.

There is, however, another short-lived radioactive isotope, of manganese (53Mn), which can only form under supernova conditions. It has been found in ocean-floor manganese-rich crusts by a German-Argentinian team of physicists  (Korschinek, G. et al. 2020. Supernova-produced 53Mn on Earth. Physical Review Letters, v. 125, article 031101; DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevLett.125.031101). They dated the crusts using another short-lived cosmogenic isotope produced when cosmic rays transform the atomic nuclei of oxygen and nitrogen to 10Be that ended up in the manganese-rich crusts along with any supernova-produced  53Mn and 60Fe. These were detected in parts of four crusts widely separated on the Pacific Ocean floor. The relative proportions of the two isotopes matched that predicted for nucleosynthesis in supernovas, so the team considers their joint presence to be a ‘smoking gun’ for such an event.

The 10Be in the supernova-affected parts of the crusts yielded an age of 2.58 ± 0.43 million years, which marks the start of the Pleistocene Epoch, the onset of glacial cycles in the Northern Hemisphere and the time of the earliest known members of the genus Homo. A remarkable coincidence? Possibly. Yet cosmic rays, many of which come from supernova relics, have been cited as a significant source of nucleation sites for cloud condensation. Clouds increase the planet’s reflectivity and thus act to to cool it. This has been a contentious issue in the debate about modern climate change, some refuting their significance on the basis of a lack of correlation between cloud-cover data and changes in the flux of cosmic rays over the last century. Yet, over the five millennia of recorded history there have been no records of supernovas with a magnitude that would suggest they were able to bathe the night sky in light akin to that of daytime. That may be the signature of one capable of affecting the Earth system. Thousands that warrant being dubbed a ‘very large new star’are recorded, but none that ‘turned night into day’. The hypothesis seems to have ‘legs’, but so too do others, such as the slow influence on oceanic circulation of the formation of the Isthmus of Panama and other parochial mechanisms of changing the transfer of energy around our planet

See also: Stellar explosion in Earth’s proximity, eons ago. (Science Daily; 30 September 2020.)

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