About sixty five and a half million years ago, the Earth suffered its largest known cosmic impact. An asteroid or comet nucleus about 10 km in diameter slammed into what is now the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico. It gouged out a crater 180 to 200 km in diameter: nearly twice as large as the prominent crater Copernicus on Earth’s moon. But did this impact really cause the extinction of the dinosaurs and many other forms of life? Many earth scientists are convinced that it did, but some harbor nagging doubts. The doubters have marshaled a growing body of evidence for another culprit; the enormous volcanic eruptions that produced the Deccan Traps formation in India. The skeptics recently presented their case at a meeting of the Geological Society of America in Vancouver, Canada, on October 19.
The dinosaurs are the most well-known victims of the mass extinction event that ended the Cretaceous period. The extinction claimed almost all large vertebrates on land, at sea, or in the air, as well as numerous species of insects, plants, and aquatic invertebrates. At least 75% of all species then existing on Earth vanished in a short span in relation to the geological timescale of millions of years. The disaster is one of five global mass extinction events that paleontologists have identified over the tenure of complex life on Earth.
The hypothesis that the terminal Cretaceous extinction was caused by a cosmic impact has been the most popular explanation of this catastrophe among earth scientists and the public for several decades. It was proposed in 1980 by the father and son team of Luis and Walter Alvarez and their collaborators. The Alvarez team’s main line of evidence that an impact happened was an enrichment of the metal iridium in sediments dating roughly to the end of the Cretaceous. Iridium is rare in Earth’s crust, but common in meteorites. The link between iridium and impacts was first established by studies of the samples returned by the Apollo astronauts from the Moon.
Over the ensuing decades, evidence of an impact accumulated. In 1991, a team of scientists led by Dr. Alan Hildebrand of the Department of Planetary Sciences at Arizona University, published evidence of a gigantic buried impact crater, called Chicxulub, in Mexico. Other investigators found evidence of materials ejected by the impact, including glass spherules in Haiti and Mexico. Supporters of the impact hypothesis believe that vast amounts of dust hurtled into the stratosphere would have plunged the surface of the planet into the darkness and bitter cold of an “impact winter” lasting for at least months, and perhaps decades. Global ecosystems would have collapsed and mass extinction ensued. But, they’ve had a harder time finding evidence for these consequences than for the impact itself.
Doubters of the Alvarez hypothesis don’t question the ‘smoking gun’ evidence that an impact happened near the end of the Cretaceous, but they don’t think it was the main cause of the extinctions. For one thing, inferring the exact time of the impact from its putative geological traces has proved difficult. Dr. Gerta Keller of the Department of Geosciences of Princeton University, a prominent skeptic of the Alvarez hypothesis, has questioned estimates that make the impact and the extinctions simultaneous. Analyzing core samples taken from the Chicxulub crater, and glass spherule containing deposits in northeastern Mexico, she concludes that the Chicxulub impact preceded the mass extinction by 120,000 years and had little consequence for the fossil record of life in the geological formations which she studied. Of the five major mass extinction events in Earth’s history, she noted in a 2011 paper, none other than the terminal Cretaceous event has ever been even approximately associated with an impact. Several other large impact craters besides Chicxulub have been well studied by geologists and none is associated with fossil evidence of extinctions. On the other hand, four of the five major mass extinctions appear to have some connection with volcanic eruptions.
Keller and other Alvarez skeptics look to a major volcanic event that occurred towards the end of the Cretaceous as an alternate primary cause of the extinction. The Deccan Traps formation in central India is a plateau consisting of multiple layers of solidified lava 3500 m thick. Today, it extends over an area larger than all of France. It was once three times that large. It was formed in a series of three volcanic outbursts that may have been among the largest in Earth’s history. At the October conference, Dr. Theirry Adatte of the Institute of Earth Sciences at the University of Lausanne in France presented evidence that the second of these outbursts was by far the largest, and occurred over a period of 250,000 years prior to the end of the Cretaceous. During this period, 80% of the total lava thickness of the Deccan formation was deposited. The eruptions produced lava flows that may be the longest on Earth, extending more than 1500 km.
To illustrate the likely environmental consequences of such a super-eruption, Adatte invoked the worst volcanic catastrophe in human history. Over eight months from 1783-84 a major eruption in Laki, Iceland, deposited 14.3 square kilometers of lava and emitted an estimated 122 megatons of toxic sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere. About a quarter of the people and half of the livestock in Iceland died. Across Europe the sky was darkened by a pall of haze, and acid rain fell. Europe and America experienced the most severe winter in history and global climate was disrupted for a decade. Millions of people died from the resulting drought and famine. The Laki incident was nonetheless miniscule by comparison with the second Deccan Traps outburst, which produced 1.5 million square kilometers of lava and an estimated 6,500- 17,000 gigatons of sulfur dioxide.
The Deccan Traps eruptions would also have emitted immense quantities of carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is a heat trapping greenhouse gas responsible for the oven-like temperatures of the planet Venus. It is released by the burning of fossil fuels and plays a major role in human-caused global warming on Earth. Thus Geller surmised that the Deccan Traps eruptions could have produced both periods of intense cold due to sulfur dioxide haze, and intense heat due to carbon dioxide induced global warming.
At the October conference she presented the results of her studies of geological formations in Tunisia that preserved a high resolution record of climate change during the time of the main pulse of Deccan Traps volcanic activity. Her evidence shows that near the onset of the 250,000 year pulse, there was a ‘hyperthermal’ period of rapid warming that increased ocean temperatures by 3-4 degrees Celsius. She claimed that temperatures remained elevated through the pulse culminating with a second ‘hyperthermal’ warming of the oceans by an additional 4-5 degrees Celsius. This second hyperthermal warming occurred within a 10,000 year period of mega-eruptions, which corresponded with the terminal Cretaceous extinction. The Chicxulub impact occurred during the 250,000 year pulse, but well prior to the extinctions and the hyperthermal event.
The debate over the relative importance of the Chicxulub impact and the Deccan Trap volcanoes in producing the terminal Cretaceous extinction isn’t over. In May of this year, a team headed by Dr. Johan Vellekoop at the Department of Earth Sciences at Ulrecht University in the Netherlands published evidence of a geologically brief episode of cooling which they claim as the first direct evidence of an “impact winter”. Whatever the outcome of the debate, it seems clear that the end of the Cretaceous, with its super-volcanoes and giant impacts, was not a good time for life on Earth.
References and Further Reading:
J. Coffey (2009) The Asteroid that Killed the Dinosaurs, Universe Today.
I. O’Neill (2009) (Were the Dinosaurs Really Wiped Out by an Asteroid? Possibly Not (Update), Universe Today.
G. Keller (2012), The Cretaceous-Tertiary Mass Extinction, Chicxulub Impact, and Deccan Volcanism, Earth and Life, J.A. Talent, Editor, Springer Science and Business media.
E. Klemetti (2013) Local and global impacts of the 1783-84 Laki eruption in Iceland, Wired Science Blogs/Eruptions
J. Vellekoop et al. (2014) Rapid short-term cooling following the Chicxulub impact at the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 111(2) p. 7537-7541.
Paul Patton is a freelance science writer. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Wisconsin Green Bay, a Master’s degree in the history and philosophy of science from Indiana University, and a Doctorate in neuroscience from the University of Chicago. He is currently working on a doctorate in the History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Toronto. He has been interested in space, astronomy, and extraterrestrial life since early childhood.