Ocean acidification and the end-Cretaceous mass extinction

Heterohelix globulosa foraminifera isolated from the K-Pg boundary clay at Geulhemmerberg in the Netherlands. Image credit: Michael J. Henehan/PNAS

The Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction that followed the Chicxulub impact was one of the five great Phanerozoic mass extinctions. Three-quarters of the plant and animal species on Earth disappeared, including non-avian dinosaurs, pterosaurs, marine reptiles, ammonites, and planktonic foraminifera. 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. Global forest fires might have raged for months. Photosynthesis stopped and the food chain collapsed. The impacto also caused sudden ocean acidification, impacting marine ecosystems and the carbon cycle. Around the time of the impact, 23,000 to 230,000 cubic miles of magma erupted out of the mid-ocean ridges, all over the globe. One of the largest eruptive events in Earth’s history. This pulse of global marine volcanism played an important role in the environmental crisis at the end of the Cretaceous. Marine volcanism also provides a potential source of oceanic acidification, but a new study by Yale University indicates that the sudden ocean acidification was caused by the Chicxulub bolide impact (and not by the volcanic activity) that vaporised rocks containing sulphates and carbonates, causing sulphuric acid and carbonic acid to rain down. The evidence came from the shells of planktic and benthic foraminifera.

Foraminifera are crucial elements for our understanding of past and present oceans. Their skeletons take up chemical signals from the sea water, in particular isotopes of oxygen and carbon. Over millions of years, these skeletons accumulate in the deep ocean to become a major component of biogenic deep-sea sediments. Ocean acidification in the geological record is often inferred from a decrease in the accumulation and preservation of CaCO3 in marine sediments, potentially indicated by an increased degree of fragmentation of foraminiferal shells. In the early 1990’s it was recognised that the boron isotopic composition of marine carbonates was determined largely by ocean pH. Usingy the boron isotope-pH proxy to planktic and benthic foraminifera, the new study determinated the ocean pH drop following the Chicxulub impact.

The Cretaceous/Palaeogene extinction boundary clay at Geulhemmerberg Cave. Image credit: Michael J. Henehan

The boron isotope composition of carbonate samples obtained from a shallow-marine sample site (Geulhemmerberg Cave, The Netherlands) preserved sediments from the first 100 to 1000 years after the asteroid’s impact. The data from the Geulhemmerberg Cave indicate a marked ∼0.25 pH unit surface ocean acidification event within a thousand years. This change in pH corresponds to a rise in atmospheric partial pressure of CO2 (pCO2) from ∼900 ppm in the latest Maastrichtian to ∼1,600 ppm in the immediate aftermath of bolide impact.

Ocean acidification was the trigger for mass extinction in the marine realm. Acidification affects the biogeochemical dynamics of calcium carbonate, organic carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus in the ocean and interferes with a range of processes including growth, calcification, development, reproduction and behaviour in a wide range of marine organisms like planktonic coccolithophores, foraminifera, echinoderms, corals, and coralline algae. Additionaly, ocean acidification can intensify the effects of global warming, in a dangerous feedback loop.

Anthropogenic climate change and ocean acidification resulting from the emission of vast quantities of CO2 and other greenhouse gases pose a considerable threat to ecosystems and modern society. Since the Industrial Revolution the pH within the ocean surface has decreased ~0.1 pH and is predicted to decrease an additional 0.2 – 0.3 units by the end of the century. This underlines the urgency for immediate action on global carbon emission reductions.




Michael J. Henehan el al., “Rapid ocean acidification and protracted Earth system recovery followed the end-Cretaceous Chicxulub impact,” PNAS (2019). www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1905989116

Kump, L.R., T.J. Bralower, and A. Ridgwell. 2009. Ocean acidification in deep time. Oceanography 22(4):94–107, https://doi.org/10.5670/oceanog.2009.100.


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.



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.



Our once and future oceans

Earth is the only planet in our Solar System with high concentrations of gaseous diatomic oxygen. Simultaneously, this unique feature of Earth’s atmosphere has allowed the presence of an ozone layer that absorbed UV radiations. The progressive oxygenation of the atmosphere and oceans was sustained by an event of high organic carbon burial, called the Paleoproterozoic Lomagundi Event (ca. 2.3-2.1 billion years ago), which lasted well over 100 million years.

Oxygen is fundamental to life, and influences biogeochemical processes at their most fundamental level. But the oxygen content of Earth has varied greatly through time. In Earth history there have been relatively brief intervals when a very significant expansion of low-oxygen regions occurred throughout the world’s oceans. The discovery of black shales at many drill sites from the Atlantic, Indian, and the Pacific Ocean led to the recognition of widespread anoxic conditions in the global ocean spanning limited stratigraphic horizons. In 1976, S. O. Schlanger and H. C. Jenkyns termed these widespread depositional black shale intervals as “Oceanic Anoxic Events”. This was one of the greatest achievement of the DSDP (Deep Sea Drilling Project).

Corals one of the most vulnerable creatures in the ocean. Photo Credit: Katharina Fabricius/Australian Institute of Marine Science

Human activity is a major driver of the dynamics of Earth system. After the World War II, the impact of human activity on the global environment dramatically increased. Over the past 50 years, open ocean lost an estimated 2%, or 4.8 ±2.1 petamoles (77 billion metric tons), of its oxygen, and ocean oxygen minimum zones (OMZs) have expanded by an area about the size of the European Union. Deoxygenation is linked to other ocean stressors, including warming and acidification.

