, Volume 336, Issue 2, pp 287-302
Date: 06 Oct 2011

The past, present and future supernova threat to Earth’s biosphere

Rent the article at a discount

Rent now

* Final gross prices may vary according to local VAT.

Get Access


A brief review of the threat posed to Earth’s biosphere via near-by supernova detonations is presented. The expected radiation dosage, cosmic ray flux and expanding blast wave collision effects are considered, and it is argued that a typical supernova must be closer than ∼10-pc before any appreciable and potentially harmful atmosphere/biosphere effects are likely to occur. In contrast, the critical distance for Gamma-ray bursts is of order 1-kpc. In spite of the high energy effects potentially involved, the geological record provides no clear-cut evidence for any historic supernova induced mass extinctions and/or strong climate change episodes. This, however, is mostly a reflection of their being numerous possible (terrestrial and astronomical) forcing mechanisms acting upon the biosphere and the difficulty of distinguishing between competing scenarios. Key to resolving this situation, it is suggested, is the development of supernova specific extinction and climate change linked ecological models. Moving to the future, we estimate that over the remaining lifetime of the biosphere (∼2 Gyr) the Earth might experience 1 GRB and 20 supernova detonations within their respective harmful threat ranges. There are currently at least 12 potential pre-supernova systems within 1-kpc of the Sun. Of these systems IK Pegasi is the closest Type Ia pre-supernova candidate and Betelgeuse is the closest potential Type II supernova candidate. We review in some detail the past, present and future behavior of these two systems. Developing a detailed evolutionary model we find that IK Pegasi will likely not detonate until some 1.9 billion years hence, and that it affords absolutely no threat to Earth’s biosphere. Betelgeuse is the closest, reasonably well understood, pre-supernova candidate to the Sun at the present epoch, and may undergo detonation any time within the next several million years. The stand-off distance of Betelgeuse at the time of its detonation is estimated to fall between 150 and 300-pc—again, affording no possible threat to Earth’s biosphere. Temporally, the next most likely, close, potential Type Ic supernova to the Sun is the Wolf-Rayet star within the γ 2 Velorum binary system located at least 260-pc away. It is suggested that evidence relating to large-scale astroengineering projects might fruitfully be looked for in those regions located within 10 to 30-pc of any pre-supernova candidate system.