Life finds a way.

 

Site M0077 in the Chicxulub crater as seen using gravity data. From Lowery et al., 2018.

In the late ’70, the discovery of anomalously high abundance of iridium and other platinum group elements in the Cretaceous/Palaeogene (K-Pg) boundary led to the hypothesis that an asteroid collided with the Earth and caused one of the most devastating events in the history of life. In 1981, Pemex (a Mexican oil company) identified Chicxulub as the site of this massive asteroid impact. 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 impact released an estimated energy equivalent of 100 teratonnes of TNT, induced earthquakes, shelf collapse around the Yucatan platform, and widespread tsunamis that swept the coastal zones of the surrounding oceans. The event also produced high concentrations of dust, soot, and sulfate aerosols in the atmosphere. The decrease of sunlight caused a drastic short-term global reduction in temperature (15 °C on a global average, 11 °C over the ocean, and 28 °C over land). While the surface and lower atmosphere cooled, the tropopause became much warmer, eliminate the tropical cold trap and allow water vapor mixing ratios to increase to well over 1,000 ppmv in the stratosphere. Those events accelerated the destruction of the ozone layer. During this period, UV light was able to reach the surface at highly elevated and harmful levels. Additionally, the vapour produced by the impact  could have led to global acid rain and a dramatic acidification of marine surface waters.

The Cretaceous/Palaeogene mass extinction eradicated almost three-quarters of the plant and animal species on Earth including non-avian dinosaurs, pterosaurs, marine reptiles, and ammonites. Global forest fires might have raged for months. Photosynthesis stopped and the food chain collapsed. Marine environments lost about half of their species, and almost 90% of Foraminifera species went extinct. But life always finds a way, and 30,000 years after the impact, a thriving ecosystem was present within the Chicxulub crater.

The evidence comes from the recent joint expedition of the International Ocean Discovery Program and International Continental Drilling Program. The team sampled the first record of the few hundred thousand years immediately after the impact within the Chicxulub crater. This sample includes foraminifera, calcareous nannoplankton, trace fossils and geochemical markers for high productivity. The lowermost part of the limestone sampled also contains the lowest occurrence of Parvularugoglobigerina eugubina, the first trochospiral planktic foraminifera, which marks the base of Zone Pα. This biozone was defined at Gubbio (Italy) to precisely characterise the Cretaceous/Paleogene boundary.

3 Early Danian foraminifer abundances and I/(Ca+Mg) oxygenation proxy. From Lowery et al., 2018.

P. eugubina was a low to middle latitude taxon with an open-ocean affinity and has an extremely variable morphology. Other foraminifer of the same genus (P. extensa, P. alabamensis) and Guembelitria cretacea were found at the same core. The nannofossil assemblage includes opportunistic groups that can tolerate high environmental stress such as Thoracosphaera and Braarudosphaera, but unlike the foraminifera, there are no clear stratigraphic trends in overall nannoplankton abundance. Discrete, but clear trace fossils, including Planolites and Chondrites, characterize the upper 20cm of the transitional unit. Nevertheless, the study also shows that photosynthetic phytoplankton struggled to recover for millions of years after the event.

Core samples also revealed that porous rocks in the center of the Chicxulub crater had remained hotter than 300 °C for more than 100,000 years. The high-temperature hydrothermal system was established within the crater but the appearance of burrowing organisms within years of the impact indicates that the hydrothermal system did not adversely affect seafloor life. These impact-generated hydrothermal systems are hypothesized to be potential habitats for early life on Earth and other planets.

 

Reference:

Christopher M. Lowery et al. Rapid recovery of life at ground zero of the end-Cretaceous mass extinction, Nature (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41586-018-0163-6

Charles G. Bardeen, Rolando R. Garcia, Owen B. Toon, and Andrew J. Conley, On transient climate change at the Cretaceous−Paleogene boundary due to atmospheric soot injections, PNAS 2017 ; published ahead of print August 21, 2017 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1708980114

Brugger J.G. Feulner, and S. Petri (2016), Baby, it’s cold outside: Climate model simulations of the effects of the asteroid impact at the end of the CretaceousGeophys. Res. Lett.43,  doi:10.1002/2016GL072241.

 

 

Advertisements

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.

References:

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.

 

 

The Chicxulub impact and the acid rain.

Chicxulub impact site (painting by Donald E. Davis) From Wikimedia Commons

Chicxulub impact site (painting by Donald E. Davis) From Wikimedia Commons

About thirty years ago, the discovery of anomalously high abundance of iridium and other platinum group elements in the Cretaceous/Palaeogene (K-Pg) boundary led to the hypothesis that a 10 km asteroid collided with the Earth and caused one of the most devastating events in the history of life. The impact created the 180-kilometre wide Chicxulub crater causing widespread tsunamis along the coastal zones of the surrounding oceans and released an estimated energy equivalent of 100 teratons of TNT and produced high concentrations of dust, soot, and sulfate aerosols in the atmosphere. The vapour produced by the impact  could have led to global acid rain and a dramatic acidification of marine surface waters. Calcareous nanoplankton (primarily the coccolithophores) and planktonic foraminifera had the highest extinction rates among the marine plankton.

Radar topography reveals the 180 km-wide (112 mi) ring of the Chicxulub Crater. From Wikimedia Commons

Radar topography reveals the 180 km-wide (112 mi) ring of the Chicxulub Crater. From Wikimedia Commons

But the exact mechanism that lead to the demise of the 75%  of all life on Earth including the non-avian dinosaurs still remain debated. To test the hypothesis that acid rain could have caused the extinction patterns observed, Sohsuke Ohno and colleagues at the Chiba Institute of Technology in Japan mounted natural anhydrite – the bedrock of the Chicxulub crater is largely anhydrite –   in a vacuum chamber with a chemically inert, high density tantalum metal plate backed with a plastic ablator a short distance from it.  The team used lasers to fire impactors into anhydrite test samples at velocities of 13 to 25 kilometres per second, very similar to the speeds expected in an asteroid impact. 

The mass spectrometer analysis, showed  there was more sulphur trioxide molecules than sulphur dioxide. Sulphur trioxide reacts quickly with atmospheric water vapour and form sulphuric acid aerosols. These sprays adhere to particles heavier silicates ejected into the atmosphere by the impact, returning to the surface much faster than previously thought. These results could also explain the so called fern spike right after the impact event, because ferns are one of the most tolerant plants for dealing with those conditions.

References:

Sohsuke Ohno, Toshihiko Kadono, Kosuke Kurosawa, Taiga Hamura, Tatsuhiro Sakaiya, Keisuke Shigemori, Yoichiro Hironaka, Takayoshi Sano, Takeshi Watari, Kazuto Otani, Takafumi Matsui  and Seiji Sugita, Production of sulphate-rich vapour during the Chicxulub impact and implications for ocean acidification, Nature Geoscience (2014) doi:10.1038/ngeo2095