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Title: What caused the mass extinction An extraterrestrial impact

Abstract

The authors and other investigators discovered iridium in the clays that mark the sudden disappearance of dinosaurs from the fossil record. Because iridium is rare in the earth's crust but abundant in some meteorites, they concluded that a giant meteorite collided with the earth, hurling megatons of debris into the atmosphere. This paper describes and discusses the accumulating evidence that suggests an asteroid or comet caused the Cretaceous extinction.

Authors:
 [1];  [2]
  1. (Univ. of California, Berkeley (USA))
  2. (Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, CA (USA))
Publication Date:
OSTI Identifier:
5316291
Resource Type:
Journal Article
Resource Relation:
Journal Name: Scientific American; (United States); Journal Volume: 263:4
Country of Publication:
United States
Language:
English
Subject:
58 GEOSCIENCES; CRETACEOUS PERIOD; BOUNDARY CONDITIONS; IRIDIUM; ECOLOGICAL CONCENTRATION; TERTIARY PERIOD; ANIMALS; BIOLOGICAL EXTINCTION; CONTINENTAL CRUST; CRYSTAL STRUCTURE; FOSSILS; GEOLOGIC HISTORY; GEOLOGIC SURVEYS; IMPACT SHOCK; LAYERS; METEORITES; QUARTZ; CENOZOIC ERA; CHALCOGENIDES; EARTH CRUST; ELEMENTS; GEOLOGIC AGES; MESOZOIC ERA; METALS; MINERALS; OXIDE MINERALS; OXIDES; OXYGEN COMPOUNDS; PLATINUM METALS; SILICON COMPOUNDS; SILICON OXIDES; SURVEYS; TRANSITION ELEMENTS; 580000* - Geosciences

