Biosignatures & Paleobiology

The Vegetation Red Edge Biosignature Through Time on Earth and Exoplanets

By Keith Cowing
Press Release
September 24, 2018
Filed under
The Vegetation Red Edge Biosignature Through Time on Earth and Exoplanets
(Top) Evolutionary time line for land plants. (Bottom) Reflectivity examples of different vegetation types for each of the stages outlined (moss, ferns, Gymnosperms, flowering planets and cacti). Deviations within each of group are generally small. Note that the reflective spines on some cacti can scatter light into the column of light in which reflectance is being measured, giving the appearance of >100% reflectance when observed alone. [Mya: Million years ago].

The high reflection of land vegetation in the near-infrared, the vegetation red edge (VRE), is often cited as a spectral biosignature for surface vegetation on exoplanets.

The VRE is only a few percent change in reflectivity for a disk-integrated observation of present-day Earth. Here we show that the strength of Earth’s VRE has increased over the past ~500 million years of land plant evolution and may continue to increase as solar luminosity increases and the planet warms, until either vegetation coverage is reduced, or the planet’s atmosphere becomes opaque to light reflected off the surface. Early plants like mosses and liverworts, which dominated on land 500-400 million years ago, produce a weaker VRE, approximately half as strong as that of modern vegetation.

We explore how the changes in land plants, as well as geological changes like ice coverage during ice-ages and interglacial periods, influence the detectability of the VRE through Earth’s geological past. Our results show that the VRE has varied through the evolutionary history of land plants on Earth, and could continue to change into the future if hotter climate conditions became dominant, encouraging the spread of vegetation. Our findings suggest that older and hotter Earth-like planets are good targets for the search for a VRE signature.

In addition, hot exoplanets and dry exoplanets with some water could be the best targets for a successful vegetation biosignature detection. As well as a strong red edge, lower cloud-fractions and low levels of atmospheric water vapor on such planets could make it easier to detect surface features in general.

Jack T. O’Malley-James, Lisa Kaltenegger
(Submitted on 24 Sep 2018)
Comments: Published in Astrobiology (Free open access until October 2 2018: this https URL)
Subjects: Earth and Planetary Astrophysics (astro-ph.EP)
Cite as: arXiv:1809.08832 [astro-ph.EP] (or arXiv:1809.08832v1 [astro-ph.EP] for this version)
Submission history
From: Jack O’Malley-James
[v1] Mon, 24 Sep 2018 10:37:55 GMT (3842kb)

Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA Space Station Payload manager/space biologist, Away Teams, Journalist, Lapsed climber, Synaesthete, Na’Vi-Jedi-Freman-Buddhist-mix, ASL, Devon Island and Everest Base Camp veteran, (he/him) 🖖🏻