Determining if a newly discovered planet has an ocean is vital to establishing whether it could develop and sustain life, according to research announced today.
Traditionally scientists have relied on the presence of an atmosphere as the central focus of computer simulations to determine if a planet is hospitable to life.
However, researchers from the UK’s University of East Anglia (UEA) have determined that the presence of an ocean is a better focus for computer models.
They have developed a simulation based on this information that provides far more accurate information about a planet’s life-sustaining possibilities that previous approaches, giving humanity a better idea of possible sources of life outside of Earth than we have ever had before.
“This new model will help us to understand what the climates of other planets might be like with more accurate detail than ever before,” explained Professor David Stevens, of UEA’s school of Mathematics.
Oceans are so important because of their impact on the way heat is transported.
“Oceans have an immense capacity to control climate,” said Stevens. ”They are beneficial because they cause the surface temperature to respond very slowly to seasonal changes in solar heating.
“And they help ensure that temperature swings across a planet are kept to tolerable levels.”
The team discovered this importance by creating a computer simulation of a fictional Earth-like planet, and considering how factoring in oceans affected the results.
“We found that heat transported by oceans would have a major impact on the temperature distribution across a planet, and would potentially allow a greater area of a planet to be habitable,” explained Stevens.
Previously research has relied on the fabled Goldilocks Zone – the pocket of distance away from the sun where life can flourish due to the ability for a planet to have liquid water.
“We know that many planets are completely uninhabitable because they are either too close or too far from their sun,” said Stevens. “But until now, most habitability models have neglected the impact of oceans on climate.”
The importance of oceans can be seen in our neighbour Mars, which is the right distance from the sun but shows no signs of life.
“Mars for example is in the sun’s habitable zone, but it has no oceans – causing air temperatures to swing over a range of 100°C,” said Stevens.
“Oceans help to make a planet’s climate more stable so factoring them into climate models is vital for knowing whether the planet could develop and sustain life.”