The Antarctic polar icecap is 33.6 million years old

The Antarctic continental ice cap came into existence during the Oligocene epoch, some 33.6 million years ago, according to data from an international expedition led by the Andalusian Institute of Earth Sciences (IACT)-a Spanish National Research Council-University of Granada joint centre. These findings, based on information contained in ice sediments from different depths, have recently been published in the journal Science.

Before the ice covered Antarctica, the Earth was a warm place with a tropical climate. In this region, plankton diversity was high until glaciation reduced the populations leaving only those capable of surviving in the new climate.

The Integrated Ocean Drilling Program international expedition has obtained this information from the paleoclimatic history preserved in sediment strata in the Antarctic depths. IACT researcher Carlota Escutia, who led the expedition, explains that “the fossil record of dinoflagellate cyst communities reflects the substantial reduction and specialization of these species that took place when the ice cap became established and, with it, marked seasonal ice-pack formation and melting began”.

The appearance of the Antarctic polar icecap marks the beginning of plankton communities that are still functioning today. This ice-cap is associated with the ice-pack, the frozen part that disappears and reappears as a function of seasonal climate changes.

The article reports that when the ice-pack melts as the Antarctic summer approaches, this marks the increase in primary productivity of endemic plankton communities. When it melts, the ice frees the nutrients it has accumulated and these are used by the plankton. Dr Escutia says “this phenomenon influences the dynamics of global primary productivity”.

Since ice first expanded across Antarctica and caused the dinoflagellate communities to specialize, these species have been undergoing constant change and evolution. However, the IACT researcher thinks “the great change came when the species simplified their form and found they were forced to adapt to the new climatic conditions”.

Pre-glaciation sediment contained highly varied dinoflagellate communities, with star-shaped morphologies. When the ice appeared 33.6 million years ago, this diversity was limited and their activity subjected to the new seasonal climate.

The Antarctic polar icecap is 33.6 million years old

The Antarctic continental ice cap came into existence during the Oligocene epoch, some 33.6 million years ago, according to data from an international expedition led by the Andalusian Institute of Earth Sciences (IACT)-a Spanish National Research Council-University of Granada joint centre. These findings, based on information contained in ice sediments from different depths, have recently been published in the journal Science.

Before the ice covered Antarctica, the Earth was a warm place with a tropical climate. In this region, plankton diversity was high until glaciation reduced the populations leaving only those capable of surviving in the new climate.

The Integrated Ocean Drilling Program international expedition has obtained this information from the paleoclimatic history preserved in sediment strata in the Antarctic depths. IACT researcher Carlota Escutia, who led the expedition, explains that “the fossil record of dinoflagellate cyst communities reflects the substantial reduction and specialization of these species that took place when the ice cap became established and, with it, marked seasonal ice-pack formation and melting began”.

The appearance of the Antarctic polar icecap marks the beginning of plankton communities that are still functioning today. This ice-cap is associated with the ice-pack, the frozen part that disappears and reappears as a function of seasonal climate changes.

The article reports that when the ice-pack melts as the Antarctic summer approaches, this marks the increase in primary productivity of endemic plankton communities. When it melts, the ice frees the nutrients it has accumulated and these are used by the plankton. Dr Escutia says “this phenomenon influences the dynamics of global primary productivity”.

Since ice first expanded across Antarctica and caused the dinoflagellate communities to specialize, these species have been undergoing constant change and evolution. However, the IACT researcher thinks “the great change came when the species simplified their form and found they were forced to adapt to the new climatic conditions”.

Pre-glaciation sediment contained highly varied dinoflagellate communities, with star-shaped morphologies. When the ice appeared 33.6 million years ago, this diversity was limited and their activity subjected to the new seasonal climate.

Biochemistry: Unspooling DNA from nucleosomal disks

The tight wrapping of genomic DNA around nucleosomes in the cell nucleus makes it unavailable for gene expression. A team of Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet (LMU) in Munich now describes a mechanism that allows chromosomal DNA to be locally displaced from nucleosomes for transcription.

