Comet slew large mammals of the Americas?

Shortly before the start of the Younger Dryas cold period, around 12.9 ka, the Palaeoindian Clovis culture of North America seems to have come to an abrupt halt. The North American mammoths on which the Clovis people preyed also disappear from the fossil record. Some folk reckon that early immigrants from NE Asia devoured the last of the mammoths, as they ate their way through two continents en route to Tierra del Fuego. Equally imaginative scientists have been suggesting since 2007 that an extraterrestrial cataclysm was responsible for climate change and the demise of both mammoths and the Clovis people (see Whizz-bang view of Younger Dryas and Impact cause for Younger Dryas draws flak in EPN July 2007 and May 2008). Evidence found just beneath a sediment layer that marks the outset of the Younger Dryas included: excess iridium; tiny spherules; fullerenes containing extraterrestrial helium; nanodiamonds and evidence for huge wildfires. Neither crater nor shocked mineral grains have been found, and the proponents of this controversial idea have opted for a cometary airburst as culprit – an impact would have produced shocked debris. The authors have had a ‘bad press’, but remain undeterred and have published photomicrographs of diamonds in minute spherules made of amorphous carbon (Kennett, D.J. and 8 others 2009. Nanodiamonds in the Younger Dryas boundary sediment layer. Science, v. 323, p. 94). There is a problem or two with the hypothesis: mammoths, albeit little ones, lived on Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean until 1650 BC; had some kind of cosmic encounter in North America set global cooling in motion at 12.9 ka, then the best place to look for evidence would be in the Greenland ice cores, in which diamonds have yet to be found. No-one doubts that diamonds do occur in the sediments formed just before the Younger Dryas, but experts don’t accept them as irrefutable evidence for impacts (Kerr, R.A. 2009. Did the mammoth slayer leave a diamond calling card? Science, v. 323, p. 26). But the plot thickens. A Belgian and German team has discovered that forest topsoils, grasslands and swamps, no more than a few thousand years old, from 70 sites across Europe also contain nanodiamonds. Although one member of that team reportedly has no idea where they came from, a website (http://www.chiemgau-impact.com/) hints that a very young (2500 years) impact site in Bavaria may be the source. While the end-Clovis diamonds may not have triggered global cooling and killed off mammoths, they could well set off a research line aimed at documenting hazardous extraterrestrial events of the recent past and puzzling occurrences in the archaeological record.

See also: Herd, C.D.K et al. 2009. Anatomy of a young impact event in central Alberta, Canada: Prospects for the missing Holocene impact record. Geology, v. 36, p. 955-958.

Chinese dam implicated in the 2008 Sichuan great earthquake

Four years after the completion of the Koyna Dam in India’s Maharashtra State in 1963, the surrounding area experienced a magnitude 6.5 earthquake. Because the region is free of active tectonics, the earthquake was a surprise. The possibility that it could be linked to filling of the reservoir behind the Koyna Dam became a proven fact when the region subsequently became plagued by minor seismicity. In the immediate aftermath of the magnitude 7.9 Wenchuan earthquake in Sichuan, China on 12 May 2008, which killed 80 thousand people, there were alarms about the possible failure of weakened dams and lakes blocked by landslides in the Longmen Shan mountains. But now suspicion has fallen on the earthquake having been caused by the load that filling a new reservoir created only 5 km from the epicentre and 500 m from the fault that failed during the disaster (Kerr, R.A. & Stone, R. 2009. A human trigger for the great quake of Sichuan? Science, v. 323, p. 322). Calculations of the stress from this loading suggest that it was 25 times that of the tectonic stresses in the region.

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