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Following the recent theme of science-hubbub in the popular press, a story has been making its rounds for the past couple of weeks concerning a paper by Matese and Whitmire (2011) (pdf on arxiv.org) proposing the existence of Tyche: a gas-giant planet 1-4 times the size of Jupiter orbiting around the Sun in the far-off reaches of our Solar System.

(I should note that I caught wind of the story via a friend on Facebook – JurassicMatt on Twitter – in confirmation of the valauble role social networking can play in dissemninating information; as if revolting Egyptians on Twitter wasn’t enough.)

Pretty wild, eh? You can be forgiven if you are skeptical. Contrary to popular reports, Tyche is not confirmed, but should be visible in the data from the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE). The excellent Bad Astronomy blog offers a more in-depth analysis on this theme.

What interests me in this story is the resurgence of the idea that a 26 million-year mass extinction cycle on Earth is evidence for Tyche’s existence. Following the discovery by Raup and Sepkoski (1984) (pdf) of a ~26 million-year periodicity, Whitmire and Jackson (1984) (abstract) along with Davis et al. (1984) (abstract) proposed an extraterrestrial origin for these extinction events. This came to be known as the Nemesis hypothesis: a black-dwarf companion star to the Sun that periodically disrupted comets and caused Earth-crossing orbits, resulting in impacts and mass extinctions. The problem, however, is that the original idea is unsupported by the evidence in the geological record, and applying the reasoning to Tyche is misguided at best.

First, Matese and Whitmire (2011) do not invoke the extinction periodicity as evidence for Tyche. They argue on the basis of an anomalous concentration of comets in the outer Oort cloud, which they attribute the gravitational effects of a planetary body over the weak stellar impulse.  From my limited understanding of physics, I speculate that the mechanism of the described phenomenon is related to the Roche-limit segregation of debris orbiting Saturn into its characteristic rings. Speculation aside, the point remains clear: if one of the original authors of the Nemesis hypothesis is not referencing his previous work, then what justifcation do bystanders have for doing so?

Second, the reported 26 million-year periodicity in mass extinctions only covers the past 250 million years. Fossil evidence of macroscopic animal life extends back to ~580 Ma, so what about the previous 330 million years? I haven’t checked if updated research has extended the periodicity back prior to the Permian-Triassic boundary (ca. 250 Ma), but neither have the Tyche-extinction proponents. Additionally, the vast majority of extinction events depicted in the figure below barely register as “elevated” after Keller (2008) (abstract), and some, such as the events in the Tertiary, plot near/within “background” levels. Only the end-Permian and end-Cretaceous events rate as “major” mass extinctions, so any argument of a clear extinction periodicity is hardly convincing.

Raup and Sepkoski( 1984)

Adapted from Raup and Sepkoski (1984)

Third, the current state of research is skeptical about the role of bolide impacts on known mass extinctions. Apart from the K-T event that knocked out the dinosaurs (which is still controversial), major mass extinctions are linked to other causes such as flood basalt volcanism, ocean anoxia, and climate change.

To date, characteristic evidence for high-velocity impactors (regardless of composition) such as spherule layers, crater structures, turbidites, carbon mats, microdiamonds, and Ni/Cr anomalies is conspicuously absent in the record. Furthermore, ideas of antipodal or depressurized impact-volcanism relationships are soundly refuted. Indeed, the lack of evidence is not evidence itself, but just as the lack of evidence for you being a serial killer is not reason to believe you are, pursuing the impact-extinction idea without research to back it up is a logically-bankrupt position.

So with three strikes on the Tyche-extinction speculation, is there any reason to persist with the notion? I like the idea of comets and asteroids destroying all life as much as the next Hollywood fanatic, but let’s be honest here – the research is not favourable to the idea and there is no good reason to perpetuate it at this time.

Further reading available from various links:

Bailer-Jones (2009) – The evidence for and against astronomical impacts on climate change and mass extinctions: A review 

Arens and West (2008) – Press-pulse: a general theory of mass extinction?

White and Saunders (2005) – Volcanism, impact and mass extinctions: incredible or credible coincidences?

Keller (2005) – Impacts, volcanism and mass extinction: random coincidence or cause and effect?

Wignall (2001) – Large igneous provinces and mass extinctions

In what surely must be the first published paper to have a list of authors longer than the abstract, 41 scientists led by Peter Schulte recently concluded that the extinction of the dinosaurs was indeed the result of the Chicxulub impact off the Yucatan Penninsula 65.5 million years ago (abstract).

Wait a minute – hasn’t this idea been kicking around for at least 30 years now? How is this in any way ‘new’ news?

Well, one reason may stem from a name that isn’t included among the 41: Gerta Keller of Princeton University. Over the past several years she has written a number of both intriguing and controversial articles that call into question the assumed, prominant role of the Chicxulub impact: namely the double-edged sword of it predating the K-Pg boundary by 300,000 years, and Deccan volcanism playing the pivotal role in the mass extinction.

Though the general public is largely unaware of the debate, that has not had any bearing on the impact of Keller’s research within the scientific community. Given some of the reaction to it, I have to wonder if this latest paper is more of a public relations, ‘consensus’ tactic than anything else (certainly critics of Keller such as Philippe Claeys are among its authors).

If so, it’s working wonders. Consider headlines such as this one from Scientific American:

“A Theory Set in Stone: An Asteroid Killed the Dinosaurs, After All – A single asteroid impact near the Yucatan remains the best explanation for the massive Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction, scientists conclude in a new, deep review.”

Or how about quotes like this from the LA Times which proclaim a ‘Dream Team’ conclusion:

“It’s official: The extinction of the dinosaurs and a host of other species 65.5 million years ago was caused by a massive asteroid that crashed into the Gulf of Mexico, creating worldwide havoc, an international team of researchers said Thursday.”

That said, the review is an excellent one. My only complaint is that being a Science article it’s very short – a 15-20 pager would be nice! – though the supplemental material is a valuable addition. If you have access or are willing to toss down a few bucks, I urge you to check it out.

On a semi-related note, anyone else slightly disconcerted by seeing “K-Pg” instead of “K-T”?

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