In higher organisms the genomic DNA is stored in the cell nucleus, wrapped around disk-shaped particles called nucleosomes, each consisting of two pairs of four different histone proteins and accommodating two loops of DNA. Packed in this way to form chromatin, the DNA is protected, but it is inaccessible to the enzymes that mediate DNA transcription, repair and its replication. However, so-called chromatin-remodeling factors, including histone chaperones, ensure that chromatin is maintained in a dynamic state by locally modifying nucleosome structure, interacting with histone subunits and detaching stretches of the packaged DNA from the nucleosome core.

One such factor is the FACT complex which, unlike other histone chaperones, is essential for cell division and DNA repair. FACT interacts specifically with the H2A-H2B histone dimer, which forms part of the canonical nucleosomal particle. “However, until now, we had no structural insight into how these histones are recognized, and how this interaction between FACT and H2A-H2B relates to other biological functions of the FACT complex” says Professor Andreas Ladurner, who is at the LMU’s Adolf Butenandt Institute. “So basically, we had no real idea what a reorganized nucleosome might look like.”

FACT masks a DNA-binding site

To close this gap in our knowledge, Ladurner and his colleagues first looked at the structure of the H2A-H2B-binding domain of the FACT complex on its own. “This analysis provided some hints as to how FACT might interact with its histone partners, but not enough information to allow us to propose a molecular mechanism for the reorganization of nucleosomes,” reports Maria Hondele, first author of the new study. “However, using high-resolution X-ray crystallography, we were ultimately able to determine the structure of the whole complex formed between FACT and the histone dimer.”

The conformation of the complex revealed that binding of FACT blocks a site on the histone dimer that has a high affinity for DNA. This interaction releases the DNA from the nucleosome sufficiently to permit gene transcription to proceed past the nucleosome. “And in contrast to the conventional view, this mechanism works without unwrapping the DNA completely from the nucleosome,” says Ladurner. Thus, the new study affords detailed insights into the mechanisms underlying the dynamic regulation of chromatin accessibility in the cell nucleus.

Biochemistry: Unspooling DNA from nucleosomal disks

The tight wrapping of genomic DNA around nucleosomes in the cell nucleus makes it unavailable for gene expression. A team of Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet (LMU) in Munich now describes a mechanism that allows chromosomal DNA to be locally displaced from nucleosomes for transcription.

In higher organisms the genomic DNA is stored in the cell nucleus, wrapped around disk-shaped particles called nucleosomes, each consisting of two pairs of four different histone proteins and accommodating two loops of DNA. Packed in this way to form chromatin, the DNA is protected, but it is inaccessible to the enzymes that mediate DNA transcription, repair and its replication. However, so-called chromatin-remodeling factors, including histone chaperones, ensure that chromatin is maintained in a dynamic state by locally modifying nucleosome structure, interacting with histone subunits and detaching stretches of the packaged DNA from the nucleosome core.

One such factor is the FACT complex which, unlike other histone chaperones, is essential for cell division and DNA repair. FACT interacts specifically with the H2A-H2B histone dimer, which forms part of the canonical nucleosomal particle. “However, until now, we had no structural insight into how these histones are recognized, and how this interaction between FACT and H2A-H2B relates to other biological functions of the FACT complex” says Professor Andreas Ladurner, who is at the LMU’s Adolf Butenandt Institute. “So basically, we had no real idea what a reorganized nucleosome might look like.”

FACT masks a DNA-binding site

To close this gap in our knowledge, Ladurner and his colleagues first looked at the structure of the H2A-H2B-binding domain of the FACT complex on its own. “This analysis provided some hints as to how FACT might interact with its histone partners, but not enough information to allow us to propose a molecular mechanism for the reorganization of nucleosomes,” reports Maria Hondele, first author of the new study. “However, using high-resolution X-ray crystallography, we were ultimately able to determine the structure of the whole complex formed between FACT and the histone dimer.”

The conformation of the complex revealed that binding of FACT blocks a site on the histone dimer that has a high affinity for DNA. This interaction releases the DNA from the nucleosome sufficiently to permit gene transcription to proceed past the nucleosome. “And in contrast to the conventional view, this mechanism works without unwrapping the DNA completely from the nucleosome,” says Ladurner. Thus, the new study affords detailed insights into the mechanisms underlying the dynamic regulation of chromatin accessibility in the cell nucleus.

