Mass-extinction events are among the most dramatic events in the history of life on Earth. Scientists are interested in understanding their causes, in particular how climate changes relate to the observed loss in biological diversity.66 million years ago, the sudden extinction of the dinosaurs started the ascent of the mammals, ultimately resulting in humankind’s reign on Earth. Climate scientists now reconstructed how tiny droplets of sulfuric acid formed high up in the air after the well-known impact of a large asteroid and blocking the sunlight for several years, had a profound influence on life on Earth.
Photo: Carola Radke/Museum für Naturkunde
“The big chill following the impact of the asteroid that formed the Chicxulub crater in Mexico is a turning point in Earth history,” says Julia Brugger from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), lead author of the study to be published today in the Geophysical Research Letters. “We can now contribute new insights for understanding the much debated ultimate cause for the demise of the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous era.” To investigate the phenomenon, the scientists for the first time used a specific kind of computer simulation normally applied in different contexts, a climate model coupling atmosphere, ocean and sea ice. They build on research showing that sulfur- bearing gases that evaporated from the violent asteroid impact on our planet’s surface were the main factor for blocking the sunlight and cooling down Earth.
In the tropics, annual mean temperature fell from 27 to 5 degrees Celsius
66 million years ago, the end-Cretaceous extinction event ended the reign of the dinosaurs. We have performed coupled climate model simulations showing severe cooling due to sulfate aerosols from the Chicxulub asteroid impact at that time, see the animation below.
In addition to this, ocean circulation became disturbed. Surface waters cooled down, thereby becoming denser and hence heavier. While these cooler water masses sank into the depths, warmer water from deeper ocean layers rose to the surface, carrying nutrients that likely led to massive blooms of algae, the scientists argue. It is conceivable that these algal blooms produced toxic substances, further affecting life at the coasts. Yet in any case, marine ecosystems were severely shaken up, and this likely contributed to the extinction of species in the oceans, like the ammonites.
“It illustrates how important the climate is for all lifeforms on our planet”
The dinosaurs, until then the masters of the Earth, made space for the rise of the mammals, and eventually humankind. The study of Earth’s past also shows that efforts to study future threats by asteroids have more than just academic interest. “It is fascinating to see how evolution is partly driven by an accident like an asteroid’s impact – mass extinctions show that life on Earth is vulnerable,” says Feulner. “It also illustrates how important the climate is for all lifeforms on our planet. Ironically today, the most immediate threat is not from natural cooling but from human-made global warming.”
Contacts and sources:
Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK)