End-Cretaceous mass extinction occurred in northern spring

This post’s title seems beyond belief for an event that occurred 66 million years ago: how can geologists possibly say that with any conviction? The claim is based on fossil fishes found in the Late Cretaceous Hell Creek Formation of North Dakota (see: A bad day at the end of the Cretaceous. April, 2019), described in a paper published on 1 April 2019. The horizon that displays all the classic evidence for an impact origin for the K-Pg extinction is a freshwater sediment laid down by a surge into a river system: the upstream result of the mega-tsunami driven by the Chicxulub impact in the Gulf of Mexico. Amongst much else it contains intact marine ammonites – the last of their kind – and freshwater paddlefish and sturgeon. The fishes are preserved exquisitely, with no sign of scavenging. Parts of their gills are clogged with microscopic spherules made of impact glass. They are pretty good ‘smoking guns’ for an impact, and are accompanied by dinosaur remains – an egg with an embryo, hatchlings and even a piece of skin.

A group of scientists from the Netherlands, Sweden, Belgium and the UK examined thin sections of the fishes’ bones (During, M.A.D. et al. 2022. The Mesozoic terminated in boreal springNature online publication, 23 February 2022; DOI: 10.1038/s41586-022-04446-1). These revealed growth layers that show lines of arrested growth (LAGs) separated by thicker layers. Such LAGs in modern paddlefish and sturgeon bones may indicate conditions of low food availability in winter, most growth being during warmer times of year. Each bone that was examined has only a thin outer zone of accelerated growth following its last LAG. So it seems that each specimen died in the Northern Hemisphere spring. This was confirmed by variations within the cyclic zonation of the relative proportions of carbon isotopes 13C and 12C, expressed as δ13C. In the LAGs δ13C is lower than in the thicker zones, which is consistent with decreased prey availability in winter, but see below.

Thin sections of fish bones from the K-Pg boundary layer in the Hell Creek Formation, showing lines of arrested growth marked by red arrowheads. The outermost (top) LAGs are succeeded by only a thin zone of accelerated growth during their last weeks of the fishes’ lives (credit: During et al., Fig. 2)

The paper by During et al. follows one with very similar content from the same deposit that was published about 12 weeks earlier (DePalma, R.A., et al. 2021. Seasonal calibration of the end-cretaceous Chicxulub impact event. Nature Science Reports, v. 11, 23704; DOI: 10.1038/s41598-021-03232-9). Yet During et al. do not refer to it, despite acknowledging DePalma’s guidance in the field and his granting access to his team’s specimens: maybe due to poor communications … or maybe not. DePalma et al. note thatmodern sturgeons are able to spend winters in the sea, which may also explain the low δ13C in the LAGs, as well as decreased prey availability does. They also examined damage by leaf-mining insects in fossil leaves at the site, which supports the springtime extinction hypothesis. Another study in DePalma et al. is the size range of newly hatched fish of three different Families that are founds as fossils in the K-Pg deposit. By comparing them with the growth histories of closely-related modern hatchlings they conclude that perhaps late spring to early summer is implied. Whatever, both papers go on to discuss the implications of their basic conclusions. Spring is a particularly sensitive time for the life cycles of many organisms; i.e. annual reproduction and newborns’ early growth. But some groups of egg-laying animals, such as perhaps dinosaurs, require longer incubation periods than do others, e.g. birds, and may be more vulnerable to rapid environmental change. That may explain the demise of the dinosaurs while their close avian relatives, or at least some of them, survived.  Yet the season in the Southern Hemisphere when the Chicxulub impact occurred would have been autumn. That may go some way towards explaining evidence that ecological recovery from mass extinction in the southern continents seems to have been faster. Almost certainly, the impact would have induced a double climatic whammy: warming in its immediate aftermath followed by global cooling plus a shutdown of photosynthesis as dust clouds enveloped the planet. Then there is the issue of contamination by potentially toxic compounds raised by Chicxulub. The K-Pg boundary seems likely to run and run as a geoscientific story more than four decades since it was first proposed.

See also: Sample, I. 2022. Springtime asteroid ramped up extinction rates, say scientists. The Guardian, 23 September 2022.

What followed the K-Pg extinction event?

A study of boron isotopes in the tests of foraminifera that lived deep in the oceans and near their surface just after the K-Pg boundary event has revealed that ocean water suddenly became more acidic (Henehan, M.J. and 13 others 2019. Rapid ocean acidification and protracted Earth system recovery followed the end-Cretaceous Chicxulub impact. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Online; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1905989116). Because the data came from marine sediment sequences exposed in Europe and North America  and from ocean-floor cores beneath the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, the acidification was global in scope. The sharp fall in pH, almost certainly due to massive release of sulphuric and carbonic acids from thick anhydrite  and limestone beds beneath the Chicxulub impact site was instrumental in the collapse of marine ecosystems. A rebound to higher, more alkaline pH values (overshooting those of the preceding Late Cretaceous) was equally rapid. That is ascribed to the post-extinction dearth of marine organisms that take up calcium in their shells so that dissolved Ca became more abundant. Within less than 100 ka of the Chicxulub impact ocean pH had returned to its pre-impact levels. Since Deccan flood-basalt volcanism was active until long after, Henehan et al. consider that its influence on ocean acidification was minimal and that The Chicxulub impact ‘was key in driving end-Cretaceous mass extinction’.