Syracuse University professor argues Earth’s mantle affects long-term sea-level rise estimates

Robert Moucha is an assistant professor of Earth Sciences in Syracuse University's College of Arts and Sciences. -  SU News
Robert Moucha is an assistant professor of Earth Sciences in Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences. – SU News

From Virginia to Florida, there is a prehistoric shoreline that, in some parts, rests more than 280 feet above modern sea level. The shoreline was carved by waves more than 3 million years ago-possible evidence of a once higher sea level, triggered by ice-sheet melting. But new findings by a team of researchers, including Robert Moucha, assistant professor of Earth Sciences in Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences, reveal that the shoreline has been uplifted by more than 210 feet, meaning less ice melted than expected.

Equally compelling is the fact that the shoreline is not flat, as it should be, but is distorted, reflecting the pushing motion of the Earth’s mantle.

This is big news, says Moucha, for scientists who use the coastline to predict future sea-level rise. It’s also a cautionary tale for those who rely almost exclusively on cycles of glacial advance and retreat to study sea-level changes.

“Three million years ago, the average global temperature was two to three degrees Celsius higher, while the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was comparable to that of today,” says Moucha, who contributed to a paper on the subject in the May 15th issue of Science Express. “If we can estimate the height of the sea from 3 million years ago, we can then relate it to the amount of ice sheets that melted. This period also serves as a window into what we may expect in the future.”

Moucha and his colleagues-led by David Rowley, professor of geophysical sciences at the University of Chicago-have been using computer modeling to pinpoint exactly what melted during this interglacial period, some 3 million years ago. So far, evidenced is stacked in favor of Greenland, West Antarctica, and the sprawling East Antarctica ice sheet, but the new shoreline uplift implies that East Antarctica may have melted some or not at all. “It’s less than previous estimates had implied,” says Rowley, the article’s lead author.

Moucha’s findings show that the jagged shoreline may have been caused by the interplay between the Earth’s surface and its mantle-a process known as dynamic topography. Advanced modeling suggests that the shoreline, referred to as the Orangeburg Scarp, may have shifted as much as 196 feet. Modeling also accounts for other effects, such as the buildup of offshore sediments and glacial retreats.

“Dynamic topography is a very important contributor to Earth’s surface evolution,” says Rowley. “With this work, we can demonstrate that even small-scale features, long considered outside the realm of mantle influence, are reflective of mantle contributions.”

Moucha’s involvement with the project grew out of a series of papers he published as a postdoctoral fellow at the Canadian Institute for Advance Research in Montreal. In one paper from 2008, he drew on elements of the North American East Coast and African West Coast to build a case against the existence of stable continental platforms.

“The North American East Coast has always been thought of as a passive margin,” says Moucha, referring to large areas usually bereft of tectonic activity. “[With Rowley], we’ve challenged the traditional view of passive margins by showing that through observations and numerical simulations, they are subject to long-term deformation, in response to mantle flow.”

Central to Moucha’s argument is the fact that viscous mantle flows everywhere, all the time. As a result, it’s nearly impossible to find what he calls “stable reference points” on the Earth’s surface to accurately measure global sea-level rise. “If one incorrectly assumed that a particular margin is a stable reference frame when, in actuality, it has subsided, his or her assumption would lead to a sea-level rise and, ultimately, to an increase in ice-sheet melt,” says Moucha, who joined SU’s faculty in 2011.

Another consideration is the size of the ice sheet. Between periods of glacial activity (such as the one from 3 million years ago and the one we are in now), ice sheets are generally smaller. Jerry Mitrovica, professor of geophysics at Harvard University who also contributed to the paper, says the same mantle processes that drive plate tectonics also deform elevations of ancient shorelines. “You can’t ignore this, or your estimate of the size of the ancient ice sheets will be wrong,” he says.

Moucha puts it this way: “Because ice sheets have mass and mass results in gravitational attraction, the sea level actually falls near the melting ice sheet and rises when it’s further away. This variability has enabled us to unravel which ice sheet contributed to sea-level rise and how much of [the sheet] melted.”

The SU geophysicist credits much of the group’s success to state-of-the-art seismic tomography, a geological imaging technique led by Nathan Simmons at California’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. “Nathan, who co-authored the paper, provided me with seismic tomography data, from which I used high-performance computing to model mantle flow,” says Moucha. “A few million years may have taken us a day to render, but a billion years may have taken several weeks or more.”

