'Double whammy killed most life on earth 66m years ago'

A University of California, Berkeley, photo of the layered lava flows of the Deccan Traps in India. The Deccan eruptions lasted 420,000 years and extruded enough lava to cover the continental US to a depth of 180m.
A University of California, Berkeley, photo of the layered lava flows of the Deccan Traps in India. The Deccan eruptions lasted 420,000 years and extruded enough lava to cover the continental US to a depth of 180m.PHOTO: REUTERS

Asteroid strike that triggered volcanic eruptions doomed dinosaurs: Scientists

WASHINGTON • It was a combination of calamities - an asteroid strike followed by vast volcanic eruptions half a world away - that doomed the dinosaurs and many other creatures 66 million years ago.

That is the conclusion of scientists who said on Thursday they have determined with new precision the proximity of the dates of these catastrophes: A space rock about 10km wide striking Mexico's Yucatan region and colossal eruptions in India.

The two events roiled Earth by throwing dust, ash and harmful fumes like carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide into the air, altering the climate and killing off about 75 per cent of all species in one of Earth's worst mass extinctions.

The researchers said the asteroid strike occurred 66.04 million years ago, plus or minus 30,000 years.

They said eruptions in a region called the Deccan Traps were already under way at a lower intensity but accelerated dramatically after the asteroid strike as if the powerful impact triggered it.

The dating method they used found this acceleration began within 50,000 years of the impact, but it could have been in mere days, months or years afterward.

"Within measurement error, they're simultaneous," said volcanologist Loyc Vanderkluysen of Drexel University in Philadelphia.

"The two processes in tandem caused the extinctions," added Professor Paul Renne, director of the Berkeley Geochronology Centre and a University of California, Berkeley geologist, who led the study in the journal Science.

Scientists have debated for about 35 years which of the two disasters drove the extinction, some touting one while calling the other inconsequential. "The debate has been contentious," Prof Renne said. "Now it's time to stop dismissing one cause or the other. They clearly happened at the same time and both contributed."

Said Dr Vanderkluysen: "An asteroid 10km across - about the size of Manhattan - hitting the Earth is traumatic enough. But what followed were the largest volcanic eruptions the Earth had seen in 60 million years. And in their wake would have come 4,000 centuries of changing climate, ocean acidification and acid rains."

The Deccan eruptions lasted 420,000 years after the asteroid and extruded enough lava to cover the continental United States to a depth of 180m.

"We as humans wouldn't be here if the dinosaurs had not been wiped out," said geophysicist Mark Richards from the University of California, Berkeley, noting that the extinction at the Cretaceous Period's end paved the way for mammals to become the dominant land animals.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 03, 2015, with the headline ''Double whammy killed most life on earth 66m years ago''. Print Edition | Subscribe