Records of marine fossils are both more abundant and continuous than are those of land-based organisms. That animal extinctions on the continents were dramatic has been clear for over a century. Entire classes, notably the dinosaurs (except for birds), as well as orders, families, genera and species disappear from the fossil record. The event more than decimated plant taxa too. How and at what pace the vacated ecological niches were reoccupied during the evolutionary radiation among what became modern fauna and flora remain poorly understood. For the first million years of post-impact time fossils of terrestrial and freshwater organisms are very rare. Well-dated sedimentary sequences are patchily distributed, and fossils preserved in them as rare as proverbial hen’s teeth, apart from a few, better endowed strata separated by thick, unproductive sediments. A Lower Palaeocene site near Denver in Colorado, USA extends for 27 km. At first sight it does not impress palaeontologists, but it carries concretions that yield rich hauls of tiny vertebrate fossils. Dating using U-Pb dating of interleaved volcanic ash layers, stratigraphy based on normal and reversed polarity of remanent magnetism, and plant pollen variations. The 250 m thick sedimentary unit can be divided into 150 levels that represent the first million years flowing the Chicxulub impact (Lyson, T.R. and 15 others 2019. Paleogene mass extinction -Exceptional continental record of biotic recovery after the Cretaceous. Science, online first release; DOI: 10.1126/science.aay2268.

Reconstruction of the 35 kg early Palaeocene mammal Taeniolabis (credit: Wikipedia)

The levels contain abundant remains of early Cenozoic mammals, particularly skulls that are vitally important in taxonomy and size estimation. During the last few hundred thousand years of the Cretaceous, mammals about the size of a modern racoon (~8 kg) were abundant. The oldest Palaeocene holds nothing bigger than a 600 g rat, and few of them. Then, remarkably, the numbers, diversity and mean body mass of mammals grow; raccoon-size back within 100 ka then, in a series of steps, beasts around 25, 35 and 45 kg emerged successively during the next 600 ka. Clearly, the local food chain had to support this growth in size as well as numbers. Pollen records reveal a terrain first dominated by ferns – not especially nutritious – then after 200 ka by palms and finally legumes (pulses) appear. The diversification of animals and plants changed in lockstep. Studies of fossil-leaf shapes (toothed = cooler; smooth = warmer) indicated a similarly triple-stepwise amelioration in climate from cool, post-impact to hot by 65 Ma ago. This climatic warming may have been connected to successive pulses of Deccan volcanism that drove up atmospheric CO2 levels. Geologically, that is pretty quick. In the context of a possible, equally rapid mass extinction as a result of anthropogenic factors, such a pace of recovery is hardly reassuring…

Last day of the dinosaurs

As they say, ‘everyone knows’ that the dinosaurs were snuffed out, except, of course, for those that had evolved to become birds and somehow survived. When it happened is known quite precisely – at the end of the Cretaceous (66.043 ± 0.011 Ma) – and there were two possible causal mechanisms: emissions from the Deccan Trap flood basalts and/or the Chicxulub impact crater. But what was the Cretaceous-Palaeogene (K-Pg) boundary event actually like? Many have speculated, but now there is evidence.

In 2016 a deep-sea drilling rig extracted rock core to a depth of 1.35 km beneath the sea floor off Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, slightly off the centre of the circular Chicxulub structure (see K-T (K-Pg) boundary impact probed, November 2016). This venture was organised and administered jointly by the International Ocean Discovery Program IODP) and the International Continental Scientific Drilling Program (ICDP) as Mission Specific Platform Expedition no. 364. Results from the analysis of the cored rock sequence have been generating pulses of excitement among palaeontologists, petrologists and planetary scientist on a regular basis. The science has been relatively slow to emerge in peer-reviewed print. Appetites have been whetted and the first substantial paper is about the bottom 130 metres of the core (Gulick, S.P.S. and 29 others 2019. The first day of the Cenozoic. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 9 September 2019; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1909479116). It might seem as though the publication schedule has been stage managed to begin with, literally, the ‘bang’ itself.