Moucha and his colleagues hope to apply their East Coast model to the Appalachian Mountains, which are also considered a type of passive geology. Although they have been tectonically quiet for more than 200 million years, the Appalachians are beginning to show signs of wear and tear: rugged peaks, steep slopes, landslides and waterfalls-possible evidence of erosion, triggered by dynamic topography.

“Scientists such as Rob, who produce increasingly accurate models of dynamic topography for the past, are going to be at the front line of this important research area,” says Mitrovica.

Adds Rowley: “Rob Moucha has demonstrated that dynamic topography is a very important contributor to Earth’s surface evolution. ? His study of mantle contributions is appealing on a large number of fronts that I, among others of our collaboration, hope to pursue.”

Syracuse University professor argues Earth’s mantle affects long-term sea-level rise estimates

Robert Moucha is an assistant professor of Earth Sciences in Syracuse University's College of Arts and Sciences. -  SU News
Robert Moucha is an assistant professor of Earth Sciences in Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences. – SU News

From Virginia to Florida, there is a prehistoric shoreline that, in some parts, rests more than 280 feet above modern sea level. The shoreline was carved by waves more than 3 million years ago-possible evidence of a once higher sea level, triggered by ice-sheet melting. But new findings by a team of researchers, including Robert Moucha, assistant professor of Earth Sciences in Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences, reveal that the shoreline has been uplifted by more than 210 feet, meaning less ice melted than expected.

Equally compelling is the fact that the shoreline is not flat, as it should be, but is distorted, reflecting the pushing motion of the Earth’s mantle.

This is big news, says Moucha, for scientists who use the coastline to predict future sea-level rise. It’s also a cautionary tale for those who rely almost exclusively on cycles of glacial advance and retreat to study sea-level changes.

“Three million years ago, the average global temperature was two to three degrees Celsius higher, while the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was comparable to that of today,” says Moucha, who contributed to a paper on the subject in the May 15th issue of Science Express. “If we can estimate the height of the sea from 3 million years ago, we can then relate it to the amount of ice sheets that melted. This period also serves as a window into what we may expect in the future.”

Moucha and his colleagues-led by David Rowley, professor of geophysical sciences at the University of Chicago-have been using computer modeling to pinpoint exactly what melted during this interglacial period, some 3 million years ago. So far, evidenced is stacked in favor of Greenland, West Antarctica, and the sprawling East Antarctica ice sheet, but the new shoreline uplift implies that East Antarctica may have melted some or not at all. “It’s less than previous estimates had implied,” says Rowley, the article’s lead author.

Moucha’s findings show that the jagged shoreline may have been caused by the interplay between the Earth’s surface and its mantle-a process known as dynamic topography. Advanced modeling suggests that the shoreline, referred to as the Orangeburg Scarp, may have shifted as much as 196 feet. Modeling also accounts for other effects, such as the buildup of offshore sediments and glacial retreats.

“Dynamic topography is a very important contributor to Earth’s surface evolution,” says Rowley. “With this work, we can demonstrate that even small-scale features, long considered outside the realm of mantle influence, are reflective of mantle contributions.”

Moucha’s involvement with the project grew out of a series of papers he published as a postdoctoral fellow at the Canadian Institute for Advance Research in Montreal. In one paper from 2008, he drew on elements of the North American East Coast and African West Coast to build a case against the existence of stable continental platforms.

“The North American East Coast has always been thought of as a passive margin,” says Moucha, referring to large areas usually bereft of tectonic activity. “[With Rowley], we’ve challenged the traditional view of passive margins by showing that through observations and numerical simulations, they are subject to long-term deformation, in response to mantle flow.”

Central to Moucha’s argument is the fact that viscous mantle flows everywhere, all the time. As a result, it’s nearly impossible to find what he calls “stable reference points” on the Earth’s surface to accurately measure global sea-level rise. “If one incorrectly assumed that a particular margin is a stable reference frame when, in actuality, it has subsided, his or her assumption would lead to a sea-level rise and, ultimately, to an increase in ice-sheet melt,” says Moucha, who joined SU’s faculty in 2011.

