Better dating of Deccan Traps, and the K-Pg event

Predictably, the dialogue between the supporters of the Deccan Trap flood basalts and the Chicxulub impact as triggers that were responsible for the mass extinction at the end of the Mesozoic Era (the K-Pg event) continues. A recent issue of Science contains two new approaches focussing on the timing of flood basalt eruptions in western India relative to the age of the Chicxulub impact. One is based on dating the lavas using zircon U-Pb geochronology (Schoene, B. et al. 2019. U-Pb constraints on pulsed eruption of the Deccan Traps across the end-Cretaceous mass extinction. Science, v. 363, p. 862-866; DOI: 10.1126/science.aau2422), the other using 40Ar/39Ar dating of plagioclase feldspars (Sprain, C.G. et al. 2019. The eruptive tempo of Deccan volcanism in relation to the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary. Science, v. 363, p. 866-870; DOI: 10.1126/science.aav1446). Both studies were initiated for the same reason: previous dating of the sequence of flows in the Deccan Traps was limited by inadequate sampling of the flow sequence and/or high analytical uncertainties. All that could be said with confidence was that the outpouring of more than a million cubic kilometres of plume-related basaltic magma lasted around a million years (65.5 to 66.5 Ma) that encompassed the sudden extinction event and the possibly implicated Chicxulub impact. The age of the impact, as recorded by its iridium-rich ejecta found in sediments of the Denver Basin in Colorado, has been estimated from zircon U-Pb data at 66.016 ± 0.050 Ma; i.e. with a precision of around 50 thousand years.

The Deccan Traps in the Western Ghats of India (Credit: Wikipedia)

Because basalts rarely contain sufficient zircons to estimate a U-Pb age of their eruption, Blair Schoene and colleagues collected them from palaeosols or boles that commonly occur between flows and sometimes incorporate volcanic ash. Their data cover 23 boles and a single zircon-bearing basalt. Sprain et al. obtained 40Ar/39Ar ages from 19 flows, which they used to supplement 5 ages obtained by their team in previous studies that used the same analytical methods and 4 palaeosol ages from an earlier paper by Schoene’s group.

The zircon U-Pb data from palaeosols, combined with estimates of magma volumes that contributed to the lava sequence between each dated stratigraphic level, provide a record of the varying rates at which lavas accumulated. The results suggest four distinct periods of high-volume eruption separated by long. periods of relative quiescence. The second such pulse precedes the K-Pg event by up to 100 ka, the extinction and impact occurring in a period of quiescence. A few tens of thousand years after the event Deccan magmatism rose to its maximum intensity. Schoene’s group consider that this supports the notion that both magmatism and bolide impact drove environmental deterioration that culminated in mass extinction.

The Ar-Ar data derived from the basalt flows themselves, seem to tell a significantly different story. A plot of basalt accumulation, similarly derived from dating and stratigraphy, shows little if any sign of major magmatic pulses and periods of quiescence. Instead, Courtney Sprain’s team distinguish an average eruption rate of around 0.4 km3 per year before the K-Pg event and 0.6 km3 per year following it. Yet they observe from climate proxy data that there seems to have been only minor climatic change (about 2 to 3 °C warming) during the period around and after the K-Pg event when some 75% of the lavas flooded out. Yet during the pre-extinction period of slower effusion global temperature rose by 4°C then fell back to pre-eruption levels immediately before the K-Pg event. This odd mismatch between magma production and climate, based on their data, prompts Sprain et al. to speculate on possible shifts in the emission of climate-changing gases during the period Deccan volcanism: warming by carbon dioxide – either from the magma or older carbon-rich sediments heated by it; cooling induced by stratospheric sulfate aerosols formed by volcanogenic SO2 emissions. That would imply a complex scenario of changes in the composition of gas emissions of either type. They suggest that one conceivable trigger for the post-extinction climate shift may have been exhaustion of the magma source’s sulfur-rich volatile content before the Chicxulub impact added enough energy to the Earth system to generate the massive extrusions that followed it. But their view peters out in a demand for ‘better understanding of [the Deccan Traps’] volatile release’.

A curious case of empiricism seeming to resolve the K-Pg conundrum, on the one hand, yet pushing the resolution further off, on the other …

Read more on Palaeobiology and Magmatism

Deccan Trap sprung by bolide?

