I want the surface of my fantasy planet to be made hostile every few thousand years for long enough to make every species go extinct that breeds on land. The easiest explanation seems to be other planets' gravitation, causing every volcano to erupt at the same time when everything is in a certain constellation. Ash will cover the sun and everything freezes for some time.

What size, distance, and constellation would the planets have to be to support such a system?

Hello again. My English isn't that great. That's why I didn't want to make the description too long. Here I go anyway:

With "extinction" I meant that they wouldn't be able to breed on land in this period of time. Many creatures are amphibian, others are hardly considered "living" in the first place and then there are some species that have second DNA which can survive for a long time and then recreate the old species. There are also creatures that live and hunt in underground caves. They come to the surface when the climate changes and "make sure" that nothing stays the same.

A human-like species has to rediscover scripture and can find relics from old civilisations...

  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to worldbuilding. I have the impression that there are too many loose ends in the question, and as such it is too broad for our standards. Please take the tour and visit the help center to better understand what we expect in a question. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Apr 8, 2019 at 7:31
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    $\begingroup$ You don't have to write "Edit:" when you edit your post - the post tells us at the bottom, and we can review the revisions $\endgroup$ Apr 8, 2019 at 8:01
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    $\begingroup$ A few thousand years does not seem enough to get an species to evolve to breed on land. $\endgroup$
    – SJuan76
    Apr 8, 2019 at 8:45
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    $\begingroup$ with only a few thousand years between events this planet will not have any species that breed on land. They will not have much variety to marine life either. Even if it happened every few million years you would not have species that breed on land. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Apr 8, 2019 at 16:12
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    $\begingroup$ Size, distance, and constellation do not matter. All you need is humans. $\endgroup$
    – gerrit
    Apr 9, 2019 at 9:03

6 Answers 6


Your assumption is reasonable, as Tidal Heating is the reason that Io is the most geologically active body in our Solar System. Although, a problem with using Tidal heating is that the energy is drawn from the gravitational energy, so - without additional planets involved - your system will eventually decay into circular orbits and no longer produce the heating. But, that can be somewhat mitigated with other massive objects in the system to 'kick' your planets back into an elliptical orbit

Since you want this to be a long process, I would suggest looking at Neptune and Pluto, which periodically swap order - for example, from 1979 to 1999, Neptune was actually farther from the sun than Pluto. ("My very efficient memory just stores up planets nine") Pluto takes 248 years to complete an orbit, and Neptune takes 165 years, so they reach the closest point in a cycle of about 495 years

Because these are sufficiently separated vertically, then can never get closer to each other than 8AU (1AU is the distance from Earth to the Sun) - however, your planets can get closer than that. Also, when 1 planet is at one of the intersection points, the other planet may be elsewhere in its orbit.

All you need is that every 20,000 years the planets both reach the intersection point at about the same time, and pass close enough to stress each other. To magnify the effects, your inhabited planet is probably the smaller of the pair. When stretched and squished, then this means:

  • The interior of the planet is heated up, providing plenty of magma for volcanos
  • The crust of the planet is put under strain, providing plenty of opportunities for earthquakes, and resulting tsunamis

In terms of stability? Both the Jupiter-Io and the Neptune-Pluto systems are stable. You will need other planets in the system to help, but with only 1 interaction every 20,000 years this does not need a massive amount of help.