Citation Formats

Alvarez, W., and Asaro, F. What caused the mass extinction An extraterrestrial impact. United States: N. p., 1990. Web. doi:10.1038/scientificamerican1090-78.
Alvarez, W., & Asaro, F. What caused the mass extinction An extraterrestrial impact. United States. doi:10.1038/scientificamerican1090-78.
Alvarez, W., and Asaro, F. 1990. "What caused the mass extinction An extraterrestrial impact". United States. doi:10.1038/scientificamerican1090-78.
@article{osti_5316291,
title = {What caused the mass extinction An extraterrestrial impact},
author = {Alvarez, W. and Asaro, F.},
abstractNote = {The authors and other investigators discovered iridium in the clays that mark the sudden disappearance of dinosaurs from the fossil record. Because iridium is rare in the earth's crust but abundant in some meteorites, they concluded that a giant meteorite collided with the earth, hurling megatons of debris into the atmosphere. This paper describes and discusses the accumulating evidence that suggests an asteroid or comet caused the Cretaceous extinction.},
doi = {10.1038/scientificamerican1090-78},
journal = {Scientific American; (United States)},
number = ,
volume = 263:4,
place = {United States},
year = 1990,
month =
}
  • The authors proposes that dust, carbon dioxide and other emissions from an episode of enormous volcanism that formed the basaltic Deccan Traps in India produced the climate changes that led to the mass extinction at the end of the Cretaceous period. The iridium could, he says, just as easily have risen from the earth's mantle. The sheer size of the Deccan Traps suggests that their formation must have been an important event in the earth's history. An important, unresolved question was whether the data and duration of Deccan volcanism are compatible with the age and thickness of the KT boundary.more » Until recently the lava samples from the Deccan Traps were thought to range in age from 80 to 30 million years (estimated by measuring the decay of the radioactive isotope potassium 40 in rocks). The author presents data suggesting volcanism could not have lasted much more than one million years and was roughly simultaneous with the extinction at the end of the Cretaceous period.« less
  • Neutron activation analyses of the Chinese Ordovician/Silurian (O/S) boundary sections at two distant localities in the Yangtze Basin, spanning the horizon of a major latest Ordovician global extinction event, show the maxima of iridium abundances to be coincident with the extinction horizon at the base of the graptolite Glyptograptus persculputs zone. The 0.23 ppb Ir maximum in the Yichang type section is almost as large as the late Eocene impact Ir anomaly. However, the authors have observed that the Ir abundances in the Chinese sections are closely correlated with the sedimentation rates, and therefore have concluded that Ir maxima domore » not indicate a cataclysmic extraterrestrial impact at this extinction level.« less
  • We examine the possibility that a nearby supernova explosion could have caused one or more of the mass extinctions identified by paleontologists. We discuss the possible rate of such events in the light of the recent suggested identification of Geminga as a supernova remnant less than 100 parsec (pc) away and the discovery of a millisecond pulsar about 150 pc away and observations of SN 1987A. The fluxes of {gamma}-radiation and charged cosmic rays on the Earth are estimated, and their effects on the Earth`s ozone layer are discussed. A supernova explosion of the order of 10 pc away couldmore » be expected as often as every few hundred million years and could destroy the ozone layer for hundreds of years, letting in potentially lethal solar ultraviolet radiation. In addition to effects on land ecology, this could entail mass destruction of plankton and reef communities, with disastrous consequences for marine life as well. A supernova extinction should be distinguishable from a meteorite impact such as the one that presumably killed the dinosaurs at the {open_quotes}KT boundary.{close_quotes} The recent argument that the KT event was exceedingly large and thus quite rare supports the need for other catastrophic events. 24 refs.« less
  • The hypothesis that the Late Devonian (Frasnian-Famennian) mass extinction was triggered by an asteroidal impact has received renewed attention with the discovery of a Late Devonian Ir anomaly in Australia. In Europe, the mass-extinction event corresponds stratigraphically to the geographically widespread Kellwasser black-shale and bituminous limestone units, and the biological crisis itself has been alternatively designated the Kellwasser Event. The authors report here the results of an extensive geochemical analysis of the Kellwasser stratigraphic interval in a section with exceptional conodont zonal control in the Federal Republic of Germany. No Ir anomaly was found, neither at the biological crisis horizonmore » recognized in Europe nor at the conodont horizon that corresponds to the Ir anomaly zone reported in Australia. No shock-metamorphosed quartz, sanidine spherules, or siderophile-rich magnetic spherules were found, which might have been indicative of a cometary impact. Oxygen-isotope ratios show little variation across the mass-extinction horizon, though carbon-isotope data suggest a sudden increase in phytoplankton activity. They further note that the Australian Ir anomaly (1) is most likely not associated with a large-body impact because no equivalent Ir signature occurs in Europe and (2) is stratigraphically above the European biological crisis horizon, thus postdating the Kellwasser mass-extinction event.« less
  • Platinum metals are depleted in the earth's crust relative to their cosmic abundance; concentrations of these elements in deep-sea sediments may thus indicate influxes of extraterrestrial material. Deep-sea limestones exposed in Italy, Denmark, and New Zealand show iridium increases of about 30, 160, and 20 times, respectively, above the background level at precisely the time of the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinctions, 65 million years ago. Reasons are given to indicate that this iridium is of extraterrestrial origin, but did not come from a nearby supernova. A hypothesis is suggested which accounts for the extinctions and the iridium observations. Impact of a largemore » earth-crossing asteroid would inject about 60 times the object's mass into the atmosphere as pulverized rock; a fraction of this dust would stay in the stratosphere for several years and be distributed worldwide. The resulting darkness would suppress photosynthesis, and the expected biological consequences match quite closely the extinctions observed in the paleontological record. One prediction of this hypothesis has been verified: the chemical composition of the boundary clay, which is thought to come from the stratospheric dust, is markedly different from that of clay mixed with the Cretaceous and Tertiary limestones, which are chemically similar to each other. Four different independent estimates of the diameter of the asteroid give values that lie in the range 10 +- 4 kilometers.« less