Ocean warming reduces the solubility of oxygen, and raises metabolic rates accelerating the rate of oxygen consumption. Warming also influence on thermal stratification and indirectly enhances salinity driven stratification through its effects on ice melt and precipitation. The increased stratification alters the mainly wind-driven circulation in the upper few hundred meters of the ocean and slows the deep overturning circulation. Intensified stratification may account for the remaining 85% of global ocean oxygen loss by reducing ventilation nd by affecting the supply of nutrients controlling production of organic matter and its subsequent sinking out of the surface ocean. Warming is predicted to exacerbate oxygen depletion in coastal systems through mechanisms similar to those of the open ocean.

Time scale [Gradstein et al., 2005] illustrating the stratigraphic position and nomenclature of OAEs (From Jenkyns, 2010).

The geological records show that large and rapid global warming events occurred repeatedly during the course of Earth history. The growing concern about modern climate change has accentuated interest in understanding the causes and consequences of these ancient abrupt warming events. The early Toarcian Oceanic Anoxic Event  (T-OAE; ∼183 mya) in the Jurassic Period is associated with a major negative carbon isotope excursion, mass extinction, marine transgression and global warming. Besides, the marked expansion of the oxygen minimum zone over the last decades, is quite similar to the model originally invoked for the genesis of Cretaceous OAEs. The better understanding of the Mesozoic ocean-climate system and the formation of OAEs would help us to predict environmental and biotic changes in a future greenhouse world.



Jenkyns, H. C. (2010), Geochemistry of oceanic anoxic eventsGeochem. Geophys. Geosyst.11, Q03004, doi:10.1029/2009GC002788.

Holz, M., Mesozoic paleogeography and paleoclimates – a discussion of the diverse greenhouse and hothouse conditions of an alien world, Journal of South American Earth Sciences (2015), doi: 10.1016/j.jsames.2015.01.001

Tennant, J. P., Mannion, P. D., Upchurch, P., Sutton, M. D. and Price, G. D. (2016), Biotic and environmental dynamics through the Late Jurassic–Early Cretaceous transition: evidence for protracted faunal and ecological turnover. Biol Rev. doi:10.1111/brv.12255 


Late Cretaceous and modern diatom ecology: implications for our changing oceans

Sin título

Photomicrographs of diatom resting spores. Scale bars =10 mm (From Davies and Kemp, 2016)

Diatoms are unicellular algae with golden-brown photosynthetic pigments with a fossil record that extends back to Early Jurassic. They live in aquatic environments, soils, ice, attached to trees or anywhere with humidity, and their remains accumulate forming diatomite, a type of soft sedimentary rock. The most distinctive feature of diatoms is their siliceous skeleton known as frustule that comprise two valves. The formation of this opaline frustule is linked  in modern oceans with the biogeochemical cycles of silicon and carbon.

Past fluctuations in global temperatures are crucial to understand Earth’s climatic evolution. During the Late Cretaceous the global climate change has been associated with episodes of outgassing from major volcanic events, orbital cyclicity and tectonism before ending with the cataclysm caused by a large bolide impact at Chicxulub, on the Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico. Following a major diatom radiation after the Cenomanian-Turonian anoxic event, the development of the first extensive diatomites provides the earliest widespread geological evidence for the rise to prominence of diatoms in ocean biogeochemistry. Studies of the greenhouse Cretaceous climates are especially topical since such warm, high CO2 periods of the past are often invoked as potential analogues for present warming trends (Davies and Kemp, 2016).

A. Chain of Stephanopyxis turri (From

A. Chain of Stephanopyxis turri (From Davies and Kemp, 2016)

Because their abundance and sensitivity to different parameters,  diatoms play a key role in Paleoceanography, particularly for evidence of climatic cooling and changing sedimentation rates in the Arctic and Antarctic oceans and to estimate sea surface temperature. Like Stephanopyxis, a common planktonic genus in the present oceans distinguished by its long stratigraphic range from the Albian to modern. Stephanopyxis can be found in tropical or warm water regions and evidence suggests a similar ecological adaptation during the Cretaceous. Meanwhile, resting spore development is generally associated with the onset of unfavourable environmental conditions and sporulation generally occurs in response to a sudden change in one or more environmental factors.

Since the start of the Industrial Revolution the anthropogenic release of CO2 into the Earth’s atmosphere has increased a 40%. In this context, warming of the present surface ocean is  leading to increased stratification in both hemispheres. Based on traditional views of diatom ecology, ocean stratification would  lead to decreased diatom production and a reduced effectiveness of the marine biological carbon pump. But recent ocean surveys, and records of the stratified seas of the Late Cretaceous, suggest that increased stratification may lead to increased rather than decreased diatom production and export. This would then result in a negative-rather than positive feedback to global warming (Davies and Kemp, 2016).



A. Davies, A.E.S. Kemp, Late Cretaceous seasonal palaeoclimatology and diatom palaeoecology from laminated sediments, Cretaceous Research 65 (2016) 82-111

Martin, R. E. and Quigg, A. 2012 Evolving Phytoplankton Stoichiometry Fueled Diversification of the Marine Biosphere. Geosciences. Special Issue on Paleontology and Geo/Biological Evolution. 2:130-146.