East Anglia’s Giant Purple Blob


This is a guest post by Luke Surl, a PhD student in the Centre for Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences (COAS) at the University of East Anglia, where he is researching the atmospheric chemistry of volcanic plumes. You can find him on Twitter, or visit lukesurl.com for his excellent science-inspired comics. 


Last week a giant purple blob descended upon East Anglia, with commotion and a flurry of newspapermen in its wake. The vulnerable were told to shelter in their homes, powerless to tackle its all-pervasive reach. Wisdom was sought from the sages of this ill-understood art, but all that could be done was hope the blight would soon pass.

Smog over Norwich (iWitness24)

A little dramatic license is appropriate for a guest blog, no? To decode, the purple blob is the region of “Very High” air quality risk shown on the official maps that have been appearing this week. These maps have been accompanied by warnings for asthmatics and others sensitive to such conditions. The “sages” are the atmospheric scientists who, normally eclipsed in the media spotlight by their climatic colleges, have been ubiquitous on in the media.

If you haven’t been keeping track, in short a combination of factors conspired this week to cause parts of Britain to experience an usually high level of particulate matter. Britons were breathing dust blown in from the Sahara, plus some with old-fashioned home-grown pollution. The weather slowed the dispersion of this event causing it to linger and intensify.

While “smog” seemed to be the media’s favoured term for the phenomenon, (evoking memories of the London smog of 1952) the discussion amongst the atmospheric scientists at UEA (where I do research) was of the aerosol counts. “Aerosol” is a catch-all term for solid and liquid particles suspended in air, and there are, critically two sorts. We deem primary aerosol particles directly emitted to the atmosphere whilst secondary aerosol are particles which form in-air from gaseous beginnings

The Saharan dust we have been inhaling is primary. Secondary aerosol is most readily created when the air has been polluted with sulphur and NOx. On an ordinary day, road traffic is the biggest such aerosol offender. In London, one of the principle raison d’etres of the congestion charge is to prevent such an air quality hit in a concentrated metropolis of cars and people.

Such technical distinctions are, however, largely ignored by ones lungs. Particles smaller than 10 micrometers in diameter travel into the lungs. The smallest of these can end up penetrating and settling deep into the respiratory system. This is not good news for anyone, especially asthmatics and others with similar conditions.

In some of the more morbid papers that atmospheric scientists are likely to come across, this air quality impact can be quantified. A 2009 study found Americans living in the most polluted areas can attribute air quality to their lives being about 2.5 years shorter than their cousins in cleaner areas. In China, where the economic boom has been quite literally dulled by thick smogs in its cities, the numbers are quite terrifying.  These numbers are difficult to process. They are cold, dispassionate and cryptic, buried in journal papers few will read. But every data point hides an individual tragedy of a life extinguished early

Thankfully Norwich and London are nowhere near Chinese levels, though there are still thousands of such deaths a year. Britain, and the EU in general, quite rightly holds itself to very high standards with regards to its air.

As in everything, the recent incident has had a political dimension. Public debate has asked whether this incident is to be blamed on natural or human causes.

This misses the point. While the primary aerosol from the Sahara and the directions of the winds are beyond the remit of any public policy. But this natural phenomenon is compounded by human action. Regardless of how we apportion the blame, the particulates owing its existence to our cars and factories isn’t made harmless or insignificant by their natural counterparts, rather they can make a bad problem worse, especially for the most vulnerable. And even when the winds change and the purple blobs and media disperse, this pollution can still chip away days, months or years from human lives.

There’s nothing more essential to human life than the air we breathe, which is partly one of the reasons I have chosen atmospheric science as my field of research. It’s also fundamentally something we cannot help but share with our neighbours and community. Our air’s pollution and perturbation, from nature and from man, is something that will impact us all.

The Search for another Earth


This the third in a series of posts by me at Things We Don’t Know about the many unknowns involved in the study of planets in the orbit of other stars across the galaxy.

 In my last post I broadly covered the techniques for finding planets around other stars in the galaxy, as well as the role this technology plays in defining the current limits on our knowledge. We have discovered 885 other planets to date, but how many of them are like the Earth and why is this important?

