For the first time in human history, we have rudimentary planetary defense technology that could someday prevent a major asteroid impact. However, a new study from NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies calls attention to a more likely and harder-to-solve apocalypse: volcanoes. The study points to Venus as an example, suggesting that a period of volcanic activity lasting millions of years may have turned it from a watery world into the inhospitable hellscape we see today.
Venus is considered Earth’s sister world — the planets have similar sizes and densities, but the conditions on the surface could not be more different. The Venusian atmosphere is over 90 times denser than Earth’s and composed mostly of carbon dioxide. The planet suffers from a runaway greenhouse effect with an average surface temperature of 864 degrees Fahrenheit (462 degrees Celsius).
The study focuses on the effects of “large igneous provinces,” or LIPs, which are periods of widespread volcanic activity. On Earth, these conditions can last for thousands of years and have been responsible for more mass extinctions than asteroid impacts. LIPs can leave over 100,000 cubic miles of volcanic rock on the surface, but that’s nothing compared with Venus, the surface of which is more than 80 percent solidified volcanic rock.
“By understanding the record of large igneous provinces on Earth and Venus, we can determine if these events may have caused Venus’ present condition,” says lead author Dr. Michael Way. The study evaluated the likely effects of LIPs if they occurred in clusters, with each event separated by 100,000 to 1 million years. The team also evaluated the cumulative effects of LIPs happening randomly throughout Venus’ history. In both cases, the study concludes that the environmental impact of LIPs could have caused the heat death of Venus. Earth, meanwhile, may have narrowly escaped complete ruin.
Venus is a notoriously difficult planet to study. The only probes ever to reach the surface were destroyed by the crushing pressure and acidic clouds within minutes. NASA’s upcoming missions may shed some light on the planet’s history. DAVINCI (Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging) will be able to map out the history of water on Venus, as well as how its climate changed over time. DAVINCI is currently scheduled to reach Venus toward the end of the decade. Next up will be the Venus Emissivity, Radio science, InSAR, Topography, And Spectroscopy (VERITAS) mission, an orbiter that will analyze the planet’s surface.