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«Astrophysical Ionizing Radiation and the Earth: A Brief Review and Census of Intermittent Intense Sources Adrian L. Melott1 and Brian C. Thomas2 1. ...»

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Astrophysical Ionizing Radiation and the Earth: A

Brief Review and Census of Intermittent Intense

Sources

Adrian L. Melott1 and Brian C. Thomas2

1. Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas 66045 USA.

melott@ku.edu, Phone: 785-864-3037. Fax 785-864-5262

2. Department of Physics and Astronomy, Washburn University, Topeka, Kansas 66621 USA.

brian.thomas@washburn.edu

Keywords: radiation, gamma-ray burst, supernova, solar flare, ozone depletion, extinction, cosmic ray, X-ray.

Abstract Cosmic radiation backgrounds are a constraint on life, and their distribution will affect the Galactic Habitable Zone. Life on Earth has developed in the context of these backgrounds, and characterizing event rates will elaborate the important influences.

This in turn can be a base for comparison with other potential life-bearing planets. In this review we estimate the intensities and rates of occurrence of many kinds of strong radiation bursts by astrophysical entities ranging from gamma-ray bursts at cosmological distances to the Sun itself. Many of these present potential hazards to the biosphere: on timescales long compared with human history, the probability of an event intense enough to disrupt life on the land surface or in the oceans becomes large. Both photons (e.g. X-rays) and high-energy protons and other nuclei (often called “cosmic rays”) constitute hazards. For either species, one of the mechanisms which comes into play even at moderate intensities is the ionization of the Earth’s atmosphere, which leads through chemical changes (specifically, depletion of stratospheric ozone) to increased ultraviolet-B flux from the Sun reaching the surface. UVB is extremely hazardous to most life due to its strong absorption by the genetic material DNA and subsequent breaking of chemical bonds. This often leads to mutation and/or cell death.

It is easily lethal to the microorganisms that lie at the base of the food chain in the ocean. We enumerate the known sources of radiation and characterize their intensities at the Earth and rates or upper limits on these quantities. When possible, we estimate a “lethal interval,” our best estimate of how often a major extinction-level event is probable given the current state of knowledge; we base these estimates on computed or expected depletion of stratospheric ozone. In general, moderate level events are dominated by the Sun, but the far more severe infrequent events are probably dominated by gamma-ray bursts and supernovae. We note for the first time that socalled “short-hard” gamma-ray bursts are a substantial threat, comparable in magnitude to supernovae and greater than that of the higher-luminosity long bursts considered in most past work. Given their precursors, short bursts may come with little or no warning.

I. Introduction The Earth is continually bombarded by radiation from the rest of the Universe. It comes in many varieties, intensities, and is subject to great variation. This of course includes the gentle starlight and other sources of information about the rest of the Universe, as well as the sunlight that fuels the biosphere. Some of the radiation can be dangerous.

This is particularly true if an energetic event is unusually close, energetic, or pointed at the Earth. Most of the time the biosphere is protected by the Earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field, which absorb and channel much of the potentially damaging radiation.

Travelling outside the atmosphere, and especially outside the magnetic shield that extends to low-Earth orbit, renders astronauts vulnerable to Solar storms. Nearly all the individual radiation sources that affect us are subject to bursts or possible long-term enhancement that may make them dangerous. Over geological timescales, this becomes an interesting question for the development of the biosphere. Although we have been observing such things directly for only a short time, we can summarize the observations and use indirect arguments to estimate or set limits on the rates of many such events. It is the purpose of this review to summarize what is known at this time, in terms of rates and intensities, as well as point out some areas of further useful research. This review is aimed at a wide audience from a range of fields, and so we include some background material that will be obvious to some readers but new to others.