As we live on a rather lovely watery planet ourselves, we seem to have a natural inclination to seek out others just like it because we consider them to be the most likely for hosting life. Why? Well, because our current sample of ‘inhabited planets’ stands at just one, we have a very limited understanding of where the boundaries for life lie as well as the important factors that affect habitability when considering the broad characteristics of life-bearing worlds. If other inhabited planets exist, is the Earth typical within the sample or an outlier? Are the furnaces of close-in gas giants the cradle of most flavours of life in the universe, or maybe the frigid surfaces of icy worlds in the far-flung outer regions of their star system?

Waterbear, taken by scanning electron micrograph

Some lifeforms live in extremely tough environments, and have even survived space vacuum conditions – like this water bear. Image credit Bob Goldstein and Vicky Madden (Creative Commons)

It might be fun to speculate about all the various forms and shapes that other life might take, but this lies outside the remit of science. It seems obvious to us that only on a planet able to support life would organisms (like intelligent Homo Sapiens) eventually evolve, but this instils in us a fundamental bias towards planets like Earth: it remains beyond our perspective to consider the possibility that can life operate outside of the physical and biological boundaries that we are familiar with. It therefore seems unsurprising that the limits of life lie so perfectly within those experienced on Earth, and why we seek out other Earth-like planets as possible oases of biology. This bias is known as the anthropic principle and is an important philosophical consideration to bear in mind when considering the search for ‘habitable’ planets.

Nevertheless, many of the projects that exist to catalogue exoplanets are looking for ‘Earth-like’ planets: about the same size as Earth and at a similar distance from their star where the amount of incoming light produces temperatures that allow water to exist on the surface of these planets as a liquid. Liquid water plays a central role in the search for other Earth-like worlds because it is considered to be an essential requirement for life that is used as a solvent for biochemical reactions and is crucial to the operation of cells; no life exists on Earth that can survive without water. This water-centric distance is known as the habitable zone, or ‘Goldilocks zone’, because the temperature is ‘just right’! Different star-types have habitable zones that extend to different distances: the habitable zones of large, bright and young stars are further away than those of small, dim and cool stars.

Being within the habitable zone is important, but there are many, many other factors to consider before a planet can be labelled as ‘Earth-like’ or ‘habitable’. Planet size, age, density, orbital characteristics, atmospheric pressure and composition, the existence of an active geological cycle with volcanism and plate tectonics and the properties of the other members of the star system, to name a few. The habitability of planets is a complex and multifaceted property that we are only beginning to investigate, but it seems that a single measure (like residence the habitable zone) is insufficient to capture the true nature of the planet itself. This is why the growing catalogue of exoplanets has prompted the development of integrated ‘habitability indices’ that incorporate a number of factors into a single measure to determine how similar an exoplanet is to the Earth. One such measure, called the Earth Similarity Index (ESI) has been developed by researchers at the Arecibo observatory and attempts to rank planets discovered in the habitable zone on a scale from 0 (completely dissimilar to the Earth) to 1 (identical to the Earth) across a range of factors including size, density, atmospheric properties and temperature. According to this measure, the ‘Top 10’ most habitable planets we’ve discovered so far fall into a range between 0.50 and 0.82. For reference, our cold and dry neighbour Mars has a rating of 0.64, so it seems that none of these planets represent a suitable replacement for the Earth just yet.

The planet ranked most highly in this measure is called Kepler 62e and was discovered recently by the Kepler space telescope: the latest in a series of remarkable finds from this workhorse of planetary detection. This planet is orbiting within the habitable zone of an orange star slightly smaller and less bright than our own 1200 light years distant, but the planet itself is somewhat larger than the Earth and may be covered by a global ocean. At present, this distant world represents the pinnacle of exoplanetary habitability, yet it is far from being another Earth.

Kepler 62e
Kepler 62e: An artist’s concept of the most ‘Earth-like’ planet found to date
Image Credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech

Our occupation with the search for an ‘Earth analog’ masks the fact that there is still plenty about this planet we don’t know. For example, exoplanet researchers consider an active geological cycle to be essential for long-term habitability because the geochemical coupling between the oceans, atmosphere and planet interior is essential for ‘recycling’ nutrients through the Earth’s system. However, there are many unanswered questions about how this process operates on the Earth, and how it would function on planets that are different sizes. Modelling studies from different teams return seemingly contradictory results: some suggest that a similar mechanism to plate tectonics is inevitable, while others propose the opposite and infer a very different ‘lid’ type mode. These scenarios result in very different outcomes in terms of surface morphology and overall habitability, yet without direct observations it seems unlikely that this problem will be resolved soon.

