I read in a paper, posted by L.Dutch, that:

It turns out that water worlds may be some of the worst places to look for living things. One study presented at the meeting shows how a planet covered in oceans could be starved of phosphorus, a nutrient without which earthly life cannot thrive. Other work concludes that a planet swamped in even deeper water would be geologically dead, lacking any of the planetary processes that nurture life on Earth. On Earth, rainwater hitting rocks washes phosphorus and other nutrients into the oceans. But without any exposed land, there is no way for phosphorus to enrich water on an aqua planet over time [...] There would be no ocean organisms, such as plankton, to build up oxygen in the planet’s atmosphere, she says — making this type of world a terrible place to find life.

But this leaves me wondering, what is the minimum amount of land I can get away with and it be reasonable/plausible, and still be able to give the ocean enough phosphorus to support life. Like, would 10% on a planet 1.5x Earth radii be enough (so around 114764506.18 km2, or 77.37% the area of Earth's land)? Could I maybe just make it low amounts of land and just have it be very rich in posphorus?

I want to try to have the minimum amount of land that I can get away with and have a planet that supports life. As it is the next best thing to having no land (like I wanted to, but it now seems that I can't do that without magic, which is very dissapointing). So, I am just trying to see what the expected minimum would be, at least what the minimum amount is that I can go with and it be at least feasible.


How much land is needed to keep a sufficent amount of phospherous in the ocean as to sustain life, looking for the lower end/minimum amount that I can get away with and it at least be scientifically feasible.

As I really want to do a planet with a minimal amount of land, while still developing life.


  • I know you will likely say that I should do whatever I want without feeling creatively constrained by science, and while you are totally correct, I like keeping myself to hard sci-fi.
  • I didn't use hard-science, but I would still like citations to papers and such if at all possible. It would be much appreciated.
  • By habitable, I mean that life can develop and survive in the oceans, I do not mean habitable to human and human settlement. I also mean for the water to be habitable, I do not care for land-based life in this scenario, so please do not give examples based upon what would be necessary for land-based life to develop. : )
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    $\begingroup$ You wont get a good answer here because we simply dont know. All we can say that you probably wont get Earth like life if the planet does not have an Earth like Water/Land ratio when life developed here. All studies on this will be lacking actual evidence due to us not having any other examples for life. Its similar to asking what conditions might give rise to life in the first place, we can only answer that for Earth like conditions. $\endgroup$
    – ErikHall
    Commented Dec 15, 2023 at 2:42
  • $\begingroup$ I mean, I assume that the vast majority of phospherous from land doesn't make it to the ocean, and thus a Earth-like land to water, thus you would not need all of it for water-based life to develop. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 15, 2023 at 2:51
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    $\begingroup$ We also would know the relative amount of phospherous given off on average per land area, and a reasonable range for how much pospherous lifeforms require. Which I can nudge a little to fit my needs due to different evolutionary lines. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 15, 2023 at 2:55
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    $\begingroup$ This is a related question with sources that answers yours: worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/244027/… $\endgroup$
    – Rhymehouse
    Commented Dec 15, 2023 at 18:01
  • $\begingroup$ Can you specify which source, please? $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 15, 2023 at 18:02

6 Answers 6


There are many scientists who believe life started on Earth in and around hydrothermal vents.

As AlexP said, you don't need land, you need a crust. The phosphorous and other chemicals may be brought up from the crust through hydrothermals.

However, this will greatly limit the places where life will exist. You may have obly hotspots with very simple forms of life. Life on the surface might be improbable, and a civilization much less likely.

If you want to have some landmass, there is no lower threshold in space, but there is one in a combination in space and time. The oceans on Earth were seeded with minerals taken by rivers over billions of years. Less landmass would just take longer to achieve that, and more landmass would get there faster. But depending on the difference in masses we might be talking over as short a span as a few million years to maybe billions of years.