English: Alvarez and K-T Boundary
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
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.

The Western Ghat hills at Matheran in Maharash...
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.

K-T (K-Pg) event: can the havering stop now, please?

Chicxulub impact - artist impression
Artist’s impression of the Chicxulub impact – (credit: Wikipedia)

Since 1980, when Alvarez père et fils discovered signs of a globe-affecting impact event in rocks marking the stratigraphic boundary at the end of the Mesozoic Era –between the Cretaceous and Palaeogene Periods – there has been continual bickering over the cause of the mass extinction at that time. Unlike other mass extinctions that one marked the end of an Era dominated in the popular mind by the iconic dinosaurs. Besides that focus, many geologists have been averse to external, ‘wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am’ explanations for shifts in the fossil record: a sort of Lyellian view that geological change had to be at the pace of the humble tortoise and must be due to something in the Earth system itself. Then a majority, this conservative faction looked instead to the effects of the voluminous basalt flood that had affected western India at around the same time. Incidentally, that apparent match to the end-Mesozoic extinction sparked an interest in volcanic associations with other mass extinctions.

Discovery by geophysicists of evidence for a large almost completely buried impact basin, about 180 km across, centred in the Caribbean off Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula swayed opinion towards an extraterrestrial cause when it became clear that the impact had occurred around the time of the K-Pg boundary, then placed at 65 Ma. Soon there were claims that the Deccan Traps had erupted in less than a million years at that time, together with doubts cast on the actual age of the Chicxulub crater. The time-spread of the Deccan volcanism enlarged with more dating to between 68 and 60 Ma; and so the to-ing and fro-ing continued, gleaning sizeable grants for entrepreneurial geoscientists keen on one or other of what were becoming bandwagon topics. Then the ‘golden spike’ marking the time of the mass extinction became the subject of controversy. A means of precise dating is to examine signs in sediments of cyclical climate change using the Milankovich approach, although before 50 Ma only the 405 ka cyclicity predicted from astronomy is readily detected. Using well-dated volcanic horizons to calibrate such a stratigraphic dating method might be the key, but it became apparent that 65.3, 65.7 or 66.1 Ma all seemed to have the same likelihood.

The two kill mechanisms that had been proposed are in fact very different, not merely in terms of what might have happened to atmospheric chemistry, climate, photosynthesis and so on, but concerning their timing. Repeated episodes of major basalt eruption every 100 ka or so would have had a chronic and perhaps cumulative effect on the Earth’s biota; i.e.  even a 10 Ma spread for Deccan basalt floods bracketing the actual die-off would be acceptable as a cause. An impact however takes no more than a second to occur, because of the hypersonic speed induced by Earth’s gravity as well as that of the asteroid through the Solar System. All its immediate effects – entry flash; crater excavation; debris fall-out; atmospheric dust and toxic gas accumulation; climate change; acid rain and tsunamis – would have been done and dusted over a matter of a few thousand years. The Chicxulub impact would have been a catastrophe that was instantaneous in geological terms. Its occurrence would need to bear the same date as the mass extinction itself to be seen as incontrovertible; well, at least to the majority of geoscientists. That point seems to have been reached.

As well as the crater, Chicxulub scattered molten rock far and wide to appear in the ‘boundary layer’ as glass spherules, which are dateable using radiometric means. So too is the timing of the mass extinction itself, provided suitable materials can be found above and below the strata across which fossil abundances change so dramatically. Paul Renne of the University of California, Riverside, and colleagues from the US, the Netherlands and Britain dated impact glasses from Haiti and volcanic ash from the late Cretaceous to early Palaeogene terrestrial sediments of Montana, USA that bracket the extinction event using multiple argon-isotope studies and the 40Ar-39Ar method (Renne, p.r. and 8 others 2013. Time scales of critical events around the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary. Science, v. 339, p.684-687. The glasses come out at 66.038+0.049 Ma, while the Ar-Ar age of volcanic ash just above the carbon-isotope anomaly that marks the world-wide disappearance of a large proportion of living biomass is 66.019+0.021 Ma. As they say, the ages are ‘within error’ and the error is very small indeed.

So, does this work mark the end of the K-Pg controversy? Probably not, as very large sums of grant money are still tied up with on-going studies. Perhaps to assuage the fears of all those still financially addicted to answering ‘what killed the dinosaurs?’, The abstract of the paper reads thus’ ‘The Chicxulub impact likely triggered a state shift of ecosystems already under near-critical stress’.