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    $\begingroup$ @anothernewnamehaha Thanks, but bear in mind that on Worlbuilding, it is typical to wait at least 24 hours before accepting an answer, to allow people from all time-zones to answer - there could be an astrophysicist about to wake up who would give the perfect answer if this wasn't already marked as "answered"... ^_^' $\endgroup$ Apr 8, 2019 at 8:28
  • $\begingroup$ The cycle where Pluto is closer to the Sun than Neptune isn't 495 years long. Pluto's perihelion is closer than Neptune's, so Pluto winds up closer to the sun on every solar orbit, or about every 248 years. 495 years seems more like the synodic period of the 2:3 resonance between Neptune and Pluto's orbital periods. $\endgroup$
    – notovny
    Apr 8, 2019 at 13:01
  • $\begingroup$ 20,000 years is a short period in a solar system's lifespan. . . That is 100 thousand encounters over a 2 billion year period. I cannot believe that will be stable. $\endgroup$
    – Yakk
    Apr 8, 2019 at 13:27
  • $\begingroup$ @notovny Thanks, I have clarified that slightly $\endgroup$ Apr 8, 2019 at 13:47
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    $\begingroup$ For a longer time between occurrences, substitute a dwarf planet with a hefty comet which only comes by every however many thousands of years you require. $\endgroup$ Apr 9, 2019 at 12:30

Another planet seems unlikely, given the time frame. Even Pluto's orbit is 'only' about 500 years, a far cry from 20.000. Also, it would not explain why the hostile period is only a thousand years.

Ice ages might be a better solution, though ice ages on Earth have lasted from ca. 50,000 years up to a hundred million years. Nor are they very regular.

Poul Anderson's 1974 novel Fire Time has a planet that experiences a period of extreme heat every thousand years due to the planet's irregular orbit around three suns. This might be tweaked to suit your needs.

Perhaps the best fit might be if is your planet and its sun is in a very eccentric orbit around a far larger sun, or possibly a black hole with a accretion disk emitting hard radiation. A characteristic of eccentric orbits is that most of the time, the orbiting object is far away from the larger object it orbits and spends a relatively short time whizzing close past that object before returning to a farther distance. An example is the comet Ikeya-Seki, which has an eccentricity very close to 1 (which is the limit for orbiting objects). Its aphelion (furthest distance from the sun) is roughly 200 times that of the Earth, but when it last came closest, it came within 450,000 km of the sun's surface - not much more than the distance between the Earth and the Moon. Its orbital period is roughly a million years. This is far more extreme than what you need, but shows that it is possible.

Finally, since your planet is a fantasy planet, there might be a fantasy explanation. It may be that the dragons breed every 20,000 years and get a bit rowdy during that time. Or there may be a bit more exotic explanation like in the Earthdawn role-playing game, which has a recurring Time of Horrors.

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for your ideas. The time it takes to orbit is a problem, yes. I call it a fantasy planet because I can't explain everything that's on it. It should be rather realistic... $\endgroup$ Apr 8, 2019 at 8:59
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    $\begingroup$ The idea of your sun & planet eccentrically orbiting a black hole should be able to give you the orbit time you require. You can tweak eccentricity, distance, and black hole mass until you find a suitable solution. $\endgroup$ Apr 8, 2019 at 9:32
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    $\begingroup$ Another option could be that the sun is orbited by a much smaller sun on a very excentric orbit. The second sun enters the inner solar system every few thousand years (like a periodic comet) and causes a lot of heat. $\endgroup$
    – Philipp
    Apr 8, 2019 at 14:37
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    $\begingroup$ If Planet 9 exists, it's predicted it's orbital period will be ~ 18,000 years and it's orbit will be highly eccentric, meaning that most of those 18,000 years it will be out of sight. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Planet_Nine $\endgroup$
    – ventsyv
    Apr 9, 2019 at 13:13

I am slightly skeptical that you could have a stable system involving a doomsday planet that comes close enough to cause tidal heating without seriously disrupting the orbit of both planets after the first pass. Its the sort of thing that might cause any moons of your inhabited world to leave for somewhere more gravitationally friendly.

Now, I am no orbital mechanic, but I think that a more plausible means of periodic catastrophes are meteorite showers. One source might be gas giant planets in the outer solar system having an orbital resonance that periodically disrupts the local equivalent of the asteroid or Kuiper belt, flinging a bunch of comets and asteroids into the inner solar system some of which end up falling onto your unfortunate world.

Big asteroid impacts are obviously Quite Bad in themselves, but they are also linked to major volcanic events too, if that's important to you.


