Biosignatures & Paleobiology

Disruption Of A Planetary Nitrogen Cycle As Evidence Of Extraterrestrial Agriculture

By Keith Cowing
April 13, 2022
Filed under
Disruption Of A Planetary Nitrogen Cycle As Evidence Of Extraterrestrial Agriculture
Infrared spectral features of NH3, N2O, and CH4 for pre-agricultural, present-day, and future Earth scenarios, with relative intensity shown in the top panel and transmittance shown in the bottom panel. Calculations are performed with the Planetary Spectrum generator.

Agriculture is one of the oldest forms of technology on Earth. The cultivation of plants requires a terrestrial planet with active hydrological and carbon cycles and depends on the availability of nitrogen in soil.

The technological innovation of agriculture is the active management of this nitrogen cycle by applying fertilizer to soil, at first through the production of manure excesses but later by the Haber-Bosch industrial process. The use of such fertilizers has increased the atmospheric abundance of nitrogen-containing species such as NH3 and N2O as agricultural productivity intensifies in many parts of the world. Both NH3 and N2O are effective greenhouse gases, and the combined presence of these gases in the atmosphere of a habitable planet could serve as a remotely detectable spectral signature of technology. Here we use a synthetic spectral generator to assess the detectability of NH3 and N2O that would arise from present-day and future global-scale agriculture.

We show that present-day Earth abundances of NH3 and N2O would be difficult to detect but hypothetical scenarios involving a planet with 30-100 billion people could show a change in transmittance of about 50-70% compared to pre-agricultural Earth. These calculations suggest the possibility of considering the simultaneous detection of NH3 and N2O in an atmosphere that also contains H2O, O2, and CO2 as a technosignature for extraterrestrial agriculture. The technology of agriculture is one that could be sustainable across geologic timescales, so the spectral signature of such an “ExoFarm” is worth considering in the search for technosignatures.

Jacob Haqq-Misra, Thomas J. Fauchez, Edward W. Schwieterman, Ravi Kopparapu

Comments: Accepted by ApJL, 12 pages, 1 figure
Subjects: Earth and Planetary Astrophysics (astro-ph.EP); Instrumentation and Methods for Astrophysics (astro-ph.IM); Popular Physics (physics.pop-ph)
Cite as: arXiv:2204.05360 [astro-ph.EP] (or arXiv:2204.05360v1 [astro-ph.EP] for this version)
Submission history
From: Jacob Haqq-Misra
[v1] Mon, 11 Apr 2022 18:41:59 UTC (169 KB)

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) 🖖🏻