Exoplanets with Extremely Salty Oceans May Be More Habitable Than We Thought

Tuesday, 05 April 2016 - 3:29PM
Astrobiology
Alien Life
Tuesday, 05 April 2016 - 3:29PM
Exoplanets with Extremely Salty Oceans May Be More Habitable Than We Thought
Scientists have discovered several small, rocky, relatively Earth-like planets within their star's Goldilocks zone that could theoretically be habitable. But in order to determine whether they're actually conducive to the formation of alien life, we need to run simulations of their atmospheres and climates. According to a new study, one small assumption--that alien planets have oceans with similar salt content--may have led to erroneous conclusions regarding the habitability of certain planets. If the salinity of exoplanets' oceans is significantly higher, then they may be much more habitable than astronomers originally believed.

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"Previous studies on ocean circulation on other planets have made the assumption that fundamental ocean properties - such as the salinity and depth of water - would be similar to that on Earth," said co-author David Stevens of the University of East Anglia in a statement. "We wanted to find out what might be happening on other planets which might appear superficially similar to Earth, but where conditions such as salinity are radically different to our own planet... Our research helps to answer whether or not these planets could sustain alien life."
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On Earth, oceans follow a specific circulation pattern: warm water flows poleward and is cooled at the poles, causing the cool water to sink and flow towards the equator, concentrating cold and salty water at the ocean floor. According to a new study published in PNAS, if the salinity were higher on another planet, then these circulation patterns would be reversed, which would change the entire climate. It would fill the ocean floor with warm water and significantly warm the poles, making the planet much more habitable for alien life forms.

Not only does this open up further possibilities for the planets already deemed potentially habitable, it could also decrease the importance of finding planets within their stars' Goldilocks zones. If a planet appears to be too far away from its Sun, but doesn't have frozen poles, it could still play host to liquid water and sustain life. 
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"Of course, on any given exoplanet, many other properties are likely to differ from their Earth-like values, some of which may also have a significant influence on ocean circulation - such as tidal forces, planetary rotation, ocean depth and the location of continents." Jodie Cullum, lead author of the paper said. "But this is important work which will help us better understand the habitability of distant planets in more accurate detail than ever before."
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