What Happened the Day a Giant, Dinosaur-Killing Asteroid Hit the Earth

Pablo Tucker
September 10, 2019

A giant asteroid up to 81 kilometres (50 miles) across smashed into the coast of what is now Mexico near Chicxulub - an event thought to have triggered a wave of extinction that killed 75 percent of all life on Earth.

"We fried them and then we froze them", said Sean Gulick, a research professor at the University of Texas Institute for Geophysics (UTIG) at the Jackson School of Geosciences, in a statement.

Inside the crater, researchers found charcoal and a chemical marker associated with soil fungi that shows signs of being deposited by resurging waters.

The new research showed scientists that the impact "created a huge tidal wave that washed across this continent, and really changed the face of the planet in that location - or, really, changed the face of the planet overall entirely", Pitts said.

The research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on September 9 and builds on earlier work co-led and led by the Jackson School that described how the crater formed and how life quickly recovered at the impact site. Although the area contained a high concentration of rocks with sulfur, the researchers did not come across other sulfur-bearing materials.

Their article titled "The first day of the Cenozoic" supports the theory that the impact of the asteroid vaporised those rocks and released their gases into the atmosphere, wreaking havoc on the Earth's climate by reflecting sunlight away from the planet and causing cooling on a global scale. The blast ignited trees thousands of miles away, and the tsunami reached as far inland as present-day IL. This suggests that the charred landscape arrived at the crater at the same time as the receding waters of the tsunami.

"This isn't the first drill core from Chicxulub", says University of New Mexico geologist James Witts, "but because of its position on the peak ring, which is essentially a range of mountains created in the moments after the impact event, it provides a really unique picture of the sort of dynamic geological processes that operated over short timescales".

The core sample is a geologic document stretching hundreds of feet long.

The team was perhaps most interested by what wasn't present in the samples: sulfur-rich rocks.

"Not all the dinosaurs died that day, but many dinosaurs did", Gulick said. But there was no sulfur in the core.

It revealed proof of an explosion with the force of 10 billion atomic bombs of the size used in World War II. This caused an unprecedented cooling event which, in turn, led to the extinction of the (non-avian) dinosaurs. Pitts said the asteroid was six miles wide - and that when it hit Earth, it created a crater 90 miles wide and 18 miles deep that blew 25 trillion metric tons of material into the atmosphere. "The only way you get a global mass extinction like this is an atmospheric effect", Gulick said. To put that into perspective, that is four orders of magnitude greater than the sulfur output of the 1883 Krakatoa eruption which cooled the planet for five years.

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