Artist's impression of the common ancestor of placental mammals (Credit: Science magazine)
Artist’s impression of the common ancestor of placental mammals (Credit: Science magazine)

Interestingly, in the very same issue of Science came a research article that reexamines taxonomy of 86 key living and fossil placental mammals in the light of genetic sequencing, to locate startigraphically their earliest common ancestor (O’Leary, M.A. and 22 others 2013. The placental mammal ancestor and the post-K-Pg radiation of placentals. Science, v. 339, p. 662-667). That seems to wrap up, for now, another controversy; did diminutive placental mammals arise unnoticed beneath the gaze of mighty dinosaurs, or what? It seems that some precursor mammals were able to diversify and produce a line whose fetuses grow and are nourished in the mothers uterus attached to a placenta, before live birth at an advanced stage of development, once opportunities for diversification emerged after the K-Pg event. Morphologically, the ancestor of everything from a naked mole rat to a blue whale and, of course, ourselves, seems to have been a sneaky-looking little beast with a long nose and pointy teeth. It does look like it, or its predecessor, could have scuttled unscathed amongst the leaf litter as dinosaurs engaged in their death prance…

A plume drive for tectonics?

Himalaya Formation Source US Gove...
India's tectonic travels. Image via Wikipedia

The theory of plate tectonics resolved Alfred Wegener’s search for a driving force for continental drift around half a century after his discovery faced near-universal rejection for not having one that was large enough or plausible. Plate theory recognises many forces, both driving and in opposition to tectonic movement. By far the largest is the gravitational pull exerted by subducting slabs of dense oceanic lithosphere, followed in distant second place by ridge-push, another gravity-driven force that arises from the slope on the ocean floors away from sea-floor spreading centres as the oceanic lithosphere cools and shrinks as it ages. Until very recently, no place was assigned in the theory to forces associated with the apparently non-tectonic plumes that rise through the mantle from well beneath the lithosphere from which plates are made, quite possibly because it seems logical to expect a vertically upwards force, if any, from hot plumes whereas plate tectonics is mainly concerned with horizontal movements. Looking around the present state of sea-floor spreading, the maximum pace at which plates move is just over 100 mm a-1 (100 km Ma-1) in the case of the Pacific Plate. Yet, during the Late Cretaceous and Early Palaeogene Periods after India had been wrenched away from the Gondwana supercontinent to move towards eventual collision with Eurasia the subcontinent experienced an extraordinary episode beginning around 68 Ma when its pace increased to as high as 180 km Ma-1. This accelerated motion continued over some 15 Ma and then equally abruptly slowed to less than 40 km Ma-1 around the start of the Eocene (Cande, S.C. & Stegman, D.R. 2011. Indian and African plate motions driven by the push force of the Réunion plume head. Nature, v. 475, p. 47-52; see also: Müller, R.D. 2011. Plate motion and mantle plumes. . Nature, v. 475, p. 40-41). The acceleration coincided with the start of continental flood-basalt volcanism that blanketed much of western India with the Deccan Traps across the K-P boundary when the subcontinent lay over the site of the Réunion hot spot. Coincidentally, the Réunion plume head formed at that time; i.e. the Indian continental lithosphere did not drift over an active plume, but was hit from below by one that happened to be rising to the surface. Curiously, while the Indian plate was accelerated, nearby Africa was slowed, explained by a push in the same direction of India’s travel towards a subduction zone beneath Asia and one applied to Africa that opposed its motion. Africa too resumed its usual tectonic progress at the start of the Eocene. But how did a mantle plume exert such a force: was it because it caused a local bulge from which the plates slid, or did mantle motion associated with the mushroom-like structure of the horizontally growing plume head exert viscous drag on the overlying plates? Such shifts in motion of major plates inevitably have an effect on the whole plate tectonic carapace, and the authors list a number of contemporary, distant consequences, speculating that the famous bend in the Hawaii-Emperor island and sea-mount chain in the Early Eocene resulted from the final waning of the Réunion plume head’s influence and major readjustment of tectonics.

Himalayan Horizon From Space
The result of India's final collision with Eurasia - the Himalaya. Image via Wikipedia