Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 24/10/2009 (4630 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Well, it now seems possible that everyone was wrong. The Chicxulub crater, as it is known, may have been a mere aperitif. According to Sankar Chatterjee of Texas Tech University, the main course was served later. Chatterjee has found a bigger crater -- much bigger -- in India. His is 310 miles across. The explosion that caused it may have been 100 times the size of the one that created Chicxulub. He calls it Shiva, after the Indian deity of destruction.
Chatterjee presented his latest findings on Shiva to the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America in Portland, Ore., on Oct. 18. He makes a compelling case, identifying an underwater mountain called Bombay High, off the coast of Mumbai, that formed right at the time of the dinosaur extinction. This mountain measures three miles from sea bed to peak, and is surrounded by Shiva's crater rim. Chatterjee's analysis shows that it formed from a sudden upwelling of magma that destroyed the Earth's crust in the area and pushed the mountain upward in a hurry. He argues that no force other than the rebound from an impact could have produced this kind of vertical uplift so quickly. And the blow that caused it would surely have been powerful enough to smash ecosystems around the world.
In truth, agreement on the cause of the mass extinction at the end of the Cretaceous (when not only the dinosaurs, but also a host of other species, died) has never been as cut and dried among paleontologists as it may have appeared to the public. One confounding factor is that the late Cretaceous was also a period of great volcanic activity. In India, which was then an island continent like Australia is today (it did not collide with Asia until 50 million years ago), huge eruptions created fields of basalt called the Deccan Traps. Before the discovery of Chicxulub, the climate-changing effects of these eruptions had been put forward as an explanation for the death of the dinosaurs. After its discovery, some argued that even if the eruptions did not cause the extinction, they weakened the biosphere and made it particularly vulnerable to the Chicxulub hammer blow.
There are also puzzling anomalies in the pattern of extinction. The greatest of these is that, as fiery and horrible as the impact would have been, the survivors included many seemingly sensitive animals like birds, frogs and turtles. Moreover, close inspection of the fossil record shows that many "Cretaceous" species disappear both well before, and well after, the signs of the impact that are found in the rocks.
Ironically, it was while he was investigating the Deccan Traps that Chatterjee came across the evidence for Shiva. First, he found dinosaur nests that had been built between lava flows 33 to 49 feet thick -- evidence that the animals were coping well with the volcanic activity rather than being weakened by it. Then, quite suddenly, 65 million years ago, a layer of lava nearly 1.2 miles thick appears. This led him to wonder what could possibly have caused such a sudden volcanic surge.
He knew that the west coast of India had been the site of an ancient impact of unknown age and size. It was not until he was reading through a paper published by an oil company that had collected geological information in the area that he realized the volcanic surge he had seen might be related to a cosmic collision.
Further examination revealed a crater rich in shocked quartz and iridium, minerals that are commonly found at impact sites. (These are also the telltales in distant layers of ejecta that the rock in question has come from an impact.) Most important, the rocks above and below Shiva date it to 65 million years ago. Chatterjee therefore suggests that an object 25 miles in diameter hit the Earth off the coast of India and forced vast quantities of lava out of the Deccan Traps. As well as killing the dinosaurs, the impact was, he proposes, responsible for breaking the Seychelles away from India. These islands and their surrounding seabed have long looked anomalous. They are made of continental rather than oceanic rock, and seem to be a small part of the jigsaw puzzle of continental drift rather than genuine oceanic islands.
This story, though, raises the question of why there is but a single ejecta layer of iridium and shocked quartz in late Cretaceous rocks around the world. One answer might be that the two impacts were, in effect, simultaneous -- that the objects that created Shiva and Chicxulub were the daughters of a comet that had broken up in space and hit the Earth a few hours apart, as the pieces of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 hit Jupiter in 1994.
Other, smaller craters in the North Sea and Ukraine have been prayed in aid of this theory. Recent research suggests that there was, in fact, no impact in the North Sea at all, but the Ukrainian site does appear to be the result of a genuine collision that took place at the time of the dinosaur extinction and could therefore be connected with Shiva. But even if it is, it is so much smaller that its environmental effect would have been both minor and local.
Extensive dating research at Chicxulub, however, now suggests that the object that created that crater actually struck 300,000 years earlier than the dinosaur extinction, meaning there really should be two ejecta layers. That there are not could be explained by the fact that the accumulation of sediment in most rocks is so slow that the two layers are, in effect, superimposed. Alternatively, it could be that no one has been looking for two layers, so they have not seen the double signature or have ignored its significance. Indeed, two iridium layers have been found in some places. Anjar, an Indian town north of the impact site, is one. That is leading Chatterjee to suggest that the two big impacts did take place at different times.
The picture that is emerging, then, is of a strange set of coincidences. First, two of the biggest impacts in history happened within 300,000 years of each other -- a geological eyeblink. Second, they coincided with one of the largest periods of vulcanicity in the past billion years. Third, one of them just happened to strike where these volcanoes were active. Or, to put it another way, what really killed the dinosaurs was a string of the most atrocious bad luck.