  • $\begingroup$ Around where would the landmass I listed fall on the spectrum? And also, is what Matthias said accurate where I can have life focused not just around hydrothermal vents but around the islands/continents in general, where phospherous and other nutrients are brought into the water from the land. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 15, 2023 at 16:03
  • $\begingroup$ @DanceroftheStars we would still need to consider ocean depths in there but I think yojr world's oceans would be just as salty as ours, or at least close for about the same planetary age. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 15, 2023 at 16:19
  • $\begingroup$ And in that case can I do complex forms of life? I don't want to constrain myself to just a few basic lifeforms around hydrothermal vents. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 17, 2023 at 16:35
  • $\begingroup$ I don't see why not. Earth had life only in the oceans for like 100 million years. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 17, 2023 at 16:43

You don't need any dry land at all.

What you need is continental crust. Continental crust does not have to be above water. Here on Earth we have an entire continent, Zealandia, which is almost completely submerged, except for New Zealand and New Calendonia.


We can look into Earth's past for answers:

At the end of the Cryogenian Period & It's snowball-earths 720-635 million years ago, there was a spike in phosphorus levels in the ocean, which most likely was a deciding factor for the evolution of animals in the following Ediacaran period due to it stimulating the production of algae.

It has been proposed that the phosphorus levels might have been caused by abundant underwater volcanism, delivering phosphorus-rich stuff to the surface where chemical reactions would conspire to release the phosphorus into the water.

So life on 100% ocean planets seems plausible as long as the planet has enough volcanism and maybe has more phosphorus-rich magma for good measure


Short answer: There is no lower limit of landmass, it depends on the amount of life you want.

Life can evolve without landmass. We know this because when life evolved on earth, the earth was probably covered by water. I guess you want a bit more life than a handful protozoa. The current marine life consists of ~ 6 billon tons of biomass-carbon. With the amount of land you mention (~77% of the current earths landmass) and minor tweaking of geological conditions (fewer endorheic basins, moderately higher concentrations of phosphorous in minerals), maintaining the same amount of biomass should be possible. Keep in mind that the planet you describe has a bigger surface, so it would still be less life per area, but it would probably be concentrated around the continents/islands anyway. If you want smaller landmasses, you could go substantially lower than 10% of the surface. Marine life would decrease accordingly, but probably not die out as a whole (although the "interesting" organisms usually die first). With smaller landmasses, the life would concentrate more and more around the land (and a few hydrothermal vents), leaving the open sea mostly deserted.

  • $\begingroup$ Would what I describe at least be enough that I can make a diverse biosphere and it be believable/reasonable? Or do you recommend I bump up the land amount a bit. As I want the oceans to be rather diverse in flora and fauna. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 15, 2023 at 15:59
  • $\begingroup$ @DanceroftheStars What you described (~10% land mass) is probably enough to sustain the same amount of marine life we have currently on earth. That would mean a lot of life around the landmasses. If you want a lot of life thoughout all oceans, the phosphorus concentration cannot be much lower than on earth (assuming the same kind of phosphorus-based life). If you want that, I would go to ~15% landmass, which would be twice as much phosphorus per landmass than on earth. I would guess that is solid upper boundary for plausibility. $\endgroup$
    – Matthias
    Commented Dec 16, 2023 at 17:15
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks! Does that take into account the larger radius I have planned? Or is that for 1 Earth Radii? $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 16, 2023 at 17:47
  • $\begingroup$ @DanceroftheStars For the open ocean, the radius doesn't really matter, it's all about the percentages. With a bigger planet, the phosphorus input into the ocean is higher, but the oceans are bigger too. These two effects cancel each other mostly out so the radius is not that import as long as you are not making it very extreme. $\endgroup$
    – Matthias
    Commented Dec 16, 2023 at 18:33
  • $\begingroup$ But in my case the ocean would be ~2.85x as large as Earth's, and the land would be ~0.7737x that of Earth's land area, so I don't think that the increase in land area in planets with higher radius would help much. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 17, 2023 at 16:39

This NASA article considers some similar questions in the context of the solar system's ice-shell moons. Although it doesn't directly reference extra-solar liquid-surface ocean planets, it does seem to imply that life is likely possible on such planets. On a quick scan, the big challenge seems to be the potential lack of geological activity. If you've got tidal forces, plate tectonics, or similar effects which can cause mixing at the ocean/seafloor interface, then you should be able to get sufficient nutrients into the ocean for life to survive.