We are also very limited by the detection limits of our instruments in this area: Kepler can only tell us the size of the planet – because it is proportional to the amount of light from the star that it blocks out to produce a detectable signal – but not the mass because we don’t know what it is the planet is made of. It is therefore very difficult to accurately model or estimate many of the surface or subsurface processes that may be occurring on these planets as mass is a very important factor in many aspects of planetary dynamics. Further to this, we are most likely decades away from being able to investigate the atmospheres of small, Earth-like planets in any detail.

We find ourselves poised at the very beginning of the search for another Earth, but the few results that we have at the moment are nevertheless very inspiring. The diversity of exoplanets discovered in the last decade is astounding, and small, rocky planets do not seem to be rare. My bold prediction is that Kepler will soon find a world that is seemingly like our own in size, temperature and orbital characteristics, but even so there are still very many unknowns that need to be addressed before any planet could be labelled as ‘another Earth’.

A Multiplicity of Worlds

This article was originally posted at the European Association of Geochemistry blog (click for link)

Undoubtedly the most exciting exoplanet news of the past week is the discovery of a star system with a total of 9 potential planets, surpassing even our own Solar System in terms of planetary diversity. University of Hertfordshire astronomer Mikko Tuomi discovered the bustling planetopolis around the enigmatic star HD 10180, a Sun-like G-type main sequence star 127 light years distant, using a probabilistic Bayesian analysis technique.

View of the sky around the star HD 10180 (center) Credit: ESO

HD 10180 has been known as a multi-planet system since 2010, but the last analysis of the HARPS data available for the star, carried out by Christopher Lovis last year, seemed to indicate a 6 or 7-planet system was most likely. However, the novel probabilistic methods used by Tuomi are more computationally intense than those previously applied, and confirm the findings of Lovis whilst also adding a further two planets to the planetary inventory of HD 10180.

Tuomi’s Bayesian method, which seeks to evaluate a number of possible scenarios to determine which is most consistent with the observations, finds that an orbital configuration including an eighth and ninth planet, with masses 5.1 and 1.9 times that of the Earth respectively, returns a 99.7% probability.

The planets themselves, denoted HD 10180 b through h, are a diverse bunch, including two Earth-mass terran planets, one superterran, five neptunian and one jovian-sized planet, and all are contained within 3.5 AU – roughly the distance of the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter in our Solar System. Despite their proximity, the orbits are predicted to be stable over astronomical time.

Orbital and size visualisation of the HD 10180 system, courtesy of Abel Mendez at the Planetary Habitability Laboratory. The blue-green area denotes the habitable zone. (click for more detail).

The image above, from the Habitable Exoplanets Catalog, provides a visualisation of the orbital system and a comparison of the sizes of the planets. Note that one neptunian, HD 10180 g, is within the habitable zone but is unlikely to be habitable given its large mass, at least not by our definition.

That’s an extraordinary array of sizes and shapes crammed into a comparatively small area, and unseats our Solar System, with a certain 8 planets (excluding trans-neputunian objects, asteroids and dwarf planets – sorry Pluto fans!), from atop the pile of planetary richness, all the while adding to our understanding of the mechanisms of planetary system formation.

Whilst this is certainly an exciting discovery, should we be surprised by the apparent ubiquity of multi-planetary systems? It would be more unusual if this architecture wasn’t the norm, given model predictions. Writing for his Scientific American blog Life, Unbounded, astrobiologist Caleb Scharf notes that the combined masses of the HD 10180 planets would only amount to roughly half that of Jupiter, and given the star’s similarity to our own Sun, its proto-planetary circumstellar disk should have contained a similar amount of material. Therefore, it wouldn’t be surprising if more planets lurked in the HD 10180 system somewhere!

In fact, the same could be said for any of the planetary systems we have detected so far as well as those that we find in the future. Our detection techniques remain biased towards massive, short-period planets that produce readily identifiable signals, particularly when using the radial velocity method, and we suffer from the fact that we have only been collecting data for a few years and so may have missed more orbitally distant, longer period planets.

However, as with most exoplanet discoveries, the detection of this diverse family of worlds serves to put our planet  into some wider perspective – to challenge the notion that Earth and this solar system are particularly unique, at least in an astronomical sense.

Solar systems, it seems, are everywhere.

