Researchers Rethink Dinosaur Die Off Scenario

David Braun
National Geographic News
February 26, 2002

Dinosaurs may not have been killed off by asteroid impact dust blocking out sunlight, a geologist says. Instead, the mass extinction associated with an asteroid impact 65 million years ago might have been caused by soot from global wildfires or sulfuric acid clouds that were a consequence of the collision.

Whether ash, soot, or acid clouds from the impact, what difference does it make how the dinosaurs and other life forms died in the mass extinction event?

"It probably doesn't seem important what mechanism was triggered; either way it still seems that the impact caused the extinction," says Kevin Pope from Geo Eco Arc Research in Aquasco, Maryland. "But the difference is important because it may have implications for the predictions of the consequences of future asteroid impacts, as well as explain why impact extinction events are so rare."

To understand the difference, consider some of the mechanisms triggered when a large object from space hurtles into the Earth.

A large asteroid enters the atmosphere at extremely high speed, glowing red hot as the friction of the air turns it into a fiery cannon ball. Its impact with the ground results in a massive explosion, vaporizing the space object and launching perhaps over a trillion tons of gas, ash and rock dust into the atmosphere.

If the asteroid is big enough— Pope says about three kilometers (two miles) in diameter— the energy released by the impact would hurl enough debris into space to envelop the Earth in a rain of fire.

The ejected debris would re-enter the atmosphere like billions of meteorites, raining burning balls of fire back to Earth in a giant display of planetary fireworks. The brilliant glow from these billions of fireballs would ignite forest fires across the globe, generating vast, thick clouds of smoke and soot.

The asteroid that is associated with the mass extinction of the dinosaurs is believed to have been the one that created the Chicxulub crater in Yucatan, Mexico. It was certainly bigger than three kilometers across (more like ten to 15 kilometers or six to ten miles) and it would have caused global fires, Pope says.

"Another important factor is that the Yucatan, where the giant asteroid hit, was especially rich in sulfur-bearing rocks (calcium sulfate). The impact vaporized the sulfate rock and deposited billions of tons of sulfur dioxide gas in the atmosphere.

"Studies of volcanic eruptions have shown that this gas would convert to sulfuric acid clouds in the atmosphere, and that such clouds could remain in the atmosphere for years. These clouds may have initially been thick enough to shut down photosynthesis for a year, and perhaps they blocked the sun long enough (several years) to cause major global cooling. This mechanism helps explain why the impact was especially devastating," Pope says.

The original theory, proposed by Luis Alvarez and his colleagues in 1980, is that asteroid dust from the Yucatan impact formed dense clouds that surrounded the Earth, obscuring the sun. The prolonged period of darkness that shrouded the planet caused the plants to die, breaking the food chain and starving the animals. Many of them, including the dinosaurs, died out.

But now Pope is challenging this theory. Arguing in the February issue of Geology that the assumptions behind the asteroid dust theory are wrong, he says that the damage estimates from future asteroid impacts are also amiss.

Continued on Next Page >>


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