A dialogue concerning world-shattering events

Scottish Gaelic mythology includes the ‘Dread Coruisk’, the largest of the each uisge, or water horses.  “ ‘Tis a thing of which we dinnae care tae speak”, say locals of the Isle of Skye, whose shores it nightly stalks. The same could be said of one of the most daring, and amusing, hypotheses of modern geosciences: that of the ‘Verneshot’ (see Mass extinctions and internal catastrophes in June 2004 issue of EPN).  Phipps Morgan, Reston and Ranero explored the possible consequences of a build-up of volatiles in plume-related magmas at the base of thick continental lithosphere beneath cratons, prior to the eruption of continental flood basalts. The suggested that pressure would eventually result in an explosive release at a lithospheric weak point, followed by collapse above the plume head that would propagate upwards, at hypersonic speeds. Modelling the forces involved, the authors of the novel idea considered that they would be sufficient to fling huge rock masses into orbit.  The notion neatly might explain the circumstances around mass extinctions: coincidence of CFB events; large impact structures, most likely at the antipode of the event; global debris layers containing shocked rock, melt spherules; unusual element suites and compounds (including fullerenes); and enough toxic gas to cause biological devastation.  As with the ‘Dread Coruisk’, little has been said, neither in support nor in dispute over the last year.  My comment at the time was, “As with all departures from “accepted wisdom”, the Geomar group’s ideas will come in for a lot of stick, quite possibly from the fans of giant impacts, who not so long ago were themselves dismissed as “whizz-bang kids” by many geoscientists.

It is good to be proved perceptive once in a while. One of the original butts of adverse opinion in the early days of impact hypotheses, Andrew Glikson of the Australian National University, has been the sole commentator (Glikson, A.Y. 2005. Asteroid/comet impact clusters, flood basalts and mass extinctions: Significance of isotopic age overlaps. Earth and Planetary Science Letters, v. 236, p. 933– 937).  He points out that Phipps Morgan et al. overlooked 6 overlaps of impact clusters and CFBs, three of which were associated with mass extinctions. Rather than adding grist to their mill, he goes on to say that it is the geochemical blend associated with impactite layers that points unerringly to an extraterrestrial source for the mass involved in creating large impact craters, rather than any known terrestrial rocks. Moreover, the extreme shock-metamorphism that is the hallmark of impactites has never been observed near any gas-rich volcanic structure formed by explosive venting.   He returns to the view that impacts of alien origin have sufficient energy to induce large-scale partial melting of the mantle, and thereby generate large igneous provinces.

Unsurprisingly, the original authors were onto Glikson’s comment, in leopard-like manner (Phipps Morgan, J., Reston, T.J & Ranero, C.R. 2005. Reply to A. Glikson’s comment on ‘Contemporaneous mass extinctions, continental flood basalts, and ‘impact signals’: Are mantle plume-induced lithospheric gas explosions the causal link?’. Earth and Planetary Science Letters, v. 236, p. 938– 941).  First they emphasise that their concept of the tremendous power of a ‘Verneshot’ is not based on the explosive release of volatiles, but on the shock pressures associated with the collapse of ~80 km tall pipes due to gas venting, in a very short period of time. As regards the geochemical blend in impactite-related layers, dominated by iridium yet a dearth of other platinum-group metals, they cite evidence that very similar element proportions are released in the carbon- and sulfur-rich gas phases of plume-related volcanoes, as in Hawaii and Reunion. They are not crustal, but of mantle origin, carried by escaping volatiles, and fall in the field normally said to be meteoritic. Phipps Morgan et al. also dispute the likelihood of extraterrestrial-impact induced magmatism from its statistical unlikelihood – the chances of a one in 100 Ma bolide coinciding with 1 in 30 Ma CFB events is, on their count, 1 in 3000 Ma – and from the standpoint of the powers and work involved.  They agree that indeed there are extraterrestrial impact structures.

Surely, their well-argued idea is worth bearing in mind and considering as evidence continues to emerge – they do list a plausible set of characteristics that a ‘Verneshot’ would probably produce. There is some essential philosophy that has a good track record in the history of the geosciences, that of plate tectonics for one: the absence of evidence is not evidence of absense.

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