Luis and Walter Alvarez at the end-Mesozoic Boundary (credit: Wikipedia)
It was 35 years back that father and son team Luis and Walter Alvarez upset a great many geoscientists by suggesting that a very thin layer of iridium-rich mud that contained glass spherules and shocked mineral grains was evidence for a large meteorite having struck Earth. They especially annoyed palaeontologists because of their claim that it occurred at the very top of the youngest Cretaceous and that the mud was spread far and wide in deep- and shallow-marine stratigraphic sequences and also in those of continental rocks. It marked the boundary between the Mesozoic and Cenozoic Eras and, of course, the demise of the dinosaurs and a great many more, less ‘sexy’ beasts. Luis was a physicist, his son a proper geologist and their co-researchers were chemists. It can hardly be said that they stole anyone’s thunder since the issue of mass extinctions was quiescent, yet their discovery ranks with that of Alfred Wegener; another interloper into the closed-shop geoscientific community. They got the same cold-shoulder treatment, but massive popular acclaim as well, even from a minority of geologists who welcomed their having shaken up their colleagues, 15 years after the last ‘big thing’: plate tectonics. And then the actual site of the impact was found by geophysicists in a sedimentary basin in the Gulf of Mexico off the small town of Chicxulub on the Yucatan peninsula.
Chicxulub impact – artist impression (credit: Wikipedia)
As they say, ‘the rest is history’ and a great many geoscientists didn’t just jump but pounced on this potential bandwagon. Central to this activity was the fact that, within error, the ages of the impact, the mass extinction and a vast pile of continental lavas in western India, the Deccan Traps, were more or less the same (around 66 Ma). Flood basalt events are just about as dramatic as mega-impacts because of their sheer scale, of the order of a million cubic kilometres; that they were exuded in a mere million years or so, but in only a few tens of stupendous lava flows; and they are far beyond the direct experience of humans, blurting out only every 30 Ma or so. This periodicity roughly tallies with mass extinctions, great and small, through the Mesozoic. There have been two large bands of enthusiasts engaged in the causality of the end-Mesozoic die-off – the extraterrestrials and the parochialists who favoured a more mundane, albeit cataclysmic snuffing-out. Mass extinctions in general have been repeatedly examined, and in recent years it has become clear that most of those since 250 Ma ago seem to be associated with basalt-flood events and are purely terrestrial in origin. As regards the event that ended the Mesozoic, it has proved difficult to resolve whether to point the finger at the Deccan Traps or the Chicxulub impact. Both might have severely damaged the biosphere in perhaps different ways, so a ‘double whammy’ has become a compromise solution.
Deccan flood basalts forming the Western Ghats in Maharashtra, India (credit: Wikipedia)
Unsurprisingly, a lot of effort from different quarters has gone into charting the progress of the Deccan volcanism. Some dating seemed at one stage to place the bulk of the volcanism significantly before the mass extinction and impact, others had them spot on and there were even signs of an hiatus in eruptions at the critical juncture. The problem was geochronological precision of the argon-argon method of radiometric dating that is most used for rocks of basaltic composition: many labs cannot do better than an uncertainty of 1%, which is ±0.7 Ma for ages around the end of the Mesozoic, not far short of the entire duration of these huge events. Some Deccan samples have now been dated to a standard of ±0.1 Ma by the Ar-Ar lab at the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, University of California-Berkeley (Renne, P.R. et al. 2010. State shift in Deccan volcanism at the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary, possibly induced by impact. Science, v. 350, p. 76-78). The results, between 65.5 to 66.5 Ma, nicely bracket the K/T (now K/Pg) boundary age of 66.04±0.04 Ma. It looks like the double whammy compromise is the hypothesis of choice. But there is more to mere dating.
Renne and colleagues plot the ages against their position in the volcanic stratigraphy of the Deccan Traps in two ways: against the estimated height from base in the pile and against the estimated volume of the erupted materials as it built up – the extent and thickness of successive flows varies quite a lot. The second plot provided a surprise. After the K/Pg event the mean rate of effusion – the limited number of individual flows capped by well-developed soils shows that the build-up was episodic – doubled from 0.4±0.2 to 0.9±0.3 km3 yr-1. Despite the much larger uncertainty in the extent and volume of individual lava Formations than that of their ages, this is clearly significant. Does it imply that the Chicxulub impact somehow affected the magma production from, the mantle plume beneath the Deccan? It had been suggested early in the debate that the antipodean position of the lava field relative to that of Chicxulub may indicate that the huge seismicity from the impact triggered the Deccan magma production. Few accepted that possibility when it first appeared. However, Renne and co. do think it deserves another look, at least at the possibility of some linked effect on the magmatism. Perhaps the magma chamber was somehow enlarged by increased global seismicity; other chambers could have been added; magma might have been ‘pumped’ out more efficiently, or a combination of such effects. The ‘plumbing’ of flood basalt piles is generally hidden, but huge dyke swarms in Precambrian times have been suggested as feeders to long-eroded flood basalts. Seismicity of the scale produced by asteroid impacts can do a lot of damage. The Chicxulub impactor at around 10 km diameter would have carried energy a million times greater than that of the largest thermonuclear bomb, equivalent to an earthquake of Magnitude 12.4 that would have been a thousand times more powerful than the largest recorded earthquake with tectonic causes. Extensional faulting sourced in this fashion in the Deccan area may have increased the pathways along which magma might blurt out.
Duncan, R. 2015. Deadly combination. Nature, v. 527, p. 172-173.