Maintenance of permeable habitable subsurface environments by earthquakes and tidal stresses

Norman H. Sleep

Published October 2012, SCEC Contribution #1629

Life inhabits the subsurface of the Earth down to depths where temperature precludes it. Similar conditions are likely to exist within the traditional habitable zone for objects between 0.1 Earth mass (Mars) and 10 Earth masses (superearth). Long-term cooling and internal radioactivity maintain surface heat flow on the Earth. These heat sources are comparable and likely to be comparable in general within old rocky planets. Surface heat flow scales with mass divided by surface area and hence with surface gravity. The average absolute habitable subsurface thickness scales inversely with heat flow and gravity. Surface gravity varies by only 0.4 g for Mars to 3.15 g for a superearth. This range is less than the regional variation of heat flow on the Earth. Still ocean-boiling asteroid impacts (if they occur) are more likely to sterilize the thin habitable subsurface of large objects than thick habitable subsurface of small ones. Tectonics self-organizes to maintain subsurface permeability and habitability within both stable and active regions on the Earth. Small earthquakes within stable regions allow sudden mixing of water masses. Large earthquakes at plate boundaries allow surface water to descend to great habitable depths. Seismic shaking near major faults cracks shallow rock forming permeable regolith. Strong tidal strains form a similar porous regolith on small bodies such as Enceladus with weak stellar heating. This regolith may bewater-saturated within rocky bodies and thus habitable.

Sleep, N. H. (2012). Maintenance of permeable habitable subsurface environments by earthquakes and tidal stresses. International Journal of Astrobiology, 11(4), 257-268. doi: 10.1017/S1473550412000122.