Debating the Dinosaur Extinction
A meteorite impact 65 million years ago is the simple explanation for the extinction of the dinosaurs. The exact details are much more complex, and researchers are still trying to nail down exactly what happened. The Cretaceous-Tertiary (K-T) extinction event is like an ancient tapestry that has become matted and soiled due to time and neglect. There are hundreds of threads of evidence that need to be untangled, smoothed out, and put in their proper place before a clear picture can emerge.
The first, most important thread of evidence is a strip of clay that runs through rocks around the world. Known as the K-T boundary layer, this is the line no dinosaur could cross (although their relatives, the birds, did survive).
In 1980, a team of researchers led by Luis Alvarez and his son, Walter, discovered that the boundary layer contains a relatively high concentration of iridium. Iridium is rare on the Earth's surface but is often found in meteorites. During the molten phase of our planet's formation, most of the iridium of Earth traveled down with iron to form the planetary core. The Earth does receive a light surface dusting of iridium from the occasional meteorites, and some volcanoes can release iridium if their lava comes from a deep enough source. These events give the planet's surface a background iridium level of 0.02 parts per billion (ppb) or less.
Depending on the location of the rocks, the K-T boundary layer has varying amounts of iridium, but all are far above that background level. The section analyzed by Alvarez had 9 ppb. Other sections have upwards of a million times the background level. Luis and Walter Alvarez surmised that a large meteorite rich in iridium must have hit the Earth, and the after-effects of the impact led to the demise of the dinosaurs.
The meteorite that made the Chicxulub crater was 10 to 15 kilometers in diameter, or about the size of the island of Manhattan. It screamed to Earth faster than a bullet, smashing open a vast cavern 40 kilometers deep and 100 kilometers across. This crater quickly collapsed under the force of gravity, leaving a hole 180 kilometers wide and only 2 kilometers deep.
The impact obviously destroyed life in the immediate area, and the shock wave likely generated huge tsunamis and earthquakes further away from ground zero. Other, longer-lasting effects, such as dust and chemicals from the vaporized rocks, dispersed around the world.
The debate about the K-T extinction was contentious before Alvarez's hypothesis, and the discovery of Chicxulub seems to have done little to stem the often emotional arguments about the extinction event.
At first, some doubted that Chicxulub even was an impact crater. The structure is buried 1 to 2 kilometers under ground - half under land and half under the sea floor - and was only discovered by gravitational and magnetic anomalies from readings taken at the Earth's surface. However, samples from drill cores helped confirm that Chicxulub was formed by a meteorite impact.
Among scientists who agree that Chicxulub was the cause of the extinction, there are disagreements about the tangible effects of the impact. Some scientists think so much dust was sent flying high into the air that the skies darkened for years, halting photosynthesis and killing plants worldwide. Others contend that the dust wouldn't have been so long lasting, since rain would have soon cleared the air. Some have suggested that red-hot impact debris raining back down would have ignited forest fires worldwide, darkening the skies with black soot. Another theory suggests that so much sulfur was sent up into the stratosphere that the rains became like battery acid, poisoning land and sea.
Finally, there are some who believe that while Chicxulub played a role in the extinction, it was not the primary cause. They are seeking answers beyond Chicxulub, wondering if anything else could have contributed to the loss of species. The dinosaurs weren't the only creatures to suffer death and destruction, after all. The K-T mass extinction event killed at least 50 percent of all the world's species. Could a single meteorite impact - even one as large as Chicxulub - have dealt such a fatal blow to life?
Part 2 of this series will discuss whether Earth was hit by more than one meteorite 65 million years ago. Part 3 will look at a controversial crater off the coast of India. Part 4 will cover the debate over whether the K-T extinction was the result of global warming.