Prebiotic chemistry and atmospheric warming of early Earth by an active young Sun


Nitrogen is a critical ingredient of complex biological molecules1. Molecular nitrogen, however, which was outgassed into the Earth’s early atmosphere2, is relatively chemically inert and nitrogen fixation into more chemically reactive compounds requires high temperatures. Possible mechanisms of nitrogen fixation include lightning, atmospheric shock heating by meteorites, and solar ultraviolet radiation3,4. Here we show that nitrogen fixation in the early terrestrial atmosphere can be explained by frequent and powerful coronal mass ejection events from the young Sun—so-called superflares. Using magnetohydrodynamic simulations constrained by Kepler Space Telescope observations, we find that successive superflare ejections produce shocks that accelerate energetic particles, which would have compressed the early Earth’s magnetosphere. The resulting extended polar cap openings provide pathways for energetic particles to penetrate into the atmosphere and, according to our atmospheric chemistry simulations, initiate reactions converting molecular nitrogen, carbon dioxide and methane to the potent greenhouse gas nitrous oxide as well as hydrogen cyanide, an essential compound for life. Furthermore, the destruction of N2, CO2 and CH4 suggests that these greenhouse gases cannot explain the stability of liquid water on the early Earth. Instead, we propose that the efficient formation of nitrous oxide could explain a warm early Earth.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Simulation of the magnetic field lines and plasma pressure in the Earth’s magnetosphere due to a CME event.
Figure 2: Spectrum of the young Sun’s XUV flux at 0.7 Gyr (ref. 20).
Figure 3: The pathway diagram of abiotic production of odd nitrogen and nitrogen-bearing compounds including nitrous oxide and hydrogen cyanide due to photo and collisional dissociation and ionizations caused by XUV solar flux and SEP particle flux.
Figure 4: Radial profiles of the steady-state mixing ratios of various species produced by an incoming flux of primary protons and secondary electrons.


  1. 1

    Barrett, G. C. & Elmore, D. T. Amino Acids and Peptides (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1998).

    Google Scholar 

  2. 2

    Ringwood, A. E. Chemical composition of the terrestrial planets. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 30, 41–104 (1996).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. 3

    Summers, D. P., Basa, R. C. B., Khare, B. & Rodoni, D. Abiotic nitrogen fixation on terrestrial planets: reduction of NO to ammonia by FeS. Astrobiology 12, 107–114 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. 4

    Kasting, J. F. Bolide impacts and the oxidation state of carbon in the Earth’s early atmosphere. Orig. Life Evol. Biosph. 20, 199–231 (1990).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. 5

    Maehara, H. et al. Superflares on solar-type stars. Nature 485, 478–481 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. 6

    Shibayama, T. et al. Superflares on solar-type stars observed with Kepler. I. Statistical properties of superflares. Astrophys. J. Suppl. Ser. 209, 5 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. 7

    Gopalswamy, N. et al. Properties of ground level enhancement events and the associated solar eruptions during solar cycle 23. Space Sci. Rev. 171, 23–60 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. 8

    Tsurutani, B. T., Smith, E. J., Pyle, K. R. & Simpson, J. A. Energetic protons accelerated at corotating shocks - Pioneer 10 and 11 observations from 1 to 6 AU. J. Geophys. Res. 87, 7389–7404 (1982).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. 9

    Emslie, A. G. et al. Global energetics of thirty-eight large solar eruptive events. Astrophys. J. 759, 71 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. 10

    Miyake, F., Nagaya, K., Masuda, K. & Nakamura, T. A signature of cosmic-ray increase in AD 774–775 from tree rings in Japan. Nature 486, 240–242 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. 11

    Miyake, F., Masuda, K. & Nakamura, T. Another rapid event in the carbon-14 content of tree rings. Nature Commun. 4, 1748 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. 12

    Tsurutani, B. T., Gonzales, W. D., Lakhina, G. S. & Alex, S. The extreme magnetic storm of 1–2 September 1859. J. Geophys. Res. 108, 1268 (2003).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. 13

    Vidotto, A. A. et al. Stellar magnetism: empirical trends with age and rotation. Month. Not. R. Astron. Soc. 441, 2361–2374 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. 14

    Airapetian, V., Glocer, A. & Danchi, W. in Proc. 18th Cambridge Workshop on Cool Stars, Stellar Systems, and the Sun (eds van Belle, G. & Harris, H.) 257–268 (2015).

