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What killed the dinosaurs? That’s a question that has puzzled paleontologists since dinosaurs were first discovered. Maybe the global climate changed, maybe they were killed by disease, volcanoes, or the rise of mammals. But in the last few decades, a new theory has arisen; an asteroid strike millions of years ago drastically changed the Earth’s environment. It was this event that pushed the dinosaurs over the edge into extinction. What’s the evidence for this asteroid impact? A thin dark line found in layers of sediment around the world; evidence that something devastating happened to the planet 65 million years ago. This line is known as the K-T boundary.
What is the K-T boundary? K is actually the traditional abbreviation for the Cretaceous period, and T is the abbreviation for the Tertiary period. So the K-T boundary is the point in between the Cretaceous and Tertiary periods. Geologists have dated this period to about 65.5 million years ago.
When physicist Luis Alvarez and geologist Walter Alvarez studied the K-T boundary around the world, they found that it had a much higher concentration of iridium than normal – between 30-130 times the amount of iridium you would expect. Iridium is rare on Earth because it sank down into the center of the planet as it formed, but iridium can still be found in large concentrations in asteroids. When they compared the concentrations of iridium in the K-T boundary, they found it matched the levels found in meteorites.
The researchers were even able to estimate what kind of asteroid must have impacted the Earth 65.5 million years ago to throw up such a consistent layer of debris around the entire planet. They estimated that the impactor must have been about 10 km in diameter, and release the energy equivalent of 100 trillion tons of TNT.
When that asteroid struck the Earth 65.5 million years ago, it destroyed a region thousands of kilometers across, but also threw up a dust cloud that obscured sunlight for years. That blocked photosynthesis in plants – the base of the food chain – and eventually starved out the dinosaurs.
Researchers now think that the asteroid strike that created the K-T boundary was probably the Chicxulub Crater. This is a massive impact crater buried under Chicxulub on the coast of Yucatan, Mexico. The crater measures 180 kilometers across, and occurred about 65 million years ago.
Geologists aren’t completely in agreement about the connection between the Chicxulub impact and the extinction of the dinosaurs. Some believe that other catastrophic events might have helped push the dinosaurs over the edge, such as massive volcanism, or a series of impact events.
We have written many articles about the K-T boundary for Universe Today. Here’s an article about how the dinosaurs probably weren’t wiped out by a single asteroid, and here’s an article about how asteroids and volcanoes might have done the trick.
We have recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about asteroid impacts. Listen to it here: Episode 29: Asteroids Make Bad Neighbors.