"This clearly tells us that simple models for planetary habitability are wrong," saysDavid Minton, aplanetary scientist at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. "There was life on Earth when itshould have been a frozen wasteland." Minton was one of a few dozen astrophysicists andgeophysicistswho met in Baltimore, Maryland, last yearto discuss ways out of this bind. "It turned outthat there were almost as many potential solutions as there were participants," he says.An early proposal is still the most popular: that some greenhouse gas allowed the early Earth'satmosphere to trap more of the weak sun's rays. The suggestion wasfirst made in 1972 in
byastronomers Carl Sagan and George Mullen. But as they discovered, finding the right gas is tricky.
Carbon dioxide seems unlikely to be the sole culprit. CO
enters soil either in raindrops or throughdirect diffusion, and drives chemical weathering that is reflected in the mineral composition of rocksknown as palaeosols. Studies of ancient palaeosols do suggest atmospheric CO
levels were higherback in the Archean era, which ran from 3.8 billion years ago to 2.5 billion years ago. But to keep theoceans at a surely liquid temperature of 5 degrees above freezing, they would need to be some 300times the current amount - 10 times more than even the most generous palaeosol estimates. James Kasting, a palaeoclimatologist at Penn State University in Philadelphia, still thinks a CO
-basedgreenhouse effect is the solution, pointing to other evidence of its role in mediating Earth'stemperature (see "Carbon control"). "I pay attention to those estimates even if I don't completelyagree with some them," he says. All that is needed is to find the correct cocktail of other gases thatwas mixed in with the CO
.Back in 1972, Sagan and Mullen suggested ammonia and methane. But ammonia is highly susceptibleto ultraviolet light and, with no protective ozone layer around the early Earth, would have beendestroyed easily even by the faint young sun's rays. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas but abovea certain concentration forms an organic haze that absorbs sunlight, radiating it back into space. Toomuch methane cools a planet's surface instead of warming it - an effect astronomers have seen onSaturn's moon Titan. Titan suggests other ways of making Earth's early atmosphere more of a comforting blanket. RobinWordsworth and Raymond Pierrehumbert at the University of Chicagohave recently investigatedwhether high levels of nitrogen and hydrogen, such as are found on Titan, can have a warming effect.While the answer is yes, there is no evidence that Earth's atmosphere was ever dense enough to holdthe required quantities."It turns out that all the gases are more problematic than you hope," saysGeorg Feulnerof thePotsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany. He believes one reason the paradox hasyet to be resolved is that the computer models generally used to study ancient climates are too crudeto provide meaningful results.
The models are crude because they typically ignore factors such as Earth's rotation, which has slowedover the years owing to the effect of the moon's gravity. This slowing would have altered the pattern of heat transport from the equator to the poles, perhaps changing the extent of ice cover and so theamount of energy that was reflected straight back up into space rather than being absorbed by Earth. This quantity, the albedo, is a general problem. "We know nothing at all about the albedo of the earlyEarth," says Kasting. Oceans tend to absorb more heat than land does, so the albedo will be affectedby factors such as the arrangement of the continents. Thanks to Earth's relentless tectonic activity, thiswould have been very different in the distant past. Minik Rosing and his colleagues at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, have even controversially argued that considerably reduced continental cover,plus chemical differences in cloud cover, would have reduced the albedo enough to explain the faintyoung sun paradox without the need to invoke higher levels of greenhouse gases at all (
, vol464, p 744).