Another consideration is the size of the ice sheet. Between periods of glacial activity (such as the one from 3 million years ago and the one we are in now), ice sheets are generally smaller. Jerry Mitrovica, professor of geophysics at Harvard University who also contributed to the paper, says the same mantle processes that drive plate tectonics also deform elevations of ancient shorelines. “You can’t ignore this, or your estimate of the size of the ancient ice sheets will be wrong,” he says.

Moucha puts it this way: “Because ice sheets have mass and mass results in gravitational attraction, the sea level actually falls near the melting ice sheet and rises when it’s further away. This variability has enabled us to unravel which ice sheet contributed to sea-level rise and how much of [the sheet] melted.”

The SU geophysicist credits much of the group’s success to state-of-the-art seismic tomography, a geological imaging technique led by Nathan Simmons at California’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. “Nathan, who co-authored the paper, provided me with seismic tomography data, from which I used high-performance computing to model mantle flow,” says Moucha. “A few million years may have taken us a day to render, but a billion years may have taken several weeks or more.”

Moucha and his colleagues hope to apply their East Coast model to the Appalachian Mountains, which are also considered a type of passive geology. Although they have been tectonically quiet for more than 200 million years, the Appalachians are beginning to show signs of wear and tear: rugged peaks, steep slopes, landslides and waterfalls-possible evidence of erosion, triggered by dynamic topography.

“Scientists such as Rob, who produce increasingly accurate models of dynamic topography for the past, are going to be at the front line of this important research area,” says Mitrovica.

Adds Rowley: “Rob Moucha has demonstrated that dynamic topography is a very important contributor to Earth’s surface evolution. ? His study of mantle contributions is appealing on a large number of fronts that I, among others of our collaboration, hope to pursue.”

Volcanoes cause climate gas concentrations to vary

MIPAS data confirm the correlation between high sulfur dioxide concentrations (yellow-red) and high-reaching volcano eruptions (triangles). -  (Figure: KIT/M. Höpfner)
MIPAS data confirm the correlation between high sulfur dioxide concentrations (yellow-red) and high-reaching volcano eruptions (triangles). – (Figure: KIT/M. Höpfner)

Trace gases and aerosols are major factors influencing the climate. With the help of highly complex installations, such as MIPAS on board of the ENVISAT satellite, researchers try to better understand the processes in the upper atmosphere. Now, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology presents the most comprehensive overview of sulfur dioxide measurements in the journal of Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics (doi:10.5194/acpd-13-12389-2013).

“Sulfur compounds up to 30 km altitude may have a cooling effect,” Michael Höpfner, the KIT scientist responsible for the study, says. For example, sulfur dioxide (SO2) and water vapor react to sulfuric acid that forms small droplets, called aerosols, that reflect solar radiation back into universe. “To estimate such effects with computer models, however, the required measurement data have been lacking so far.” MIPAS infrared spectrometer measurements, however, produced a rather comprehensive set of data on the distribution and development of sulfur dioxide over a period of ten years.

Based on these results, major contributions of the sulfur budget in the stratosphere can be analyzed directly. Among others, carbonyl sulfide (COS) gas produced by organisms ascends from the oceans, disintegrates at altitudes higher than 25 km, and provides for a basic concentration of sulfur dioxide. The increase in the stratospheric aerosol concentration observed in the past years is caused mainly by sulfur dioxide from a number of volcano eruptions. “Variation of the concentration is mainly due to volcanoes,” Höpfner explains. Devastating volcano eruptions, such as those of the Pinatubo in 1991 and Tambora in 1815, had big a big effect on the climate. The present study also shows that smaller eruptions in the past ten years produced a measurable effect on sulfur dioxide concentration at altitudes between 20 and 30 km. “We can now exclude that anthropogenic sources, e.g. power plants in Asia, make a relevant contribution at this height,” Höpfner says.

“The new measurement data help improve consideration of sulfur-containing substances in atmosphere models,” Höpfner explains. “This is also important for discussing the risks and opportunities of climate engineering in a scientifically serious manner.”

