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Building a habitable planet: Life Support Systems of the Earth

Building a habitable planet: Life Support Systems of the Earth

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Published by: aeonsoflove on Jan 01, 2011
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04/08/2014

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HOW TO BUILD A HABITABLE PLANET
LIFE SUPPORT SYSTEMS OF THE EARTH AND MARS
1.INTRODUCTION
 The purpose of this paper is to identify the factors that make a planethabitable by observing the structures and processes that occur on theEarth and comparing them to those on Mars so as to conclude whether lifecurrently is or could be made possible on our neighbouring planet.
2.THE EARTH
 There are four different biogeochemical systems on Earth that allowchemicals to flow between reservoirs and interact with the environment. They are the atmosphere, lithosphere, hydrosphere and biosphere andeach plays a key role in maintaining the balance that allows life to flourishon the planet. The cycles in which the chemicals move from one system toanother occur at different speeds (ranging from a single nutrient cycle togeological timescales) and generally go through organic (interacting withliving organisms) and inorganic (interacting with the physicalenvironment) phases.
2.1Atmosphere
 The Earth’s atmosphere is made up of various gases such as nitrogen,oxygen, carbon dioxide, argon, neon, helium, water vapour, methaneand others. The amount of 
carbon
 
dioxide
present in the atmosphere haschanged dramatically since the early days of the planet. Today itmakes up only 0.03% of the atmosphere and is a key element inkeeping the Earth’s systems in dynamic equilibrium by recyclingoxygen (photosynthesis) and helping maintain a comfortabletemperature for life to exist on the planet (greenhouse effect). The
greenhouse effect
is a natural process through which part of the heatenergy emitted by the Sun enters the atmosphere, is partially reflectedfrom the Earth’s surface back into the troposphere and is reflectedback to the Earth by the ‘barrier’ formed by greenhouse gases (carbondioxide, water vapour, methane and others). In this way, the heatenergy from the Sun is kept in the lower atmosphere and isredistributed across the planet by convection currents.A few billion years ago however, the high concentration of carbondioxide (90%) meant the greenhouse effect was far more powerful andthat the Earth was a very hot place. Over time however, life forms
 
| 2appeared that began storing the energy from the Sun through theprocess of photosynthesis and thus absorbed the carbon dioxide,releasing
oxygen
into the atmosphere. Over the next few millionyears, the quantities of oxygen have fluctuated: it reacted with the ironfrom the seas and rocks but when the excess quantities could nolonger be absorbed by the iron, oxygen levels rose and caused wildfireswhich in turn created more carbon dioxide, eventually bringing downthe concentration of oxygen in the atmosphere to a steady 21%.Oxygen plays a key role in aerobic respiration, chemical weathering,soil formation and the oxidation of volcanic gases.Also present in the Earth’s atmosphere is
argon
, making up 0.9% of it.Although the exact role of this element is not known, scientists haveidentified that it serves as a dilutant, as it is relatively inert. The largest concentration of gas in the atmosphere is that of 
nitrogen
at 78%, a gas that also acts as a dilutant to the other atmosphericgases, as its triple (covalent) bonds make it very stable and inert.Certain groups of bacteria are able to process the nitrogen found in theatmosphere to produce ammonia, which is more reactive and this canthen be converted into nitrites and nitrates by other bacteria. As aconsequence, we find nitrogen compounds in plants and animals. The Earth’s atmosphere can be divided into four different layersaccording to altitude: the troposphere, the stratosphere, themesosphere and the thermosphere.
 
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(The Environment: Principles and Applications, Chris Park, 2001)
 The lowest layer, reaching up to 10-12km above the Earth’s surface, isthe
troposphere
: a warm, moist layer containing most of the dust,vapour and mass of the atmosphere (90% of its gases). This layer isresponsible for the different climates of the planet and it is where mostweather processes and biological activity (including respiration) takeplace. The lower levels of the layer obtain their heat due to theircontact with the Earth’s surface. The troposphere is where thegreenhouse effect occurs and the layer in which convection currentsredistribute the heat energy sourced from the Sun. It is also whereatmospheric pressure is at its highest, as due to gravity, theatmosphere is pulled towards the Earth and most of the mass of theatmosphere is found in the troposphere.Above the troposphere (alt. 15-50km) is the
stratosphere
: a relativelythin, dry, stable and weather-free layer which also includes the
ozonelayer
. This very thin layer is made up of triatomic oxygen moleculeswhich absorb the incoming UV radiations from the sun and use up theenergy so that the UV waves do not reach the Earth’s surface. As theenergy from the UV waves is absorbed, a reversible process takesplace: diatomic oxygen molecules are broken up into single atoms,which then bond with other diatomic molecules to produce triatomic
 
stratopausetropopausemesopausethermospheremesospherestratospheretroposphere

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