Could life survive if the atmosphere disappeared?

Wednesday 22nd July 2009
Uploaded by: Luis Villazon
Asked by: Craig Morley. Norwich

If you sucked away the entire atmosphere, most higher vertebrates (including humans) would asphyxiate in seconds. Other land animals would follow within a few minutes, plants within a few hours. Meanwhile, the sudden drop in pressure would have a curious effect on the seas. The absence of pressure would let the fastest-moving molecules escape as gas (boil) at normal atmospheric temperature; however, as this process continued, only the slowest-moving molecules would be left, so that the rest of the water would very quickly freeze. Sea levels would drop substantially, but there would still be oxygen dissolved in the water that was left, so sea life, deep-water organisms in particular, might survive longer. With no new oxygen dissolving in from the atmosphere, however, the amount in the water would steadily decrease as dead organisms sank to the bottom. It would take 500 years to fully deplete the deepest ocean.
Anaerobic bacteria and the chemosynthetic bacteria living around sulphur vents on the seabed would survive, though. And volcanoes would still pump CO2 into the atmosphere. Given about a billion and a half years, the action of bacteria and algae in shallow seas might eventually replace the atmosphere. But don't hold your breath.

How likely is it that the Sun will rise tomorrow?
previous Q&A Article
What do scientists mean by 'space weather'?
next Q&A Article
Q&A Tabs

Your DNA is arranged into chromosomes, which are grouped into 23 pairs. When a sperm cell is manufactured, the father’s genome is split in two, so that each sperm receives one chromosome...

The whole brain is active during dreams, from the brain stem to the cortex. Most dreams occur during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. This is part of the sleep-wake cycle and is controlled by the...

Clingfilm is either made from PVC or low density polyethylene that's treated to make it stretch. When you unroll the clingfilm, some of the electrons on the surface of one layer get pulled away...

All female mammals have a clitoris, the sole purpose of which is to react to sexual stimulation, and presumably this stimulation has evolved to be pleasurable for most species. But establishing...

To create a sound, we have to set matter - whether it's a gas like air, a liquid or even a solid material - in regular motion, creating a wave of specific frequencies, which we hear as a sound of...

Mirrors don’t reverse left and right either – that’s just our interpretation of what happens. Your reflection in the mirror is actually reversed front to back – if you have...

Discovered by an American student named Gary Flandro in the mid-1960s, the slingshot manoeuvre usually involves spacecraft briefly 'coat-tailing' a planet orbiting the Sun, extracting some of the...

The ice disappears because the wind blows away water molecules that have evaporated or 'sublimed' from the ice, so the ice slowly shrinks in size. The molecules that escape are those with the...

We use cookies to improve your experience of our website. Cookies perform functions like recognising you each time you visit and delivering advertising messages that are relevant to you. Read more here