MIPAS (Michelson Interferometer for Passive Atmospheric Sounding) was one of the main instruments on board of the European environmental satellite ENVISAT that supplied data from 2002 to 2012. MIPAS was designed by the KIT Institute of Meteorology and Climate Research. All around the clock, the instrument measured temperature and more than 30 atmospheric trace gases. It recorded more than 75 million infrared spectra. KIT researchers, together with colleagues from Forschungszentrum Jülich, have now developed the MIPAS successor GLORIA that may be the basis of a future satellite instrument for climate research.

Volcanoes cause climate gas concentrations to vary

MIPAS data confirm the correlation between high sulfur dioxide concentrations (yellow-red) and high-reaching volcano eruptions (triangles). -  (Figure: KIT/M. Höpfner)
MIPAS data confirm the correlation between high sulfur dioxide concentrations (yellow-red) and high-reaching volcano eruptions (triangles). – (Figure: KIT/M. Höpfner)

Trace gases and aerosols are major factors influencing the climate. With the help of highly complex installations, such as MIPAS on board of the ENVISAT satellite, researchers try to better understand the processes in the upper atmosphere. Now, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology presents the most comprehensive overview of sulfur dioxide measurements in the journal of Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics (doi:10.5194/acpd-13-12389-2013).

“Sulfur compounds up to 30 km altitude may have a cooling effect,” Michael Höpfner, the KIT scientist responsible for the study, says. For example, sulfur dioxide (SO2) and water vapor react to sulfuric acid that forms small droplets, called aerosols, that reflect solar radiation back into universe. “To estimate such effects with computer models, however, the required measurement data have been lacking so far.” MIPAS infrared spectrometer measurements, however, produced a rather comprehensive set of data on the distribution and development of sulfur dioxide over a period of ten years.

Based on these results, major contributions of the sulfur budget in the stratosphere can be analyzed directly. Among others, carbonyl sulfide (COS) gas produced by organisms ascends from the oceans, disintegrates at altitudes higher than 25 km, and provides for a basic concentration of sulfur dioxide. The increase in the stratospheric aerosol concentration observed in the past years is caused mainly by sulfur dioxide from a number of volcano eruptions. “Variation of the concentration is mainly due to volcanoes,” Höpfner explains. Devastating volcano eruptions, such as those of the Pinatubo in 1991 and Tambora in 1815, had big a big effect on the climate. The present study also shows that smaller eruptions in the past ten years produced a measurable effect on sulfur dioxide concentration at altitudes between 20 and 30 km. “We can now exclude that anthropogenic sources, e.g. power plants in Asia, make a relevant contribution at this height,” Höpfner says.

“The new measurement data help improve consideration of sulfur-containing substances in atmosphere models,” Höpfner explains. “This is also important for discussing the risks and opportunities of climate engineering in a scientifically serious manner.”

MIPAS (Michelson Interferometer for Passive Atmospheric Sounding) was one of the main instruments on board of the European environmental satellite ENVISAT that supplied data from 2002 to 2012. MIPAS was designed by the KIT Institute of Meteorology and Climate Research. All around the clock, the instrument measured temperature and more than 30 atmospheric trace gases. It recorded more than 75 million infrared spectra. KIT researchers, together with colleagues from Forschungszentrum Jülich, have now developed the MIPAS successor GLORIA that may be the basis of a future satellite instrument for climate research.

Comprehensive analysis of impact spherules supports theory of cosmic impact 12,800 years ago

This is UCSB Earth Sciences professor emeritus James Kennett. -  Courtesy photo
This is UCSB Earth Sciences professor emeritus James Kennett. – Courtesy photo

About 12,800 years ago when the Earth was warming and emerging from the last ice age, a dramatic and anomalous event occurred that abruptly reversed climatic conditions back to near-glacial state. According to James Kennett, UC Santa Barbara emeritus professor in earth sciences, this climate switch fundamentally — and remarkably — occurred in only one year, heralding the onset of the Younger Dryas cool episode.

The cause of this cooling has been much debated, especially because it closely coincided with the abrupt extinction of the majority of the large animals then inhabiting the Americas, as well as the disappearance of the prehistoric Clovis culture, known for its big game hunting.

