Science Focus - the home of BBC Science Focus Magazine
Could life survive if the atmosphere disappeared? © Getty Images

Could life survive if the atmosphere disappeared?

Subscribe to BBC Science Focus Magazine and get 6 issues for just £9.99

We were having a great time, but then the atmosphere just got sucked out of the place.

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.


Subscribe to BBC Focus magazine for fascinating new Q&As every month and follow @sciencefocusQA on Twitter for your daily dose of fun science facts.


luis villazon
Luis VillazonQ&A expert

Luis trained as a zoologist, but now works as a science and technology educator. In his spare time he builds 3D-printed robots, in the hope that he will be spared when the revolution inevitably comes.


Sponsored content