Tree rings may hold clues to impacts of distant supernovas on Earth

Massive explosions of energy happening thousands of light-years from Earth may have left traces in our planet’s biology and geology, according to new research by University of Colorado Boulder geoscientist Robert Brakenridge. The study, published this month in the International Journal of Astrobiology, probes the impacts of supernovas, some of the most violent events in the known universe. In the span of just a few months, a single one of these eruptions can release as much energy as the sun will during its entire lifetime. They’re also bright — really bright.

Tree trunk, cross section showing annual growth rings, full frame

To study those possible impacts, Brakenridge searched through the planet’s tree ring records for the fingerprints of these distant, cosmic explosions. His findings suggest that relatively close supernovas could theoretically have triggered at least four disruptions to Earth’s climate over the last 40,000 years. Scientists have recorded supernovas in other galaxies that have produced a stupendous amount of gamma radiation — the same kind of radiation that can trigger the formation of radiocarbon atoms on Earth. While these isotopes aren’t dangerous on their own, a spike in their levels could indicate that energy from a distant supernova has traveled hundreds to thousands of light-years to our planet.

To test the hypothesis, Brakenridge turned to the past. He assembled a list of supernovas that occurred relatively close to Earth over the last 40,000 years. Scientists can study these events by observing the nebulas they left behind. He then compared the estimated ages of those galactic fireworks to the tree ring record on the ground. He found that of the eight closest supernovas studied, all seemed to be associated with unexplained spikes in the radiocarbon record on Earth. He considers four of these to be especially promising candidates. Take the case of a former star in the Vela constellation. This celestial body, which once sat about 815 lightyears from Earth, went supernova roughly 13,000 years ago. Not long after that, radiocarbon levels jumped up by nearly 3% on Earth — a staggering increase.

You can read more in the original paper (this version is adapted and abridged from Source).

Brakenridge, G.R., Solar system exposure to supernova γ radiation. International Journal of Astrobiology, pp.1-14.