    Google Scholar 

  15. 15

    Airapetian, V. S. & Usmanov, A. V. Reconstructing the solar wind from its early history to current epoch. Astrophys. J. 817, L24–L30 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. 16

    Tarduno, J., Blackman, E. G. & Mamajek, E. E. Detecting the oldest geodynamo and attendant shielding from the solar wind: implications for habitability. Phys. Earth Planet. Inter. 233, 68–87 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. 17

    Liu, Y. D. et al. Observations of an extreme storm in interplanetary space caused by successive coronal mass ejections. Nature Commun. 5, 3481 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. 18

    Gronoff, G. et al. The precipitation of keV energetic oxygen ions at Mars and their effects during the comet Siding Spring approach. Geophys. Res. Lett. 41, 4844–4850 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. 19

    Cnossen, I. et al. Habitat of early life: solar X-ray and UV radiation at Earth’s surface 4–3.5 billion years ago. J. Geophys. Res. 112, E02008 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. 20

    Claire, M. W. et al. The evolution of solar flux from 0.1 nm to 160 μm: quantitative estimates for planetary studies. Astrophys. J. 757, 95 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. 21

    Mewaldt, R. A. Energy spectra, composition, and other properties of ground-level events during solar cycle 23. Space Sci. Rev. 171, 97–120 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. 22

    Goldblatt, C. et al. Nitrogen-enhanced greenhouse warming on early Earth. Nature Geosci. 2, 891–896 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. 23

    Nna-Mvondo, D., Navarro-González, R., Raulin, F. & Coll, P. Nitrogen fixation by corona discharge on the early precambrian Earth. 2005. Orig. Life Evol. Biosph. 35, 401–409 (2005).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. 24

    Brandvold, D. K., Martinez, P. & Hipsh, R. Field measurements of O3 and N2O produced from a corona discharge. Atmos. Environ. 30, 973–976 (1996).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. 25

    Gough, D. O. Solar interior structure and luminosity variations. Solar Phys. 74, 21–34 (1981).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. 26

    Kasting, J. F. Early Earth: faint young Sun redux. Nature 464, 687–689 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. 27

    Wordsworth, R. & Pierrehumbert, R. Hydrogen–nitrogen greenhouse warming in Earth’s early atmosphere. Science 339, 64–67 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. 28

    Rosing, M. T., Bird, D. K., Sleep, N. H. & Bjerrum, C. J. No climate paradox under the faint early Sun. Nature 464, 744–747 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. 29

    Miyakawa, S., Cleaves, H. J. & Miller, S. L. The cold origin of life: B. implications based on pyrimidines and purines produced from frozen ammonium cyanide solutions. Orig. Life Evol. Biosph. 32, 209–218 (2002).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. 30

    Powell, K. G., Roe, P. L., Linde, T. J., Gombosi, T. I. & De Zeeuw, D. L. A solution-adaptive upwind scheme for ideal magnetohydrodynamics. J. Comp. Phys. 154, 284–309 (1999).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. 31

    de Zeeuw, D. L. et al. Coupling of a global MHD code and an inner magnetospheric model: initial results. J. Geophys. Res. 109, A12219 (2004).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. 32

    Ridley, A. J. et al. University of Michigan MHD results of the geospace global circulation model metrics challenge. J. Geophys. Res. 107, 1290 (2002).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. 33

    Ngwira, C. M., Pulkkinen, A., Kuznetsova, M. M. & Glocer, A. Modeling extreme “Carrington-type” space weather events using three-dimensional global MHD simulations. J. Geophys. Res. 119, 4456–4474 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


This work was supported by NASA GSFC Science Task Group funds. V.S.A. performed the part of this work while staying at ELSI/Tokyo Tech. G.G. was supported by NASA Astrobiology Institute grant NNX15AE05G and by the NASA HIDEE Program, E.H. was supported by an appointment to the NASA Postdoctoral Program at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, administered by Universities Space Research Association through a contract with NASA.

Author information




V.S.A. conceived and designed the numerical experiments, analysed the data, contributed materials and wrote the manuscript. A.G. and G.G. contributed to the development and execution of codes and data analysis. E.H. contributed to the chemistry model and data analysis, W.D. contributed to development of the manuscript, to data analysis and proofreading of the paper.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to V. S. Airapetian.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Information (PDF 529 kb)

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Information (MPG 2360 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Airapetian, V., Glocer, A., Gronoff, G. et al. Prebiotic chemistry and atmospheric warming of early Earth by an active young Sun. Nature Geosci 9, 452–455 (2016).

Download citation

Further reading


Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter for a daily update on COVID-19 science.
Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing