Luck Played a Major Role in Keeping Earth Habitable for Billions of Years, Study Finds

Toby Tyrell from the University of Southampton had recently published a new paper in the journal Communications Earth and Environment, claiming that a key reason for the long-standing habitability of our native planet is likely nothing more or less than simple luck.

“A continuously stable and habitable climate on Earth is quite puzzling. Our neighbours, Mars and Venus, do not have habitable temperatures, even though Mars once did. Earth not only has a habitable temperature today, but has kept this at all times across three to four billion years – an extraordinary span of geological time,” said Tyrell.

We should all feel lucky, as sheer luck was probably the reason why Earth has remained habitable until today. Image:, CC BY-SA 4.0

Whereas previous computer models exploring the habitability of Earth did not include other celestial bodies, Tyrell’s work features the first ever simulation of climate evolution on thousands of randomly generated planets.

Using the University of Southampton’s Iridis supercomputing facility, Tyrell was able to run 100 simulations on 100,000 individual planets subjected to random climate-altering events over a period of three billion years until they lost their habitability.

Results showed that most planets were only occasionally habitable, and none of them were guaranteed to remain so during the entire three-billion-year period. More specifically, only 9% of the planets were successful at least once, nearly all of those were successful fewer than 50% of the time, and most were successful fewer than 10% of the time.

This has led Tyrell to conclude that chance is a major player in any planet’s chances of maintaining habitability. All that was required for the Earth to go barren was a slightly larger asteroid, or an asteroid striking at a different time, or any number of relatively likely cosmic events.

“To put it another way, if an intelligent observer had been present on the early Earth as life first evolved, and was able to calculate the chances of the planet staying habitable for the next several billion years, the calculation may well have revealed very poor odds.”

Based on these findings, Tyrell speculates that many of the “twin-Earths” discovered by astronomers will ultimately turn out to be uninhabitable, as many of them had almost certainly started out promising, but eventually lost their life-sustaining properties due to chance occurences.

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