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The Role of Asteroid and Comet Impacts in the last Three Extinction Events of the Phanerozoic

The Role of Asteroid and Comet Impacts in the last Three Extinction Events of the Phanerozoic

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Mass-extinctions punctuate the history of life over the past 542 million years and are subject of vociferous debate. Extinctions events in the marine realm at the end-Permian, end Triassic and End-Cretaceous have coeval impact craters suggesting a cause and effect relationship. Large impacts are thought to create a global environmental crisis, triggering fundamental changes in the composition of the biosphere.
Mass-extinctions punctuate the history of life over the past 542 million years and are subject of vociferous debate. Extinctions events in the marine realm at the end-Permian, end Triassic and End-Cretaceous have coeval impact craters suggesting a cause and effect relationship. Large impacts are thought to create a global environmental crisis, triggering fundamental changes in the composition of the biosphere.

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Sep 01, 2012
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The Role of Asteroid and Comet Impacts in the lastThree Extinction Events of the Phanerozoic
 John Weatherill 
Extinction events and their attributes have attracted much debate and research in recent years (for instance; Hallam andWignall 1997; Bambach
et al 
. 2004; Jablonski 2005; Glikson 2005). Transient episodes of rapid species depletion affectingmost major taxonomic groups punctuates the history of life throughout the Phanerozoic; the past 542 million years (Myr).Using the more complete marine fossil record, Raup and Sepkoski (1984) statistically derived a biodiversity curve from theCambrian explosion to the modern climax. Five outlier events were identified, involving almost instantaneous downturns in biomass at family level; juxtaposed within a background or steady-state extinction rate. These have come to be known asthe ‘
big five
’ mass extinctions, with approximately 20 further minor extinction maxima identified since (Rampino
et al 
.1998 and references therein). The five global events comprise the
end-Ordovician (Ashgillian); Late Devonian (includingthe Frasnian-Famennian boundary); end-Permian; end-Triassic (Late Norian or Rhaetian) and end-Cretaceous (Bambach etal. 2004). Another major event is speculated in the early Cambrian (Zhuravlev and Wood 1996).Raup and Sepkoski (1984) assert that extinction is a homogenous process from which all species are at equal risk; the massextinction being a transient event of elevated risk and special stress.
Biosphere recovery from these events seems to beaccompanied by fundamental changes in biotic composition as well as extinction selectivity (Jablonski 2005).
Globalenvironmental catastrophes have been invoked as mechanisms of elevated biotic stress; triggering accelerated climatechange and ecological breakdown. Global volcanic events, related to geo-tectonic forcing have been proposed (e.g.Rampino and Stothers 1988; Courtillot 1990; Keller 
et al 
. 2008) and the impacts of asteroids and comets (e.g. Alvarez
et al.
1980; Rampino and Haggerty 1995; Basu
et al 
. 2003). Conversely, Bambach
et al.
(2004) suggest extinction peaks mayreflect periods of internal attrition, related to a reduction in rate of species origination, rather than devastation fromunusually elevated external stress. However, the geomorphological, geochemical and sedimentological fingerprints of global environmental events share close chronostratigraphic affinities with biotic crises in the marine and terrestrial realms,suggesting a possible cause and effect relationship.Alvarez
et al 
. (1980) were the first to consider an astronomical event as trigger mechanism for an episode of massmortality. The Cretaceous-Paleogene mass extinction was thought to have been precipitated by large chondritic asteroidimpact, excavating the 170-kilometre
crater on the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico (Alvarez
et al 
. 1995). Evidencehas since been presented for multiple impacts, within close stratigraphic range of extinction events at the end-Permian (Basu
et al 
. 2003) and end-Triassic (Late Norian and Rhaetian) (Spray
et al 
. 1998). The late-Eocene event is recognized as a minor extinction peak where multiple impacto-clastic layers are closely associated with major biotic turnovers (i.e. Hansen 1987;Clymer 
et al 
. 1997). The stratigraphic markers of impacts may have associations with other mass extinctions such as the lateDevonian (Racki 1999), however it is last ~ 250 Myr where the geological record is better preserved that are the subject of this account.Large inter-planetary impacts were once not considered to be important planetary processes. Many well known circular structures (e.g.
 Barringer’s crater 
, Arizona) initially, were tacitly attributed to an unobserved tectonic or volcanic‘cryptoexplosion’ have since been demonstrated to be features of terrestrial meteorite impacts (for example; Shoemaker,1963). The Pioneer, Voyager and Galileo space probes, which explored the planets and satellites of the solar system, havesince revealed that impact structures are the dominant surface landform on planets that have retained portions of their earliest crust. The pock-marked surface of our nearest celestial partner portrays dramatically, the precarious and violentlegacy of our local planetary neighbourhood. While impacts now appear to be relatively common geological events onEarth, delineating their timing, quantifying their effects on the global environmental regime and unifying their relationshipwith extinctions remains problematic.
