Varming

reduced ocean circulation; stratification melting of shallow gas hydrates terrestrial extinctions reduced ocean circulation; stratification reduced upwelling marine anoxia productivity decline marine extinctions

Figure 7.8 The possible chain of events following the eruption of the Siberian Traps, 251 Ma. Volcanism pumps carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere and this causes global warming. Global warming leads to reduced circulation and reduced upwelling in the oceans, which produces anoxia, productivity decline and extinction in the sea. Gas hydrates may have released methane (CH4) which produced further global warming in a "runaway greenhouse" scenario (shaded gray). (Courtesy of Paul Wignall.)

with water in the atmosphere to form a deadly cocktail of sulfuric, carbonic and nitric acids. The acid rain killed the land plants and they were washed away, and this released the soils that were also stripped off the land. With no food, land animals died. The carbon dioxide from the eruptions caused global warming and this perhaps released the gas hydrates, causing further global warming. Warming is often associated with loss of oxygen, and seabeds became anoxic, so killing life in the sea. If this model is correct, it is in some ways more startling than the KT impact because this represents an entirely Earth-bound process when all normal regulatory systems, whether these are part of a Gaia model (see p. 25) or not, broke down. And it all began with global warming . . .

The Cretaceous-Tertiary event_

The KT event has been subjected to intense scrutiny since 1980 so much more is known about it than about the PT event. Before 1980, scientists had come up with over 100 theories for what might have happened 65 million years ago. These theories ranged from the reasonable (global climate change, change in plants, impact, plate tectonic movements, sea-level change) to the frankly ludicrous (loss of sexual appetite, increasing stupidity or hormonal imbalance of the dinosaurs, competition with caterpillars for plant food, mammals ate all the dinosaur eggs). A number of serious efforts had been made to document just what happened through the KT interval and to look at environmental and other changes. Then the bombshell struck.

In June 1980, one of the most important papers of the 20th century appeared in Science. This paper, by Luis Alvarez and colleagues, made the bold assertion that a 10 km meteorite (asteroid) had hit the Earth, the impact threw up a great cloud of dust that encircled the globe, blacked out the sun, and caused extinction worldwide by stopping photosynthesis in land plants and in phytoplankton. With their plant food gone, the herbivores died out, followed by the carnivores. This simple model was based on limited observational evidence and it was, needless to say, highly controversial.

Luis Alvarez was a physicist who had won a Nobel Prize for his work on subatomic particles. He became involved with his son Walter's geological work in Italy, where a relatively complete rock succession documented the KT boundary in detail. The geological team identified an unusual clay band right at the KT boundary, within a succession of marine limestones. They measured the chemical content of the clay band, and of the rocks above and below, and found an unusual enhancement of the metallic element iridium. This was the famous iridium spike, where the iridium content shot up from normal background levels of 0.1-0.3 parts per billion (ppb) to 9 ppb (Fig. 7.9). Iridium is a platinum-group metal that is rare on the Earth's crust, and reaches the Earth almost exclusively from space, in meteorites. The background low levels represent the results of numerous minor meteorite impacts that go on all the time.

Alvarez proposed that the iridium spike indicated an unusually high rate of arrival of iridium on the Earth's crust, thus a huge meteorite (asteroid) impact. He calculated, working

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