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What If Earth Lost Its Atmosphere? | Unveiled

VOICE OVER: Noah Baum WRITTEN BY: Dylan Musselman
Earth's atmosphere is vital for life to survive. So, what would happen if it was suddenly taken away from us? In this video, Unveiled discovers how the Earth would change if it was robbed of its atmosphere. We're talking no more oxygen... no more blue skies... and even no more sound(!) It's a disaster unlike anything else we've ever seen, turning the surface of our planet into the cold, harsh vacuum of space!
Transcript

What If Earth Lost Its Atmosphere?


We’re alive on Earth thanks to a number of crucial features of this
planet being just right. Our placement in the solar system’s habitable
zone, the star-type of our sun and various fundamental, physical
constants have all aligned to make our world like it is. One key
component is our atmosphere… but what would happen if it were to
disappear?

This is Unveiled and today we’re answering the extraordinary question;
What if Earth lost its atmosphere?

Our atmosphere is responsible for regulating much of our planet’s
natural processes. It allows us to breathe, have liquid water, and
helps protect us against harmful UV radiation from the sun. Liquid
water is one of the main ingredients needed for life, and one of the
first things we look for when searching for other potentially
habitable planets. Without an atmosphere, though, water in liquid form
is unlikely to exist because surface temperatures could then swing
between far-off and unmanageable extremes. In this way, an atmosphere
is what makes an environment at least a little bit predictable, and
therefore survivable.

Atmospheres generally form early on in a planet’s life, with our own
developing billions of years ago. Naturally, however, they undergo
changes over time, with some shifts more severe than others. The
atmosphere of Mars, for example, has been all but stripped away
completely by solar winds and radiation from the sun. Today, the
remnant of the Martian atmosphere is incredibly weak - registering
about 1% the total volume of Earth’s own. It’s thought that Mars once
had flowing water in its ancient history, and some scientists suggest
that it may even have hosted life at an early point in its existence…
but the loss of its atmosphere changed all of that. Mercury is a
similar case; because it’s so close to the sun, almost all of its
atmosphere has been stripped away as well, leaving the planet at the
mercy of the elements. When the surface of Mercury faces the sun it
grows extremely hot, but when it faces away it’s thrown into freezing
temperatures. There’s no atmospheric “regulator” there, making for
wild and unstable conditions.

Back on planet Earth, we are actually also losing our atmosphere… just
very slowly, and over a long period of time. But, in the hypothetical
scenario that it was all to disappear at once, well, a lot would go
wrong very quickly. The most pressing concern would be that no-one
would be able to breathe! Every creature that depended on oxygen for
survival would instantly begin suffocating. It wouldn’t signal the end
of life in general, though, with various bacteria and exceptionally
hardy creatures - like the ruthlessly versatile tardigrade - able to
survive even the vacuum of space… which is what the surface of Earth
will’ve now become! A disappearing atmosphere would be an almost
inescapable death knell for human beings, though, unless they happened
to be wearing a spacesuit at the time.

Even were you to have somehow foreseen the end of the atmosphere and
safely clothed yourself in full astronaut attire, however, the planet
around you would now be an incredibly perilous place! The sky would
suddenly go dark. Without atmospheric particles for light to scatter
through, the usual blueness would disappear. All of the clouds would
also vanish, as would the wind. While, in this hypothetical, the
strength of Earth’s gravity wouldn’t change, in every other aspect
it’d be as though you were standing on the surface of the moon instead
of Earth; bleak and eerily quiet!

Any planes that had been flying would start to fall from the sky,
robbed of the winds they rely on… all while the birds, without oxygen
to breathe, drop to the ground as well. But all of this would happen
without the sound to accompany it. After all, the air created for us
thanks to our atmosphere is the medium through which sound travels;
take it away, and we’d be exposed to the vacuum of space where sound
can’t spread. You might still be able to feel some vibrations through
the ground, but you wouldn’t be able to hear them.

In a pressurized spacesuit you would be able to hear yourself, even if
only for as long as the oxygen in your tank lasts. But, even after the
initial darkness and devastation, you’d be alive to witness only some
truly harrowing sights… because anyone without a suit would also find
themselves exposed to suddenly intense, unfiltered radiation from the
sun. Their skin would blister, and severe sunburn would quickly set
in!

Elsewhere, thanks to rising temperatures, all of that vital liquid
water on Earth would begin to boil away. Oceans, rivers and lakes
would immediately heat up, spitting massive, foggy clouds into the
darkened sky like a giant storm. Even the water inside the human body
would go the same way... It too would start to vaporize, causing skin
and tissue to swell. The moisture and saliva in the mouth would also
boil off, as the body dries and dies.

The Earth as a whole would suffer a mixed reaction. Surface
temperatures would rise and rise until - if ever - it was able to
rebuild an atmosphere anything like its previous one… but before then,
it would also be at greater risk of space itself. Although ineffective
with the largest asteroids, our atmosphere does burn up plenty of
smaller rocks and bits of debris that come towards Earth. With nothing
to stop them anymore, Earth could now find itself pelted with mini
meteoroids until its surface more closely resembled that of the
moon’s; pockmarked with impact craters.

Over time, the water vapour released from the boiling oceans could
well start to close in on Earth again, heating it up through a
greenhouse effect - but leaving it with a totally transformed
atmospheric make-up. From here, it’s impossible to predict how exactly
our planet would pan out, but by now even the most resilient of
lifeforms and microbes may well have died off. Perhaps the only upside
is that Earth in itself would now boast an incredible view of the
cosmos. Say you’d somehow achieved the impossible and survived all of
this from inside your spacesuit… with no atmosphere to block the
radiation from other stars, you’d have a totally unobstructed,
panoramic, pristine view of the universe. According to NASA, looking
at the stars from the surface of Earth right now is like “listening to
a piano recital with only a few of the keys working”… but, now, that
piano would be tuned to perfection!

Other than that, though, Earth losing its atmosphere would be a
catastrophe unlike any other. Most creatures would die within seconds,
starved of air and scorched by the sun; the waters would boil, and the
temperatures would soar; and our planet would face an unchecked
onslaught of asteroid strikes: That’s what would happen if Earth lost
its atmosphere.
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