It is beyond the scope of this document to discuss in more than a superficial way the biological effects of the various types of radiation. The effects of some important kinds are covered in texts (e.g. Alpen 1997; Kudryashov and Lomanov 2008). Others, such as high-energy muons, are important in air showers, but relatively less attention has been paid to understanding their biological effects. One well-known effect is mutation (Moeller et al. 2010). It is important to note that an increase in the mutation rate does not necessarily lead to more rapid evolution; the limiting factor is often something else, such as selection pressure or isolation of small populations of a species. Other effects involve carcinogenesis and the inhibition of photosynthesis. The atmosphere may be changed in a way that admits more of certain types of damaging ultraviolet light, as discussed below.

We need a semiquantitative way to characterize the probable damage level to the biota of various sources over geological intervals. Given that the ozone depletion/UVB effects are potentially severe, probably the most easily triggered, and relatively well-studied, we will use them as calibration. Given that current anthropogenic depletion is doing measurable damage to our biosphere (Häder 1997; Häder et al. 2007), we use the threshold of “measurable damage” as that which produces a mean global ozone depletion of about 3%, close to that recently observed. A mean depletion of about 30% will nearly double the mean UVB flux at the surface (Thomas et al. 2005). This is far above the level of lethality for phytoplankton in particular, and would be expected to trigger a food chain crash in the ocean (Melott and Thomas 2009), so we will call this an “extinction level event.” These definitions are not precise, because mortality will vary between different organisms, and its consequences will depend upon what else is going on in the biosphere. They are, however, sufficiently precise given the level of our astrophysical knowledge about source rates and intensities.





II. Characterizing types of ionizing radiation

We consider here both electromagnetic radiation (photons) and high-energy protons and other nuclei (often called “cosmic rays”). We will label electromagnetic radiation by its photon energy, which is proportional to frequency (and therefore inversely proportional to wavelength). Strong effects on molecules happen when chemical bonds can be broken, which means roughly a few eV and up. The eV is a unit of energy corresponding to that gained by one electron when it falls through a potential difference of 1 volt. Modern astronomy has gone far beyond visible light, and uses all electromagnetic radiation as windows on the Universe—often from orbiting observatories. Photons are immune to the effects of magnetic fields but can be stopped by matter. Most of the energetic photons do not penetrate very far into the Earth’s atmosphere, but they can change it.

The other main type of radiation (usually called “cosmic rays”) consists of elementary particles accelerated to very high speeds, i.e. close to that of light. The most important cosmic rays are those particles which are the constituents of ordinary matter. The cosmic ray as it arrives at the upper atmosphere is called a primary; it will undergo many interactions and rarely arrives unchanged at the surface of the Earth. The vast majority of primaries are protons, the positively charged nuclei of hydrogen atoms, the most common element in the Universe. Alpha particles, the nuclei of helium atoms with 4 times the mass of protons are an important subcomponent; the rest are electrons and the nuclei of heavier elements. Recall that mass and energy are convertible; it is customary to refer to the “rest mass” of a proton as the energy into which it might be converted, about 1 GeV. Lower-energy primaries, especially those from the Sun, might be keV. This means they are carrying about a keV of kinetic energy, far less than their “rest mass,” which implies they are moving at speeds far less than the speed of light. At higher energies, their kinetic energy far exceeds their rest mass, and they are moving very close to the speed of light. High energy cosmic rays are reviewed in depth by Kotera and Olinto (2011).

Sources of cosmic rays include our Sun, both as a steady source and occasional bursts in solar flares. The so-called anomalous cosmic rays come from the outer Solar System, where there is a shock front between the outgoing “solar wind” and the interstellar medium. Supernovae are thought to produce cosmic rays up to 1015 eV (e.g. Caprioli, Blasi, and Amato 2010). As there are a few supernovae per century in our galaxy, and the travel times are large (see below), the cosmic ray background is fairly constant unless one goes off relatively nearby (Erlykin and Wolfendale 2006, 2010). Highly energetic cosmic rays, up to about 1021 eV are thought to be produced by active galactic nuclei (Abraham et al. 2007) and/or gamma-ray bursts (Dermer and Holmes 2005; Calvez et al. 2010).