The deepest 20 m thick layer is mainly silicate glass. It was formed in the seconds after the 12 km-wide impactor arrived to smash through the water and sea-floor sediments of the early Caribbean Sea, at speed of around 20 Km s-1. It vaporised water and rock as well as shoving aside the surrounding sea and blasting debris skyward and outward. In an instant a new hole in the crust was filled with molten rock. The overlying rock is a veritable apple-crumble of shattered debris mixed with and held together by glass, and probably formed as water flowed into the crater to result in explosive reaction with the molten crystalline crust beneath. The fragments lessen in size up the core, probably reflecting ejected material mixed in the displaced seawater. Impact specialists have estimated that this impactite layer formed in little more than ten minutes after collision. The glass-laden breccia is abruptly capped by bedded sediments, considered to have been delivered by the backwash of a huge, initial tsunami. In them are soils and masses of charcoal, from the surrounding land areas, scorched and burnt by the projectile’s entry flash, inundated by the tsunami and then dragged out to sea as it receded. These are the products of the hours following the impact as successive tsunamis swashed to and fro across the proto-Caribbean Basin; hence ‘The first day of the Cenozoic’, of Gulick et al.’s title.

Artist’s impression of the Chicxulub impact (Credit: Barcroft Productions for the BBC)

Other cores drilled beyond the scope of the Chicxulub crater during offshore oil exploration show a sequence of limestones with thick beds of gypsum (CaSO4.2H2O). Yet the crater debris itself contains no trace of this mineral. Around 325 Gt of sulfur, almost certainly in the form of SO2, entered the atmosphere on that first day, adding to the dust. Ending up in the stratosphere as aerosols it would have diffused solar radiation away from the surface, resulting in an estimated 25°C global cooling that lasted 25 years. The sulfur oxides in the lower atmosphere ended up in acid rain that eventually acidified the upper ocean to devastate shallow-marine life.

See also: Amos, J. 2019. The day the dinosaurs’ world fell apart. (BBC News 10 September 2019); Rocks at asteroid impact site record first day of dinosaur extinction (Phys.org); Wei-Haas, M. 2019. Last day of the dinosaurs’ reign captured in stunning detail.  National Geographic, 9 September 2019.

Wildfires and climate at the K-Pg boundary

It is now certain that the Cretaceous-Palaeogene boundary 66 Ma ago coincided with the impact of a ~10 km diameter asteroid that produced the infamous Chicxulub crater north of Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula. Whether or not this was the trigger for the mass extinction of marine and terrestrial fauna and flora – the flood basalts of the Deccan Traps are still very much in the frame – the worldwide ejecta layer from Chicxulub coincides exactly with the boundary that separates the Mesozoic and Cenozoic Eras. As well as shocked quartz grains, anomalously high iridium concentrations and glass spherules the boundary layer contains abundant elemental carbon, which has been widely ascribed to soot released by vegetation that went up in flames on a massive scale. Atmospheric oxygen levels in the late Cretaceous were a little lower than those at present, or so recent estimates from carbon isotopes in Mesozoic to Recent ambers suggest (Tappert, R. et al. 2013. Stable carbon isotopes of C3 plant resins and ambers record changes in atmospheric oxygen since the Triassic. Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta, v. 121, p. 240-262,) – other estimates put the level substantially above that in modern air. Whatever, global wildfires occurred within the time taken for the Chicxulub ejecta to settle from the atmosphere; probably a few years. It has been estimated that about 700 billion tonnes of soot were laid down, suggesting that most of the Cretaceous terrestrial biomass and even a high proportion of that in soils literally went up in smoke.

Charles Bardeen and colleagues at the University of Colorado, Boulder, have modelled the climatic and chemical effects of this aspect of the catastrophe (Bardeen, C.G. et al. 2017. On transient climate change at the Cretaceous−Paleogene boundary due to atmospheric soot injections. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences; doi:10.1073/pnas.1708980114). Despite the associated release of massive amounts of CO2 and water vapour by both the burning and the impact into seawater, giving increased impetus to the greenhouse effect, the study suggests that fine-grained soot would have lingered as an all enveloping pall in the stratosphere. Sunlight would have been blocked for over a year so that no photosynthesis would have been possible on land or in the upper ocean, the temperatures of the continent and ocean surfaces would have dropped by as much as 28 and 11 °C respectively to cause freezing temperatures at mid-latitudes. Moreover, absorption of solar radiation by the stratospheric soot layer would have increased the temperature of the upper atmosphere by several hundred degrees to destroy the ozone layer. Consequently, once the soot cleared the surface would have had a high ultraviolet irradiation for around a year.

The main implication of the modelling is a collapse in both green terrestrial vegetation and oceanic phytoplankton; most of the food chain would have been absent for long enough to wipe out those animals that depended on it entirely. While an enhanced greenhouse effect and increased acidification of the upper ocean through CO2 emissions by the Deccan flood volcanism would have placed gradually increasing and perhaps episodic stresses on the biosphere, the outcome of the Chicxulub impact would have been immediate and terrible.

More on mass extinctions and impacts here and here