Note that "tidal forces" are going to be larger when your world is gravitationally bound to a large partner - either a double planet, or a moon orbiting another planet, or an eccentric orbit of a large moon, or something of that sort. A larger world may require a correspondingly-larger partner / driving force to maintain plate tectonics.

Also, as mentioned in the NASA article above, strong magnetic fields in a companion planet can induce currents in the ocean world's metallic core (and salty oceans), which can contribute to the mixing.

There's also a "heat of formation" leftover from when planets condense out of asteroids, comets, dust and gas. That's supplemented by the decay of long-lived radioisotopes. There are some simulations suggesting even deep ocean worlds could sustain enough mixing to support life. If the oceans are deep & cold enough, they'll have ice at the base, but the linked article argues that ice would still allow the nutrient-mixing necessary to sustain life.

Also note that there's are two possible ways to look at the criteria for a planet's habitability. One is requiring the planet to be such that life could have evolved there. A contrasting, looser standard is that life be able to survive there after being seeded from elsewhere.

Although it's possible there's a minimum landmass / surface-percentage to get life, it's still an active area of research. Serious researchers are at least open to the possibility of life on 100% liquid-surface planets.

To address your potential concerns about there being interesting, complex, and varied life on the planet, I suggest making the planet's conditions varied in both time & space. Give it plate tectonics, a metallic core and a relatively large moon to help drive a variety of interactions on different timescales. Give it both shallow and deep oceans, ice caps, volcanic vents, subduction, mid-ocean ridges, and other structures that allow different life forms to specialize in different areas of the ocean. Provide multiple energy sources so that lifeforms can specialize in one or the other, or try to shift between them: 1) solar / photosynthesis, 2) geothermal, 3) chemical consumption/oxidation. Energy sources and local life forms will vary by location. Most obviously, photosynthetic life will tend to concentrate near the surface.

Read some of the linked articles and use them to inspire the sorts of structures & justifications which fit your narrative.


Have you read A gift from Earth, by Larry Niven? It is set on a planet named "Plateau"

... a colony in the Tau Ceti system, ... settled by humans some 300 years before the plot begins. The colony world itself is a Venusian-type planet with a dense, hot, poisonous atmosphere. It would be otherwise uninhabitable, except for a tall monolithic mesa that rises 40 miles (64 km) up into a breathable layer in the upper atmosphere. This gives the planet a habitable area about half the size of California. The Captain of the first colony vessel named the feature Mount Lookitthat (from his interjection at first sight of it), and the colony became known as Plateau.

Half a California is 206,000 sq km, or, in more familiar units, $9 \times$ Wales.

  • $\begingroup$ Sorry, but I don't see how this is relevant. This is just a random sci-fi novel. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 20, 2023 at 0:38
  • $\begingroup$ Your question includes "I want to try to have the minimum amount of land "; this suggests that you are trying to write a random sci-fi novel. Niven's book is still in print after 55 years, so maybe an aspiring author could learn something from him. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 20, 2023 at 5:30
  • $\begingroup$ But it does not include what I specified, there is no water with enough phosphorus to allow for life to develop. Again, I am sorry, but this doesn't answer my question. It also isn't a science-based answer. And being in print does not mean it has scientific fidelity. Star Wars is still in production and still has films being made, but this does not mean it has scientific fidelity. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 20, 2023 at 10:54
  • $\begingroup$ Some good-natured advice, next time you give an answer, I reccomend reading the entireity of the question, and not just a miniscule portion of it. It helps loads to prevent situations like this. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 20, 2023 at 12:22
  • $\begingroup$ "And being in print does not mean it has scientific fidelity." Did I say that it did? Instead of lecturing me about reading, maybe you could try to read things before jumping down someone's throat. Being in print does mean, however, that the story was interesting enough, or marketed well enough to attract an audience. Good luck with your little sci-fi story, by the way. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 21, 2023 at 2:21

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