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 Shoemaker and Wolfe (1986) estimated an explosion releasing the equivalent energy of the Hiroshima atomic bomb, shouldstatistically occur once a year from a large meteor disintegrating explosively in the upper atmosphere. While this prospect isstarling, over seventy percent of the Earth’s surface is ocean with populated regions occupying a tiny fraction of globalsurface area. Our dense atmosphere has the capacity to attenuate the continuous influx of cosmic material from theinterplanetary neighbourhood, ranging from dust to metre-scale debris.In June 1908, 2,000 square kilometres of Siberian pine forest near the Tunguska River were decimated by an explosion withequivalent magnitude of at least 15-megatons of TNT (Fig. 1). The devastation was caused by the airburst from a giantexplosive meteor in the upper troposphere, colliding with the atmosphere at 40 kilometres per second (Svetsov 1996). Itgenerated an energetic shockwave which levelled trees; leaving a radiant burn of flora of more than 100 square kilometres(Fig. 1). The shock waves registered on seismic stations globally and created a local disturbance in the geo-magnetic field(Vasilyev 1996). Its effect on the global climate system has been debated. Curious ‘bright nights’ were observed over thenorthern hemisphere in the year following the event. These were thought to be dense noctilucent clouds associated with dustand water vapour deposited in the stratosphere and mesosphere, circulated by high altitude winds (Turco
et al 
. 1982). Thelikely nature of the Tunguska meteor has been a matter of debate. Most workers favour a cometary impactor (i.e.Kolesnikov 1989; Bronshten 1999). The meteor was thought to have very low effective density suggesting a porous objectwith considerable volatile content. Intense auroral displays were reported in the southern hemisphere hours before impact,thought to be from interception with an anti-solar ion tail, supporting the comet theory (Steel and Ferguson 1993). Kresak (1978) proposes a defunct nucleus fragment of periodic comet
, given its calculated trajectory and coincidence withthe
meteor shower, derived from comet pEncke. No remnants of the estimated 70-metre object have beenrecovered (Svetsov 1996).In July 1994, multiple impacts were observed on Jupiter from periodic comet
Shoemaker-Levy 9
, many orders of magnitudemore energetic than the Tunguska event (Fig 2). A previous close
encounter with Jupiter gravitationally disrupted the labilenucleus into a chain of fragments. The planet’s southern hemisphere was struck sequentially by a series of icy projectilesranging in size from 100 metres to 3 kilometres. Each fragment entered the upper atmosphere with an average velocity of 60kilometres per second (Crawford
et al 
. 1995). Impact-generated fireballs were observed, erupting as incandescent ejecta plumes, rising 3,000 kilometres above the Jovian atmosphere (Fig. 2) (Weissman
et al 
. 1995). Atmospheric cavities wereobserved, excavated by the impact shock waves propagating rapidly across the globe (Takata and Ahrens 1997). Nomaterial was accelerated beyond escape velocity, ultimately re-entering the atmosphere forming immense, dark scars(Takata
et al 
. 1994). The rare event provided an opportunity to study the composition and behaviour of material from theinterior of a gas giant and the kinetics of impacts into a fluid body. The total energy deposited in the Jovian atmosphere isestimated at 10
megatons equivalent TNT (Fig. 3), thought to be of comparable magnitude to the impact that produced theChicxulub Crater (Takata and Ahrens 1997; Alvarez
et al 
. 1980). The impact geometry differs considerably however, asdoes the densities of the impactors.I
 Ancient impact structures, formed during the early meteorite bombardment of the solar system are comparatively rare onEarth; frequently removed by erosion, burial or subduction. The
Vredefort Impact Structure
in South Africa is the largest,widely accepted circular structure believed to be of impact origin. The impact feature was formed in the ancient, Archaen toPaleoproterozoic crystalline crust of the Kaapvaal craton. The original crater diameter is estimated at 250 kilometres and itsmorphology has since been heavily modified by differential uplift and erosion (Koeberl 1994). Hypervelocity impacts(many kilometres per second) produce a progressive suite of rock and mineral deformations in their target rocks, termed
 shock metamorphism’ 
. These features are unique to extreme impact temperatures and pressures achieved, far in excess of conditions that can be generated through endogenic metamorphism of upper-crustal rocks (for a review of shock metamorphism see Stöffler 1972). A shock-induced compression front (shock wave) is generated by impact vapourisationof the projectile and target rocks, dissipating hemispherically outwards, travelling at supersonic speeds. Currently, 174impact sites have been identified on Earth (Fig. 4). Features characteristic of impacts may include: melt sheets of crustal bulk composition, planar deformation features (PDFs) in minerals, shatter cones, tektites/micro-tektites, nickel-rich spinels,high-pressure polymorphs, diaplectic glasses and microspherules with structures indicating high-temperature origin, (EID,2008). Diamonds may be formed where there is significant graphite content in the target rocks.
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