Should you worry about being killed by a meteorite?

In 1994 Clark Chapman of the Planetary Science Institute in Arizona and David Morrison of NASA’s Ames Research Center in California published a paper that examined the statistical hazard of death by unnatural causes in the United States (Chapman, C. & Morrison, D. Impacts on the Earth by asteroids and comets: assessing the hazard. Nature, v. 367, p. 33–40; DOI:10.1038/367033a0). Specifically, they tried to place the risk of an individual being killed by a large asteroid (~2 km across) hitting the Earth in the context of more familiar unwelcome causes. Based on the then available data about near-Earth objects – those whose orbits around the Sun cross that of the Earth – they assessed the chances as ranging between 1 in 3,000 and 1 in 250,000; a chance of 1 in 20,000 being the most likely. The results from their complex calculations turned out to be pretty scary, though not as bad as dying in a car wreck, being murdered, burnt to death or accidentally shot. Asteroid-risk is about the same as electrocution, at the higher-risk end, but significantly higher than many other causes with which the American public are, unfortunately, familiar: air crash; flood; tornado and snake bite. The lowest asteroid-risk (1 in 250 thousand) is greater than death from fireworks, botulism or trichloroethylene in drinking water; the last being 1 in 10 million.

Chapman and Morrison cautioned against mass panic on a greater scale than Orson Welles’s 1938 CBS radio production of H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds allegedly resulted in. Asteroid and comet impacts are events likely to kill between 5,000 and several hundred million people each time they happen but they occur infrequently. Catastrophes at the low end, such as the 1908 Tunguska air burst over an uninhabited area in Siberia, are likely to happen once in a thousand years. At the high end, mass extinction impacts may occur once every hundred million years. As might be said by an Australian, ‘No worries, mate’! But you never know…

Michelle Knapp’s Chevrolet Malibu the morning after a stony-iron mmeteorite struck it. Bought for US$ 300, Michelle sold the car for US$ 25,000 and the meteorite fetched US$ 50,000 (credit: John Bortle)

How about ordinary meteorites that come in their thousands, especially when the Earth’s orbit takes it through the former paths taken by disintegrating comets? When I was a kid rumours spread that a motor cyclist had a narrow escape on the flatlands around Kingston-upon-Hull in East Yorkshire, when a meteorite landed in his sidecar: probably apocryphal. But Michelle Knapp of Peeskill, New York, USA had a job for the body shop when a 12 kg extraterrestrial object hit her Chevrolet Malibu, while it was parked in the driveway. In 1954, Ann Hodges of Sylacauga, Alabama was less fortunate during an afternoon nap on her sofa, when a 4 kg chondritic meteorite crashed through her house roof, hit a radiogram and bounced to smash into her upper thigh, badly bruising her. For an object that probably entered the atmosphere at about 15 km s-1, that was indeed a piece of good luck resulting from air’s viscous drag, the roof impact and energy lost to her radiogram. The offending projectile became a doorstop in the Hodge residence, before the family kindly donated it to the Alabama Museum of Natural History. Another fragment of the same meteorite, found in a field a few kilometres away, fetched US$ 728 per gram at Christie’s auction house in 2017. Perhaps the most unlucky man of the 21st century was an Indian bus driver who was killed by debris ejected when a meteorite struck the dirt track on which he was driving in Tamil Nadu in 2016 – three passengers were also injured. Even that is disputed, some claiming that the cause was an explosive device.

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…