From Yale University: “In death of dinosaurs, it was all about the asteroid — not volcanoes”

From Yale University

January 16, 2020
Jim Shelton

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(© stock.adobe.com)

Volcanic activity did not play a direct role in the mass extinction event that killed the dinosaurs, according to an international, Yale-led team of researchers. It was all about the asteroid.

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K-T boundary (red arrow) along Interstate 25, Raton Pass, Colorado. The Cretaceous–Paleogene boundary of 66 million years ago, marking the temporal border between the Cretaceous and Paleogene periods of geological time, was identified by a thin stratum of iridium-rich clay. During the 1970s, Walter Alvarez was doing geologic research in central Italy. There he had located an outcrop on the walls of a gorge whose limestone layers included strata both above and below the Cretaceous–Paleogene boundary. Exactly at the boundary is a thin layer of clay. Walter told his father Luis that the layer marked where the dinosaurs and much else became extinct and that nobody knew why, or what the clay was about — it was a big mystery and he intended to solve it. A team led by Luis Alvarez proposed in 1980 an extraterrestrial origin for this iridium, attributing it to an asteroid or comet impact. Their theory, known as the Alvarez hypothesis, is now widely accepted to explain the extinction of the non-avian dinosaurs. A large buried impact crater structure with an estimated age of about 66 million years was later identified under what is now the Yucatán Peninsula (the Chicxulub crater)

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The Chicxulub crater is an impact crater buried underneath the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico. Its center is located near the town of Chicxulub, after which the crater is named. It was formed by a large asteroid or comet about 11 to 81 kilometers in diameter, the Chicxulub impactor, striking the Earth, and causing the dinosaur extinction.

In a break from a number of other recent studies, Yale assistant professor of geology & geophysics Pincelli Hull and her colleagues argue in a new research paper in Science that environmental impacts from massive volcanic eruptions in India in the region known as the Deccan Traps happened well before the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event 66 million years ago and therefore did not contribute to the mass extinction.

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Deccan Traps at Ajanta Caves. Shaikh Munir

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The hardened lava flows of the Deccan Traps, in western India. Gerta Keller

Most scientists acknowledge that the mass extinction event, also known as K-Pg, occurred after an asteroid slammed into Earth. Some researchers also have focused on the role of volcanoes in K-Pg due to indications that volcanic activity happened around the same time.

“Volcanoes can drive mass extinctions because they release lots of gases, like SO2 and CO2, that can alter the climate and acidify the world,” said Hull, lead author of the new study. “But recent work has focused on the timing of lava eruption rather than gas release.”

To pinpoint the timing of volcanic gas emission, Hull and her colleagues compared global temperature change and the carbon isotopes (an isotope is an atom with a higher or lower number of neutrons than normal) from marine fossils with models of the climatic effect of CO2 release. They concluded that most of the gas release happened well before the asteroid impact — and that the asteroid was the sole driver of extinction.

“Volcanic activity in the late Cretaceous caused a gradual global warming event of about two degrees, but not mass extinction,” said former Yale researcher Michael Henehan, who compiled the temperature records for the study. “A number of species moved toward the North and South poles but moved back well before the asteroid impact.”

Added Hull, “A lot of people have speculated that volcanoes mattered to K-Pg, and we’re saying, ‘No, they didn’t.’”

Recent work on the Deccan Traps, in India, has also pointed to massive eruptions in the immediate aftermath of the K-Pg mass extinction. These results have puzzled scientists because there is no warming event to match. The new study suggests an answer to this puzzle, as well.

“The K-Pg extinction was a mass extinction and this profoundly altered the global carbon cycle,” said Yale postdoctoral associate Donald Penman, the study’s modeler. “Our results show that these changes would allow the ocean to absorb an enormous amount of CO2 on long time scales — perhaps hiding the warming effects of volcanism in the aftermath of the event.”

German researcher André Bornemann was co-lead author of the study. Yale researcher Ellen Thomas was a co-author of the study, along with additional researchers from institutions in Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Spain, Japan, Denmark, and the United States.

The International Ocean Discovery Program, the National Science Foundation, and Yale University helped fund the research.

See the full article here .

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