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Observational signatures of self-destructive civilizations

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 October 2015

Adam Stevens
Affiliation:
Department of Physical Sciences, The Open University, Walton Hall, Milton Keynes, MK15 0BT, UK UK Centre for Astrobiology, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, EH9 3FD, UK
Duncan Forgan*
Affiliation:
SUPA, School of Physics and Astronomy, University of St Andrews, North Haugh, St Andrews KY16 9SS, UK
Jack O'Malley James
Affiliation:
SUPA, School of Physics and Astronomy, University of St Andrews, North Haugh, St Andrews KY16 9SS, UK Department of Astronomy, Carl Sagan Institute, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853, USA

Abstract

We address the possibility that intelligent civilizations that destroy themselves could present signatures observable by humanity. Placing limits on the number of self-destroyed civilizations in the Milky Way has strong implications for the final three terms in Drake's Equation, and would allow us to identify which classes of solution to Fermi's Paradox fit with the evidence (or lack thereof). Using the Earth as an example, we consider a variety of scenarios in which humans could extinguish their own technological civilization. Each scenario presents some form of observable signature that could be probed by astronomical campaigns to detect and characterize extrasolar planetary systems. Some observables are unlikely to be detected at interstellar distances, but some scenarios are likely to produce significant changes in atmospheric composition that could be detected serendipitously with next-generation telescopes. In some cases, the timing of the observation would prove crucial to detection, as the decay of signatures is rapid compared with humanity's communication lifetime. In others, the signatures persist on far longer timescales.

Type
Research Article
Copyright
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2015 

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