Are Asteroids History's Greatest Killers?

John Roach
for National Geographic News
November 20, 2003

Catastrophic asteroid impacts are gaining a credible edge over violent volcanic eruptions as the greatest killers Earth has ever seen, according to two pieces of scientific detective work reported in tomorrow's issue of the journal Science.

The first cataclysm in question occurred about 250 million years ago, when according to the fossil record more than 90 percent of Earth's marine species and 70 percent of life on land perished. The event is known as the Permian-Triassic (P-T for short) mass extinction, named because it falls on the boundary between the two geological eras.

The second event, known as the Cretaceous-Tertiary (K-T) mass extinction, occurred about 65 million years ago, leading to the demise of the dinosaurs and most of the creatures and plants that lived with them.

According to the geological record, bouts of extreme volcanism occurred around the same time as these mass extinctions and many scientists have suggested that the volcanic activity is directly responsible for the loss of life.

However, the discovery and analysis over the past few decades of a crater from an asteroid impact about 65 million years ago, and of meteorite fragments from an apparent asteroid impact about 250 million years ago, is leading some scientists to believe that the impact events, not volcanism, were the primary cause of the extinctions.

Two studies published in the November 21 issue of Science support these theories. One study presents further evidence for an impact event about 250 million years ago and the second study suggests that the volcanism around the K-T boundary was probably not a major contributor to the K-T mass extinction.

Asteroid Impacts

In 1991 scientists located a 112-mile-wide (180-kilometer-wide) and 3,000-foot-deep (900-meter-deep) crater on Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula that appeared to have been made by a giant comet or asteroid that slammed into the Earth about 65 million years ago. The collision has gained favor as the cause of the K-T mass extinction and is referred to as the "dinosaur killer."

Now, a team of scientists led by Asish Basu, a geochemist at the University of Rochester in New York, has found dozens of unusual mineral grains from two rock samples taken from Graphite Peak, Antarctica, that they say are pieces of a meteorite that impacted Earth 250 million years ago.

"We analyzed them and they seem to be pieces of extraterrestrial material," said Basu.

The researchers also found bits of nearly pure metallic iron in the Antarctic rock that they say is of neither terrestrial nor extraterrestrial origin. Rather, they say the particles resemble those reported by Kunio Kaiho of Tohoku University in Sendai, Japan, from the P-T boundary in Meishan, China, that formed as an impact cloud condensed.

A third, controversial, impact marker—clusters of carbon atoms called buckyballs—have also shown up at Graphite Peak, co-authors of the Science paper Luann Becker of the University of California, Santa Barbara and Robert Poredea of the University of Rochester reported earlier this year in the journal Astrobiology.

Continued on Next Page >>


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