Can Life Survive Gamma-Ray Bursts in the High-redshift Universe?

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Nearby gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) have been proposed as a possible cause of mass extinctions on Earth. Due to the higher event rate of GRBs at higher redshifts, it has been speculated that life as we know it may not survive above a certain redshift (e.g., z> 0.5). We examine the duty cycle of lethal (life-threatening) GRBs in the solar neighborhood, in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) galaxies, and GRB host galaxies, with the dependence of the long GRB rate on star formation and metallicity properly taken into account. We find that the number of lethal GRBs attacking Earth within the past 500 Myr (~epoch of the Ordovician mass extinction) is 0.93. The number of lethal GRBs hitting a certain planet increases with redshift, as a result of the increasing star formation rate (SFR) and decreasing metallicity in high-z galaxies. Taking 1 per 500 Myr as a conservative duty cycle for life to survive, as evidenced by our existence, we find that there is still a good fraction of SDSS galaxies beyond z=0.5 where the GRB rate at half-mass radius is lower than this value. We derive the fraction of such benign galaxies as a function of redshift through Monte Carlo simulations, and we find that the fraction is ~50% at z~ 1.5 and ~10% even at z~ 3. The mass distribution of benign galaxies is dominated by Milky Way–like ones, due to their commonness, relatively large mass, and low SFR. GRB host galaxies are among the most dangerous ones.


Astrophysics and Astronomy

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