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Influence of Heat Flow from the Planetary Interior on Surface Habitability

Published onJun 01, 2020
Influence of Heat Flow from the Planetary Interior on Surface Habitability

Can primordial and/or radiogenic heat flow from a rocky planet’s interior help maintain a surface environment amenable to life? On rocky Earth-like planets with shallow oceans (≤5 km depth) that are on the outer edge of the habitable zone, the additional energy provided might make the difference between a world supporting regional habitat space and a world uninhabitable by any known life-form. To test this hypothesis, we introduce heat flux from the planetary interior as a forcing to the NASA/GISS ROCKE-3D exoplanet GCM, and explore whether it can enhance the habitability of marginal terrestrial rocky planets (e.g., paleoEarth in a “snowball” climate state). GCM simulations of modern Earth have not included geothermal heat flux as a climate forcing, as it is ~2 orders of magnitude less than the 2.9 W/m2 heating caused by anthropogenic greenhouse gases [Flanner, GRL 2009]. Modern Earth measurements in the oceans [Downes et al., GRL 2019] and results from ocean GCMs [Barnes et al., Ocean Model. 2017] suggest that localized higher heat flux can have measurable thermodynamic and dynamic impacts, such as weakening deep ocean stratification and increased poleward ocean heat transports. A similar result with ROCKE-3D would be important, since our snowball Earth simulations without heat flux produce features like ocean stratification that should have hampered the survival of life. We have created a set of spatially variable geothermal heat fluxes at varying horizontal resolutions based on modern Earth heat flow patterns [Davies, Geochem. Geophys. Geosys. 2013] to test the sensitivity of the ROCKE-3D GCM initially in a modern Earth context. Preliminary results show that even modest heat fluxes have a measurable impact on deep ocean temperatures (up to +0.9°C locally) and that this heat can be transported at depth along ocean circulation paths. Estimates of heat flux impacts on vertical ocean mixing and surface ocean conditions require long simulations at the higher spatial resolutions needed to express heat flow at the scale of most ocean ridges. Ongoing simulations are focused on testing the impacts of horizontal resolution and flux scaling on surface environments, especially for “snowball” climate scenarios.

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