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Rock Doc: Digging deep to find source of extinction

Not too long ago I rewrote my will. There’s nothing like such a project to remind me of my mortality. But imagine not just your own individual death, but the finality of the death of all the members of your species.

You’ve likely heard of the mass extinction that removed the non-bird dinosaurs from the face of the Earth some 65 million years ago. There have been other periods, too, of enormous “die offs” in Earth history. And even apart from times of mass extinction, some species are always going belly-up. In short, most species that have ever lived are now extinct. As I like to say, extinction isn’t rare, but as common as dirt.

If we look at the fossils that are just a bit older than the time of the dinosaurs’ extinction and compare them to the fossils that are just a bit younger, we can see just how different life on Earth became. Organisms in the oceans were particularly hard hit during the great transition, as were plants on land. Interestingly, mammals were comparatively unaffected. (Go team!)

The first part of an important theory for what happened when the dinosaurs disappeared was put forward in 1980. The idea was that a large meteorite slammed into the Earth. Later research work put the location of the impact in the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico. The meteorite that hit the Yucatan, as the theory goes, carried with it an unusual metal, one that can be found in a narrow layer of sediment that occurs at or near the “boundary” between the dinosaurs’ era and our own.

Soot and ash in Earth’s atmosphere was so strongly increased by the impact that not much sunlight reached the surface of the planet. Plants died as a result. After them, of course, many animals dependent on the plants gave up the ghost as well.

But not everyone has been satisfied with the meteorite theory. There has always been some evidence of massive biological upheavals before the special layer that contains the unusual metal linked to a meteorite impact. Enter professor Gerta Keller at Princeton University, who has gone her own way on the matter of the great die-off.

Keller agrees with others in the field that there was a giant impact in the Yucatan. But she argues that mass extinction events occurred before that time. The cause? Massive volcanic eruptions in what’s now India. Those eruptions are just a bit older than the Yucatan impact event. Well, that’s “just” in geologic time – likely 150,000 to 300,000 years.

Keller has taken samples at 150 different places around the globe from the layers just around the time of the mass extinction. She says her observations indicate the mass extinction was well under way before the meteorite hit.

As some have said, only a time-travel machine would let us observe what really caused the extinctions of species. But nothing will stop the good efforts of many scientists to try to understand mass extinctions better.

E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.