Biological Infestation

Have you read the Pern books by Anne McCaffrey? The series is science fiction, though much of it is indistinguishable from fantasy, as it's a colonial world that has regressed technologically and depends on fire breathing 'dragons'.

One of the major environmental issues in the Pern books is an organism called Thread, which floats onto the planet every time a rogue planet, with a highly elliptical orbit, passes near Pern. The Thread organisms consume pretty much anything organic they touch.

Obviously you wouldn't want to directly copy this, but it could be a good jump start on thinking about other ideas.

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    $\begingroup$ “Camelot 30K” also has a novel mechanism of periodic destruction which cleverly solves the “needs to be long enough for evolution to occur” problem. $\endgroup$ Apr 8, 2019 at 22:15

If you want to have a repeatable pattern occuring every few thousand years I would suggest a biological reason rather than geological/astronomical. This way you can explain that the cycle is a part of a wider pattern in the ecosystem which lets you imagine more complex situations than just "boom! everything is destroyed! start to grow legs again, you stupid fish!" ;)

We are used to think that ecosystems are stable, but that's only because we have a very limited timeframe. Even though we know that there was a very different climate just twenty thousand years ago (and that now climate changes are even faster), our intuition tells us that summers and winters should be similar each year and nothing is really changing unless there is some kind of a catastrophic event. But that's only because our lifespan is 100 years tops. The ecosystem works on grander scale and doesn't need any meteorites or global volcano eruptions to go through different phases. It is also possible that there are intervals of short rapid changes followed by a long time of considerably more stable situation.

I would start with the assumption that the most complex life on the planet is amphibian or that all species which resemble mammals and birds are capable of spending their whole lives on water if ground is too hostile. When the conditions on ground improve, those species are able to quickly colonize the new ecological niche. But since a few thousand years is not enough for evolution, all those species will be dependent on water: so no complex animals in steppes, deserts, mountain plateaus, etc. That part of the world is left for a very different ecosystem, one composed of plants and animals which are smaller, simpler, but because of that they can multiply and spread very quickly when they reach certain "critical mass". Think of it as a biological version of a nuclear bomb. We start with a very desolate place, a desert far from water. There are some species of plants and animals there, but they're rare and live in a fragile balance: plants grow, herbivores eat them, carnivores eat herbivores, less herbivores mean more place for plants to grow, but also carnivores starve, and this small cycle of small organisms (bugs? insects? miniature tentacle monsters from hell) repeats itself. But this is not really a balance. Every cycle the average population grows a little. And with bigger population, every cycle is a little bit more violent. At some point we reach the critical mass and everything goes boom - in the biological sense. The plants of this strange violent ecosystem spread rapidly around the globe. Herbivores follow, but eating not only the plants they know, but also one which survived in the waters and only recently started to colonize the shores. Carnivores follow, but hunting not only herbivores they know, but all the complex animal life which survived the last cataclysm living in the sea. The only way for the complex ecosystem to survive is to hide in the sea again: the miniature tentacle monsters (*) cannot be stopped. But when they finally eat everything in their way, they die of starvation. And since the cycle was so violent this time, only a very small number of the species form their ecosystem survive - somewhere far away from the shores, on the desert, starting a new small cycle within a bigger cycle which takes thousands of years.

*) I think it's too easy to think of them as a swarm of insects. I'd invite you to imagine something different.

  • $\begingroup$ sounds interesting. thanks. $\endgroup$ Apr 9, 2019 at 14:53
  • $\begingroup$ You could also click the arrow up, you know ;) $\endgroup$ Apr 10, 2019 at 12:12

While I'm inclined to favor the orbit-involves-something-nasty answers (note that the nasty object could also be a fast-spinning neutron star, the jets can be powerful) you've got a far bigger problem here:

After you have wiped out the land breeders the first time there will be no more land breeders. Your period between encounters is nowhere near enough for new land breeders to evolve.


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