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Published June 16, 2009 | Published
Journal Article Open

Atmospheric pressure as a natural climate regulator for a terrestrial planet with a biosphere


Lovelock and Whitfield suggested in 1982 that, as the luminosity of the Sun increases over its life cycle, biologically enhanced silicate weathering is able to reduce the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO_2) so that the Earth's surface temperature is maintained within an inhabitable range. As this process continues, however, between 100 and 900 million years (Ma) from now the CO_2 concentration will reach levels too low for C_3 and C_4 photosynthesis, signaling the end of the solar-powered biosphere. Here, we show that atmospheric pressure is another factor that adjusts the global temperature by broadening infrared absorption lines of greenhouse gases. A simple model including the reduction of atmospheric pressure suggests that the life span of the biosphere can be extended at least 2.3 Ga into the future, more than doubling previous estimates. This has important implications for seeking extraterrestrial life in the Universe. Space observations in the infrared region could test the hypothesis that atmospheric pressure regulates the surface temperature on extrasolar planets.

Additional Information

© 2009 by the National Academy of Sciences. Edited by Norman H. Sleep, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, and approved April 10, 2009 (received for review September 24, 2008). Author contributions: K.-F.L., K.P., J.L.K., and Y.L.Y. designed research; K.-F.L. performed research; K.-F.L. contributed new reagents/analytic tools; K.-F.L. analyzed data; and K.-F.L., K.P., J.L.K., and Y.L.Y. wrote the paper. We thank D. Feldman, V. Natraj, R.-L. Shia, and C. Parkinson for reading the manuscript. We also thank Prof. Norm Sleep and 2 anonymous reviewers for their insightful suggestions. K.F.L. and Y.L.Y. were supported by National Aeronautics and Space Administration Grant NNG06GF33G and the Virtual Planetary Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology.

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