Unlocking the secrets of the Crater of Doom.

Luis and Walter Alvarez at the K-T Boundary in Gubbio, Italy, 1981 (From Wikimedia Commons)

Luis and Walter Alvarez at the K-T Boundary in Gubbio, Italy, 1981 (From Wikimedia Commons)

The noble and ancient city of Gubbio laid out along the ridges of Mount Ingino in Umbria, was founded by Etruscans between the second and first centuries B.C. The city has an exceptional artistic and monumental heritage which includes marvelous examples of Gothic architecture, like the Palazzo dei Consoli and the Palazzo del Bargello. The rich history of the city is recorded in those buildings. Outside the city, there are exposures of pelagic sedimentary rocks that recorded more than 50 million years of Earth’s history. In the 1970s it was recognized that these pelagic limestones carry a record of the reversals of the magnetic field. The  K-Pg boundary occurs within a portion of the sequence formed by pink limestone containing a variable amount of clay. This limestone, know as the “Scaglia rossa”, is composed by calcareous nannofossils and planktonic foraminifera.

In 1977, Walter Alvarez – an associate professor of geology University of California, Berkeley – was collecting samples of the limestone rock for a paleomagnetism study. He found that the foraminifera from the Upper Cretaceous (notably the genus Globotruncana) disappear abruptly and are replaced by Tertiary foraminifera. The extinction of most of the nannoplankton was simultaneus with the disappearance of the foraminifera (Alvarez et al., 1980).

Forams from the Upper Cretaceous vs. the post-impact foraminifera from the Paleogene. (Images from the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History)

Forams from the Upper Cretaceous vs. the post-impact foraminifera from the Paleogene. (Images from the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History)

At Caravaca on the southeast coast of Spain, Jan Smith, a Dutch geologist, had noticed a similar pattern of changes in forams in rocks around the K-T boundary. Looking for clues, Smith contacted to Jan Hertogen who found high iridium values at the clay boundary. At the same time, Walter Alvarez  gave his father, Luis Alvarez – an American physicist who won the  Nobel Prize in Physics in 1968 – a small polished cross-section of Gubbio  K-Pg boundary rock. The Alvarez gave some samples to Frank Asaro and Helen Michel, who had developed a new technique called neutron activation analysis (NAA). They also discovered the same iridium anomaly. The sea cliff of Stevns Klint, about 50 km south of Copenhagen, shows the same pattern of extinction and iridium anomaly. Another sample from New Zeland also exhibits a spike of iridium. The phenomenon was global.

Iridium is rare in the Earth’s crust but metal meteorites are often rich in iridium. Ten years before the iridium discovery, physicist Wallace Tucker and paleontologist Dale Russell proposed  that a supernova caused the mass extinction at the K-Pg boundary. Luis Alvarez realised that  a supernova would have also released plutonium-244, but there was no plutonium in the sample at all. They concluded that the anomalous iridium concentration at the K-Pg boundary is best interpreted as the result of an asteroid impact, which would explain the iridium and the lack of plutonium. In 1980, they published their seminal paper on Science, along with Asaro and Michel, and ignited a huge controversy. They even calculated the size of the asteroid (about 7 km in diameter) and the crater that this body might have caused (about 100–200 km across).

A paleogeographic map of the Gulf of Mexico at the end of the Cretaceous (From Vellekoop, 2014)

A paleogeographic map of the Gulf of Mexico at the end of the Cretaceous (From Vellekoop, 2014)

In 1981, Pemex (a Mexican oil company) identified Chicxulub as the site of a massive asteroid impact. In 1991, Alan Hildebrand, William Boynton, Glen Penfield and Antonio Camargo, published a paper entitled “Chicxulub crater: a possible Cretaceous/Tertiary boundary impact crater on the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico.” They had found the long-sought K/Pg impact crater.

The crater is more than 180 km (110 miles) in diameter and 20 km (10 miles) in depth, making the feature one of the largest confirmed impact structures on Earth. The  Chicxulub impact released an estimated energy equivalent of 100 teratonnes of TNT and produced high concentrations of dust, soot, and sulfate aerosols in the atmosphere. Model simulations suggest that the amount of sunlight that reached Earth’s surface was reduced by approximately 20%.This decrease of sunlight caused a drastic short-term global reduction in temperature. This phenomenon is called “impact winter”. Cold and darkness lasted for a period of months to years.  Photosynthesis stopped and the food chain collapsed. This period of reduced solar radiation may only have lasted several months to decades. Three-quarters of the plant and animal species on Earth disappeared. Marine ecosystems lost about half of their species while freshwater environments shows low extinction rates, about 10% to 22% of genera. Additionally, the vapour produced by the impact  could have led to global acid rain and a dramatic acidification of marine surface waters.

The Chicxulub asteroid impact was the final straw that pushed Earth past the tipping point.  The K-Pg extinction that followed the impact was one of the five great Phanerozoic  mass extinctions. Currently about 170 impact craters are known on Earth; about one third of those structures are not exposed on the surface and can only be studied by geophysics or drilling. Now, a new drilling platform in the the Gulf of Mexico, sponsored by the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP) and the International Continental Scientific Drilling Program, will looking rock cores from the site of the impact. The main object is learn more about the scale of the impact, and the environmental catastrophe that ensued.


Alvarez, L., W. Alvarez, F. Asaro, and H.V. Michel. 1980. Extraterrestrial cause for the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction: Experimental results and theoretical interpretation. Science 208:1095–1108.

Alvarez, W. (1997) T. rex and the Crater of Doom. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.

Hildebrand, A.R., G.T. Penfield, D.A. Kring, M. Pilkington, A. Camargo, S.B. Jacobsen, and W.V. Boynton. 1991. Chicxulub crater: A possible Cretaceous/Tertiary boundary impact crater on the Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico. Geology 19:867–71.




One thought on “Unlocking the secrets of the Crater of Doom.

  1. Wonderful blog about great people, I especially like the summary of the K-T extinction, when and how the discovery was made – and by whom!

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