In 2008, scientists from Oxford and Aberdeen University made a startling discovery in the northwest of Scotland. Near the village of Ullapool, which sits on the coast opposite the Outer Hebrides, they found a debris deposit created by an ancient meteor impact dated to 1.2 billion years ago. The thickness and extent of the debris suggested that the meteor measured 1 km (0.62 mi) in diameter and took place near to the coast.
Until recently, the precise location of the impact remained a mystery to scientists. But in a paper that recently appeared in the Journal of the Geological Society , a team of British researchers concluded that the crater is located about 15 to 20 km (~9 to 12.5 mi) west of the Scottish coastline in the Minch Basin, where it is buried beneath both water and younger layers of rock.
It is a well-known fact among Earth scientists that our planet periodically undergoes major changes in its climate. Over the course of the past 200 million years, our planet has experienced four major geological periods (the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous and Cenozoic) and one major ice age (the Pliocene-Quaternary glaciation), all of which had a drastic impact on plant and animal life, as well as effecting the course of species evolution.
For decades, geologists have also understood that these changes are due in part to gradual shifts in the Earth’s orbit, which are caused by Venus and Jupiter, and repeat regularly every 405,000 years. But it was not until recently that a team of geologists and Earth scientists unearthed the first evidence of these changes – sediments and rock core samples that provide a geological record of how and when these changes took place.
As noted, the idea that Earth experiences periodic changes in its climate (which are related to changes in its orbit) has been understood for almost a century. These changes consist of Milankovitch Cycles, which consist of a 100,000-year cycle in the eccentricity of Earth’s orbit, a 41,000-year cycle in the tilt of Earth’s axis relative to its orbital plane, and a 21,000-year cycle caused by changes in the planet’s axis.
Combined with the 405,000-year swing, which is the result of Venus and Jupiter’s gravitational influence, these shifts cause changes in how much solar energy reaches parts of our planet, which in turn influences Earth’s climate. Based on fossil records, these cycles are also known to have had a profound impact on life on Earth, which likely had an effect on the course of species of evolution. As Prof. Bent explained in a Rutgers Today press release:
“The climate cycles are directly related to how Earth orbits the sun and slight variations in sunlight reaching Earth lead to climate and ecological changes. The Earth’s orbit changes from close to perfectly circular to about 5 percent elongated especially every 405,000 years.”
For the sake of their study, Prof. Kent and his colleagues obtained sediment samples from the Newark basin, a prehistoric lake that spanned most of New Jersey, and a core rock sample from the Chinle Formation in Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona. This core rock measured about 518 meters (1700 feet) long, 6.35 cm (2.5 inches) in diameter, and was dated to the Triassic Period – ca. 202 to 253 million years ago.
The team then linked reversals in Earth’s magnetic field – where the north and south pole shift – to sediments with and without zircons (minerals with uranium that allow for radioactive dating) as well as to climate cycles in the geological record. What these showed was that the 405,000-years cycle is the most regular astronomical pattern linked to Earth’s annual orbit around the Sun.
The results further indicated that the cycle been stable for hundreds of millions of years and is still active today. As Prof. Kent explained, this constitutes the first verifiable evidence that celestial mechanics have played a historic role in natural shifts in Earth’s climate. As Prof. Kent indicated:
“It’s an astonishing result because this long cycle, which had been predicted from planetary motions through about 50 million years ago, has been confirmed through at least 215 million years ago. Scientists can now link changes in the climate, environment, dinosaurs, mammals and fossils around the world to this 405,000-year cycle in a very precise way.”
Previously, astronomers were able to calculate this cycle reliably back to around 50 million years, but found that the problem became too complex prior to this because too many shifting motions came into play. “There are other, shorter, orbital cycles, but when you look into the past, it’s very difficult to know which one you’re dealing with at any one time, because they change over time,” said Prof. Kent. “The beauty of this one is that it stands alone. It doesn’t change. All the other ones move over it.”
In addition, scientists were unable to obtain accurate dates as to when Earth’s magnetic field reversed for 30 million years of the Late Triassic – between ca. 201.3 and 237 million years ago. This was a crucial period for the evolution of terrestrial life because it was when the Supercontinent of Pangaea broke up, and also when the dinosaurs and mammals first appeared.
This break-up led to the formation of the Atlantic Ocean as the continents drifted apart and coincided with a mass extinction event by the end of the period that effected the dinosaurs. With this new evidence, geologists, paleontologists and Earth scientists will be able to develop very precise timelines and accurately categorize fossil evidence dated to this period, which show differences and similarities over wide-ranging areas.
This research, and the ability to create accurate geological and climatological timelines that go back over 200 million years, is sure to have drastic implications. Not only will climate studies benefit from it, but also our understanding of how life, and even how our Solar System, evolved. What emerges from this could include a better understanding of how life could emerge in other star systems.
After all, if our search for extra-solar life life comes down to what we know about life on Earth, knowing more about how it evolved here will better the odds of finding it out there.
When it comes to the geological timeline, there are several periods that scientists and biologists recognize as being of extreme importance to the development of life on Earth. There’s the Hadean period, which began with the creation of the Earth and was marked by the formations of the oceans and atmosphere. Or the Cambrian period, when the massive continent of Pangaea broke up and allowed for the explosion of life which led to the development of all modern Phyla. But when it comes to us mammals, perhaps the most important period was the one known as the Tertiary Period. This period began 65 million years ago and ended roughly 1.8 million years ago and bore witness to some major geological, biological and climatological events. This included the current configuration of the continents, the cooling of global temperatures, and the rise of mammals as the planet’s dominant vertebrates. It followed the Cretaceous period and was superseded by the Quaternary.
In terms of major events, the Tertiary period began with the demise of the non-avian dinosaurs in the Cretaceous–Tertiary extinction event, at the start of the Cenozoic era, and lasted to the beginning of the most recent Ice Age at the end of the Pliocene epoch. In terms of geology, there was a great deal of tectonic activity that continued from the previous era, culminating in the splitting of Gondwana and the collision of the Indian landmass with the Eurasian plate. This led to the formation of the Himalayas, the gradual creation of the continent of Australia (a haven for the non-placental, marsupial mammals), the separation South America from West Africa and its connection to North America, and Antarctica taking its current position below the South Pole. In terms of climate, the period was marked by widespread cooling, beginning in the Paleocene with tropical-to-moderate worldwide temperatures and ending before the first extensive glaciation at the start of the Quaternary.
In terms of species evolution, this period was of extreme importance to modern life. By the beginning of the period, mammals replaced reptiles as the dominant vertebrates on the planet. In addition, all non-avian dinosaurs (referring to terrestrial dinosaurs and not their avian descendants) had all become extinct by the beginning of this period. Modern types of birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and invertebrates were already numerous at the beginning of this period but also continued to appeared early on, and many modern families of flowering plants evolved. And last, but certainly not least (at least for us human folk), the earliest recognizable hominid relatives of humans appeared. One striking example of this is the Proconsul Primate, a tree-dwelling Primate that existed from roughly 23 to 17 million years ago and who’s fossilized remains have been found today in modern Kenya, Uganda and other East African locales.
We have written many articles about Tertiary Period for Universe Today. Here’s an article about the Quaternary Period, and here’s an article about the asteroid extinction theory.