Habitable Zone Of Red Dwarfs May Be Larger Than Once Thought

Stretching the spectrum: a hypothetical red dwarf planetary system (Research.gov)

Given that 80% of the stars in the Universe are M-type ‘red dwarfs’, research into the habitability of planets in these stars’ orbits has received relatively little attention in the past as they were generally considered unsuitable for hosting habitable planets due to their low mass and temperatures, as well as the propensity for planets in their orbit to be ‘tidally locked’. However, this trend has shown signs of reversal over the past few years, and habitability assessments have generally returned favourable reviews of M-star planets. The issue of tidal locking, where one hemisphere of a planet constantly faces the star, doesn’t seem to be resolved yet, but more research is being carried out and a definitive assessment may be forthcoming soon.

A paper published in Astrobiology this month has bolstered the habitability assessment of red dwarf systems even further. Manoj Joshi, now at the University of East Anglia, and Robert Haberle at the NASA Ames Research Center, have considered the effect that the longer wavelength spectra of M-stars may have on the ice-albedo feedback operating on planets within their habitable zones. Albedo describes the fractional reflectivity of a given surface, from 0 (nothing reflected, a hypothetical ‘black-body’ ) to 1 (all light reflected). On Earth, the albedo of ice is ~0.5 (50% of light reflected), whilst snow has an albedo of ~0.8.

The ice-albedo feedback is a fundamentally important abiotic feedback mechanism that has a powerful control over the planetary climate: it describes the ability of ice and snow to reflect light away from the surface, thereby cooling it further and causing more ice/snow to form, which continues to exacerbate the effect in what is termed a ‘positive’ or destabilising feedback loop. More ice, more light reflected away, cooler temperatures, more ice and so on.

The ice-albedo feedback is thought to have been at least partially responsible for the ‘Snowball’ or ‘Slushball’ Earth events that occurred in the late Proterozoic eon, approximately 600 million years ago, which saw the Earth frozen from pole to pole, with possible refugia at the equator. This interpretation is still rather contentious within the geosciences, but most researchers agree that the Earth experienced a period of extreme glaciation around this time, but its full extent, and how the Earth emerged from this deep-freeze, is still not fully understood.

The amount of incident light, as well as atmospheric greenhouse effects, exhibit a strong control on the ability of the ice-albedo feedback to enter a ‘runaway’ state by preventing temperatures from falling below a critical level of ice cover. Accordingly, this mechanism is often considered a controlling factor on the outer boundary of the habitable zone because of its very powerful ability to destabilise the planetary environment into an irreversible state of complete glaciation.

Joshi and Haberle constructed a simple model to test how the the ice-albedo feedback would operate on planets within the habitable zones of M-stars when considering the longer wavelength, lower energy emissions of these stars. Red dwarfs, as their name suggests, emit much of their radiation in the red and near-infrared portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. Observations from the red dwarfs Gliese 436 and GJ 1214 mentioned by the authors show that they emit much of their radiation at wavelengths greater than 0.7 μm, and significantly more in the 3 to 10 μm region than would be expected from a ‘black-body’ hypothesised M-type of a similar temperature. The albedo of ice and snow begins to decrease at wavelengths greater than 1 μm, and therefore the albedo of snow and ice covered surfaces on planets in the orbit of red dwarfs would be proportionally lower than that of the same surface on Earth (or any other planet in orbit around a G- or K-type star), meaning they reflect less radiation away from the surface, and that the ice-albedo feedback mechanism is weakened. For example, the authors show that snow or ice covered surfaces on planets orbiting GJ1214 may have albedos of 0.43 and 0.23 respectively, representing a significant decrease in the amount of incident light reflected from the surface and a dampening of the ice-albedo feedback mechanism.

Because of the diminished effect of the ice-albedo feedback mechanism around red dwarfs, the authors propose that their habitable zone may be 10-30% further from the star than was previously considered. This finding has a significant impact on the search for habitable exoplanets and for astrobiology, and, as is often the case with good science, has been drawn from a relatively simple experiment – in this case, by analysing the reflectivity of frozen or snowy surfaces under the observed radiative regime of red dwarfs. It seems that the tide really is turning in terms of our understanding of the habitability of planets in the orbits of red dwarfs, and that these numerous and ubiquitous stars should receive renewed research and observational attention.


Click here for the Astrobiology article (requires subscription).


Manoj M. Joshi and Robert M. Haberle (2012). Suppression of the water ice and snow albedo feedback on planets orbiting red dwarf stars and the subsequent widening of the habitable zone Astrobiology, 12 (1) DOI: http://arxiv.org/abs/1110.4525