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Life and the physics of having a moon

Credit: Forbes > Full moon and fireworks GETTY

So, today I’m celebrating the Moon. The ancient mythology and modern physics of its stabilizing influence.

Both the Moon’s natural prominence in the earthly sky and its regular cycle of phases as seen from Earth have provided cultural references and influences for human societies and cultures since time immemorial.

After enjoying the full moon for July 4th, today this article reminded me about the role our Moon has played in Earth’s evolution, perhaps even critical to life as we know it. > “Higher concentration of metal in Moon’s craters provides new insights to its origin” by USC (July 1, 2020).

Life on Earth would not be possible without the Moon; it keeps our planet’s axis of rotation stable, which controls seasons and regulates our climate. However, there has been considerable debate over how the Moon was formed.

So, I searched for additional articles (below) on the claim that life on Earth would not be possible without the Moon. My impression is that life probably would have evolved, but not necessarily as we know it or in the same timeframe.

• Scientific American > “Without the Moon, Would There Be Life on Earth?” by Bruce Dorminey (April 21, 2009).

… four billion years ago a cooling Earth already had an ocean, but remained barren. The moon was perhaps half as distant as it is now, and as a result, the ocean tides were much more extreme.

… the moon is currently receding from Earth at a rate of 1.5 inches (3.8 centimeters) per year. As it does, Earth’s own spin rate is slowing. And, in the process, roughly 1020 joules of gravitational energy is shed into the oceans annually.

Molecular biologist Richard Lathe of Pieta Research, a biotech consultancy in Edinburgh, Scotland, contends that some 3.9 billion years ago, fast tidal cycling caused by the influence of our moon enabled the formation of precursor nucleic acids.

• > “Did we need the moon for life?” by Fraser Cain (Nov 23, 2015).

When the moon was closer, the power of its gravity to pull the Earth’s water around was more ferocious. But what impact has this gravity had on our world and its life? Do we need the moon to make the magic happen?

Turns out, we might owe our very existence to it because its pull of gravity might have set our plate tectonics in motion. Without plate tectonics, our planet might be more like Venus, toasty and dead.

It raises the level of the world’s oceans towards the equator. Without this gravity, the oceans would redistribute, raising levels at the poles. It has also slowed Earth’s rotation on its axis. Shortly after its formation, the Earth turned once every 6 hours. Without that moon to slow us down, we’d have much more severe weather.

It stabilizes the Earth’s rotation on its axis. It’s possible that the Earth might have rolled over on its axis on a regular basis, causing a complete redistribution of the Earth’s water. Astronomers think this happened on Mars, because it never had a large moon to stabilize it.

But the biggest impact that the moon has on life is through tides. That regular movement of water that exposes the land at the edge of the ocean, and then covers it again just a few hours later. This could have encouraged life to adapt and move from the oceans to land.

Credit: > Macy’s fireworks go off on the top of the Empire State Building as the full buck moon rises in the sky on July 4, 2020 as seen from Weehawken, New Jersey. (Image credit: Gary Hershorn/Getty Images)

• > “Moonless Earth Could Potentially Still Support Life, Study Finds” by Nola Taylor Redd (August 9, 2011).

… new simulations show that, even without a moon, the tilt of Earth’s axis — known as its obliquity — would vary only about 10 degrees. The influence of other planets in the solar system could have kept a moonless Earth stable.

The stabilizing effect that our large moon has on Earth’s rotation therefore may not be as crucial for life as previously believed, according to a paper by Jason Barnes of the University of Idaho and colleagues which was presented at a recent meeting of the American Astronomical Society.

The new research also suggests that moons are not needed for other planets in the universe to be potentially habitable.

• NASA > Facts About The Moon.

The Moon’s presence helps stabilize our planet’s wobble, which helps stabilize our climate.

• Inside Science > “What Would Happen If There Were No Moon?” by Marsha Lewis, Contributing Producer (Dec 2, 2015).

Nights would be much, much darker. The next brightest object in the night sky is Venus. But it still wouldn’t be enough to light up the sky. A full moon is nearly two thousand times brighter than Venus is at its brightest.

Without the moon, a day on earth would only last six to twelve hours. There could be more than a thousand days in one year! That’s because the Earth’s rotation slows down over time thanks to the gravitational force — or pull of the moon — and without it, days would go by in a blink.

A moonless earth would also change the size of ocean tides — making them about one-third as high as they are now.

Without a moon the tilt of our earth’s axis would vary over time. This could create some very wild weather. Right now, thanks to our moon, our axis stays tilted at twenty-three point five degrees. But without the moon the earth might tilt too far over or hardly tilt at all leading to no seasons or even extreme seasons.

Without the moon helping to keep the earth on a steady tilt, scientists have even imagined that life on earth may not have evolved the way we know it.

Image Credit: NASA, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, SVS; Processing & Copyright: Jai & Neil Shet

3 thoughts on “Life and the physics of having a moon

  1. A spectacular sight for skywatchers …

    • > “July’s full ‘Buck Moon‘ wows skywatchers despite lackluster lunar eclipse” by Chelsea Gohd (July 5, 2020).

    Some skywatchers may have seen more than mere fireworks in the night sky during their Fourth of July celebrations on Saturday: the full moon.

    Overnight on Saturday and Sunday (July 4 and 5), July’s full “Buck Moon” dipped through the outermost edges in a penumbral lunar eclipse. While the lunar eclipse was subtle and difficult to see — one eclipse expert said it would [be] “invisible” — the full moon was still a spectacular sight for skywatchers around the world.

    • Forbes > “See A Rare 4th Of July Fireworks, Full Moon And Lunar Eclipse Combo” by Eric Mack (July 3, 2020).

    Most fireworks displays won’t be happening immediately after sunset to allow darkness to set in. That means you’ll get to enjoy the majesty of the full Buck Moon rising. Due to an optical illusion, the full moon appears at its largest as it rises over the eastern horizon.

    By the time the fireworks begin in most places, it will be looking a little smaller but also higher in the sky, setting the perfect backdrop for some colorful explosions.

  2. Life in the universe – a story of moons?

    • > “Life-enabling moons can probably only form around small planets, study finds” by Tereza Pultarova (Feb 3, 2022) – in the journal Nature Communications.

    The study [of moon formations based on computer modeling / impact simulations], by researchers from the University of Rochester in New York, found that rocky planets with a diameter more than 1.6 times that of Earth and icy planets with a diameter more than 1.3 times that of Earth likely can’t create moons that would have those life-enabling effects on them.

    Thanks to its large size compared to the planet, the moon controls the length of Earth’s day and governs ocean tides. The moon also stabilizes Earth’s axis of rotation, which in turn stabilizes its mild climate, which is favorable for life.

  3. Our Moon influences daily ocean tides globally. While plants and animals near coastlines evolved accordingly, additional lunar & climate dynamics can disrupt that stability.

    • Scientific American > “How the Moon Devastated a Mangrove Forest” by Joanna Thompson (December 1, 2022) – The moon’s wobble and an El Niño created lower low tides, a fatal blow to water-loving mangroves.

    Researchers analyzed more than 30 years of national satellite data to narrow down the suspect list. … A pattern quickly emerged—about every 18 to 19 years, … That regularity gave the researchers an important clue. “Nature’s usually pretty chaotic,” Saintilan [Neil Saintilan, biogeographer, Macquarie University, Australia] says. “If something is superregular, it’s probably some kind of orbital cycle.”

    As the moon’s orbit oscillates, or wobbles, over 18.6 years, it creates regular, sustained periods of unusually high or low tides in certain places.

    Tide animation
    US gov, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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