OCT 30, 2023 12:30 PM PDT

Venus' Surprising History: Early Tectonics and Possible Traces of Life

A recent study published in Nature Astronomy provides evidence for how the planet Venus might have once had plate tectonic activity at the same time as the ancient Earth. This study was led by researchers at Brown University and holds the potential to help scientists better understand the formation and evolution of Venus, including its potential habitability deep in its past.

For the study, the researchers used computer models to produce long-term analyses of Venus’ atmosphere. While they began the models by giving Venus what’s known as a stagnant lid, meaning zero plate tectonics throughout its entire history, they quickly realized this didn’t correlate with the present-day atmospheric composition of Venus, specifically pertaining to carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and the crushing surface pressure, with carbon dioxide comprising more than 96 percent of Venus’ atmosphere. However, once the team incorporated mild plate tectonics into Venus’ past, this most closely matched the planetary conditions of today.

“One of the big picture takeaways is that we very likely had two planets at the same time in the same solar system operating in a plate tectonic regime — the same mode of tectonics that allowed for the life that we see on Earth today,” said Dr. Matt Weller, who is a planetary geophysicist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute but conducted the research as a postdoctoral researcher at Brown, and is lead author of the study.

This study boldens the hypothesis that microbial life once might have existed on Venus at the same time as ancient Earth and that plate tectonics plays a vital role in life both forming and evolving on terrestrial worlds, as well.

While some studies refute the idea of plate tectonics being necessary for life on the Earth, the longstanding theory is that plate tectonics contributes to life on the Earth because it allows for the transfer of heat from the Earth’s interior to the surface, resulting in the formation of continents and other geological characteristics that life might need to take hold. However, given Venus’ lack of plate tectonics today, along with its runaway greenhouse effect and crushing surface pressure, life does not exist there today.

What new discoveries will researchers make about Venus and its potential for past, or current, life in the coming years and decades? Only time will tell, and this is why we science!

As always, keep doing science & keep looking up!

Sources: Nature Astronomy, EurekAlert!, Britannica, Brown University, Rochester University, Quanta Magazine

About the Author
Master's (MA/MS/Other)
Laurence Tognetti is a six-year USAF Veteran who earned both a BSc and MSc from the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University. Laurence is extremely passionate about outer space and science communication, and is the author of “Outer Solar System Moons: Your Personal 3D Journey”.
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