The path of charged particles in a uniform magnetic field is typically a spiral or helix, following around the “field lines.” In the case of the Earth, where field lines typically connect the poles, this channels most charged particles to the polar regions, so that residents there are exposed to more radiation. When the energy gets up to about 17 GeV or more, charged nucleons basically punch through the Earth’s magnetic field and interact with the atmosphere all over the globe (Usoskin and Kovaltsov 2006). Much of the energy is deposited in the atmosphere. Rarely do primaries reach the ground;

instead secondary particles of various kinds dominate what is received there. Additional information on cosmic rays is summarized in Ferrari and Szuszkiewicz (2009).

III. Dominant terrestrial effects of ionizing radiation

In this paper we describe “measureable”, “lethal” or “extinction level” events, in terms of their effect on the biosphere. There are several ways that photon and particle radiation from astrophysical sources can affect life on Earth. Here we divide these effects into two main categories: direct and indirect. For many of the sources we consider, the most important impact is an indirect one – ionization of the atmosphere leading to depletion of stratospheric ozone. As described below, this depletion leads to biological damage due to solar UVB radiation. We therefore use ozone depletion as a proxy for biological damage (and hence how “dangerous” an event may be).

It is beyond the scope of this summary to extensively discuss terrestrial effects of episodes of enhanced ionizing radiation. Increased transmission of damaging Solar UVB is expected to be the most important effect triggered by an ionization event. There is extensive literature in photobiology, particularly on the effects of UVB since somewhat increased UVB from anthropogenic changes in the atmosphere has been a concern in recent decades; we cite some of this below.

Gamma-ray bursts (the most energetic events considered here) emit X-ray and gammaray photons. These are nearly all absorbed by the atmosphere. The important effects are changes in the chemistry of the atmosphere from ionization by this radiation, and to a lesser extent a “flash” of secondary photons which reach the ground. Such photons are also important to consider with other radiation sources.

Although cosmic rays also ionize the atmosphere (Atri et al. 2010; Melott et al. 2010a), in doing so they typically disappear and set off a shower of secondary particles. Unlike astronauts, who may be exposed to the primaries, the secondary shower is most important for life on the ground. Computation of the contents of air showers from highenergy primaries is only now getting underway (e.g. Atri and Melott 2010).

The only certain diagnostic of past atmospheric events is the formation of unstable isotopes by nuclear interaction of cosmic rays with components of the atmosphere.

Most prominent are 14C, 10Be, and 26Al, with half–lives of 5,370 yr, 1.51 Myr, and 717,000 yr respectively. These are steadily produced in the atmosphere but are enhanced during episodes of increased cosmic ray flux. They can be found in biological samples, speleothems (such as stalagmites) and ice cores. With their geologically short decay times, they unfortunately cannot probe the long timescales needed to diagnose the infrequent strong events likely to be associated with supernovae and gamma-ray bursts.

Cosmic ray effects on the biosphere include direct radiation and secondaries (e.g.

Karam 2003). There is considerable statistical evidence linking even the greatly attenuated effects of cosmic rays on the ground with increased cancer and birth defects (e.g. Juckett and Rosenberg 1997; Juckett 2007, 2009). There have been attempts to probe the fossil record for bone cancer effects as a proxy for radiation episodes (Natarajan et al. 2007). Bone cancer can be caused by thermal neutrons, which have a flux of only a few per cm2 per second on the ground, but about 280 times higher in the stratosphere, where they are probably responsible for elevated cancer rates seen in airline attendants (Goldhagen 2003). Such an effect could reach the ground with more energetic cosmic rays. It is unlikely with the kind of irradiation expected from many astrophysical sources, but is very likely with the kind of cosmic rays likely to be incident from a nearby supernova (Erlykin and Wolfendale 2010) or possibly from a gamma-ray burst in our galaxy (Dermer and Holmes 2005). We have work in progress to compute the thermal neutron flux on the ground from high-energy cosmic rays from such events.



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