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Abrupt climate transition of icy worlds from snowball to moist or runaway greenhouse

Abstract

Ongoing and future space missions aim to identify potentially habitable planets in our Solar System and beyond. Planetary habitability is determined not only by a planet’s current stellar insolation and atmospheric properties, but also by the evolutionary history of its climate. It has been suggested that icy planets and moons become habitable after their initial ice shield melts as their host stars brighten. Here we show from global climate model simulations that a habitable state is not achieved in the climatic evolution of those icy planets and moons that possess an inactive carbonate–silicate cycle and low concentrations of greenhouse gases. Examples for such planetary bodies are the icy moons Europa and Enceladus, and certain icy exoplanets orbiting G and F stars. We find that the stellar fluxes that are required to overcome a planet’s initial snowball state are so large that they lead to significant water loss and preclude a habitable planet. Specifically, they exceed the moist greenhouse limit, at which water vapour accumulates at high altitudes where it can readily escape, or the runaway greenhouse limit, at which the strength of the greenhouse increases until the oceans boil away. We suggest that some icy planetary bodies may transition directly to a moist or runaway greenhouse without passing through a habitable Earth-like state.

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Figure 1: Climates of a snowball planet around a G star.
Figure 2: Comparison between snowball melting threshold and moist or runaway greenhouse limit.
Figure 3: Climate evolution of snowball planets.
Figure 4: Schematic illustration of the climate transition under stellar brightening and the underlying physical mechanisms.

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Acknowledgements

We are grateful to D. S. Abbot, D. D. B. Koll, A. P. Showman and Z. Liu for their helpful discussions, and to J. Haqq-Misra for providing the OLR fitting coefficients. We thank A. Ingersoll for helpful comments and suggestions. J.Y. is supported by the National Science Foundation of China (NSFC) grants 41675071 and 41606060, Y.H. is supported by NSFC grants 41375072 and 41530423, and W.R.P. is supported by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada Discovery Grant A9627. R.M.R. acknowledges support by the Simons Foundation (SCOL 290357, Kaltenegger). The required computations were performed on the SciNet facility at the University of Toronto, which is a component of the Compute Canada HPC platform.

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J.Y. led this work. J.Y., F.D. and Y.H. designed the study. J.Y. performed, analysed and interpreted the simulations. F.D., R.M.R., W.R.P., Y.H. and Y.L. assisted with the analysis and interpretation of the data. W.R.P. provided computer code necessary for the simulations. All authors discussed the results and wrote the paper.

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Correspondence to Jun Yang or Yongyun Hu.

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Yang, J., Ding, F., Ramirez, R. et al. Abrupt climate transition of icy worlds from snowball to moist or runaway greenhouse. Nature Geosci 10, 556–560 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo2994

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