Terrestrial effects of high-energy cosmic rays

Dimitra Atri, Adrian L. Melott

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


On geological timescales, the Earth is likely to be exposed to higher than the usual flux of high energy cosmic rays (HECRs) from astrophysical sources such as nearby supernovae, gamma ray bursts or by galactic shocks. These high-energy particles strike the Earth's atmosphere, initiating an extensive air shower. As the air shower propagates deeper, it ionizes the atmosphere leading to changes in atmospheric chemistry, resulting in ozone depletion. This increases the flux of solar UVB radiation at the surface, which is potentially harmful to living organisms. Increased ionization affects the global electrical circuit, which could enhance the low-altitude cloud formation rate. Secondary particles such as muons and thermal neutrons produced as a result of nuclear interactions are able to reach the ground, enhancing the biological radiation dose. The muon flux dominates the radiation dose from cosmic rays causing damage to DNA and an increase in mutation rates and cancer, which can have serious biological implications for surface and sub-surface life. Using CORSIKA, we perform massive computer simulations and construct lookup tables for 10 GeV - 1 PeV primaries, which can be used to quantify these effects from enhanced cosmic ray exposure to any astrophysical source. These tables are freely available to the community and can be used for other studies. We use these tables to study the terrestrial implications of galactic shock generated by the infall of our galaxy toward the Virgo cluster. Increased radiation dose from muons could be a possible mechanism explaining the observed periodicity in terrestrial biodiversity in paleobiology databases.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Number of pages3
StatePublished - 2011
Event32nd International Cosmic Ray Conference, ICRC 2011 - Beijing, China
Duration: Aug 11 2011Aug 18 2011


Other32nd International Cosmic Ray Conference, ICRC 2011


  • Air showers
  • Astrobiology
  • Atmospheric ionization
  • High-energy cosmic rays

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Nuclear and High Energy Physics


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