Earth Impacts: More Likely in the Past or Present?
Now a new analysis by Coryn Bailer-Jones from the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy (MPIA), set to be published in the Monthly Notes of the Royal Astronomical Society, shows those simple periodic patterns to be statistical artifacts. His results indicate either that the Earth is as likely to suffer a major impact now as it was in the past, or that there has been a slight increase in impact rate events over the past 250 million years.
Giant impacts by comets or asteroids have been linked to several mass extinction events on Earth, most famously to the demise of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Nearly 200 identifiable craters on the Earth's surface, some of them hundreds of kilometers in diameter, bear witness to these catastrophic collisions.
Understanding the way impact rates might have varied over time is not just an academic question. It is an important ingredient when scientists estimate the risk Earth currently faces from catastrophic cosmic impacts.
Since the mid-1980s, a number of authors have claimed to have identified periodic variations in the impact rate. Using crater data, notably the age estimates for the different craters, they derive a regular pattern where, every so-and-so-many million years (values vary between 13 and 50 million years), an era with fewer impacts is followed by an era with increased impact activity, and so on.
For MPIA's Coryn-Bailer-Jones, these results are evidence not of undiscovered cosmic phenomena, but of subtle pitfalls of traditional ("frequentist") statistical reasoning. Bailer-Jones: "There is a tendency for people to find patterns in nature that do not exist. Unfortunately, in certain situations traditional statistics plays to that particular weakness."
That is why, for his analysis, Bailer-Jones chose an alternative way of evaluating probabilities ("Bayesian statistics"), which avoids many of the pitfalls that hamper the traditional analysis of impact crater data. He found that simple periodic variations can be confidently ruled out. Instead, there is a general trend: From about 250 million years ago to the present, the impact rate, as judged by the number of craters of different ages, increases steadily.
There are two possible explanations for this trend. Smaller craters erode more easily, and older craters have had more time to erode away. The trend could simply reflect the fact that larger, younger craters are easier for us to find than smaller, older ones. "If we look only at craters larger than 35 km and younger than 400 million years, which are less affected by erosion and infilling, we find no such trend," Bailer-Jones explains.
Whatever the reason for the trend, simple periodic variations such as those caused by Nemesis are laid to rest by Bailer-Jones' results. "From the crater record there is no evidence for Nemesis. What remains is the intriguing question of whether or not impacts have become ever more frequent over the past 250 million years," he concludes.
The work described here is set to be published as C. A. L. Bailer-Jones, "Bayesian time series analysis of terrestrial impact cratering", in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society: http://esoads.eso.org/abs/2011arXiv1105.4100B