“What then did cause the extinction of most of these big animals, including mammoths, mastodons, giant ground sloths, American camel and horse, and saber- toothed cats?” asked Kennett, pointing to Charles Darwin’s 1845 assessment of the significance of climate change. “Did these extinctions result from human overkill, climatic change or some catastrophic event?” The long debate that has followed, Kennett noted, has recently been stimulated by a growing body of evidence in support of a theory that a major cosmic impact event was involved, a theory proposed by the scientific team that includes Kennett himself.

Now, in one of the most comprehensive related investigations ever, the group has documented a wide distribution of microspherules widely distributed in a layer over 50 million square kilometers on four continents, including North America, including Arlington Canyon on Santa Rosa Island in the Channel Islands. This layer — the Younger Dryas Boundary (YDB) layer — also contains peak abundances of other exotic materials, including nanodiamonds and other unusual forms of carbon such as fullerenes, as well as melt-glass and iridium. This new evidence in support of the cosmic impact theory appeared recently in a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences.

This cosmic impact, said Kennett, caused major environmental degradation over wide areas through numerous processes that include continent-wide wildfires and a major increase in atmospheric dust load that blocked the sun long enough to cause starvation of larger animals.

Investigating 18 sites across North America, Europe and the Middle East, Kennett and 28 colleagues from 24 institutions analyzed the spherules, tiny spheres formed by the high temperature melting of rocks and soils that then cooled or quenched rapidly in the atmosphere. The process results from enormous heat and pressures in blasts generated by the cosmic impact, somewhat similar to those produced during atomic explosions, Kennett explained.

But spherules do not form from cosmic collisions alone. Volcanic activity, lightning strikes, and coal seam fires all can create the tiny spheres. So to differentiate between impact spherules and those formed by other processes, the research team utilized scanning electron microscopy and energy dispersive spectrometry on nearly 700 spherule samples collected from the YDB layer. The YDB layer also corresponds with the end of the Clovis age, and is commonly associated with other features such as an overlying “black mat” — a thin, dark carbon-rich sedimentary layer — as well as the youngest known Clovis archeological material and megafaunal remains, and abundant charcoal that indicates massive biomass burning resulting from impact.

The results, according to Kennett, are compelling. Examinations of the YDB spherules revealed that while they are consistent with the type of sediment found on the surface of the earth in their areas at the time of impact, they are geochemically dissimilar from volcanic materials. Tests on their remanent magnetism — the remaining magnetism after the removal of an electric or magnetic influence — also demonstrated that the spherules could not have formed naturally during lightning strikes.

“Because requisite formation temperatures for the impact spherules are greater than 2,200 degrees Celsius, this finding precludes all but a high temperature cosmic impact event as a natural formation mechanism for melted silica and other minerals,” Kennett explained. Experiments by the group have for the first time demonstrated that silica-rich spherules can also form through high temperature incineration of plants, such as oaks, pines, and reeds, because these are known to contain biologically formed silica.

Additionally, according to the study, the surface textures of these spherules are consistent with high temperatures and high-velocity impacts, and they are often fused to other spherules. An estimated 10 million metric tons of impact spherules were deposited across nine countries in the four continents studied. However, the true breadth of the YDB strewnfield is unknown, indicating an impact of major proportions.

“Based on geochemical measurements and morphological observations, this paper offers compelling evidence to reject alternate hypotheses that YDB spherules formed by volcanic or human activity; from the ongoing natural accumulation of space dust; lightning strikes; or by slow geochemical accumulation in sediments,” said Kennett.

“This evidence continues to point to a major cosmic impact as the primary cause for the tragic loss of nearly all of the remarkable American large animals that had survived the stresses of many ice age periods only to be knocked out quite recently by this catastrophic event.”

Comprehensive analysis of impact spherules supports theory of cosmic impact 12,800 years ago

This is UCSB Earth Sciences professor emeritus James Kennett. -  Courtesy photo
This is UCSB Earth Sciences professor emeritus James Kennett. – Courtesy photo

About 12,800 years ago when the Earth was warming and emerging from the last ice age, a dramatic and anomalous event occurred that abruptly reversed climatic conditions back to near-glacial state. According to James Kennett, UC Santa Barbara emeritus professor in earth sciences, this climate switch fundamentally — and remarkably — occurred in only one year, heralding the onset of the Younger Dryas cool episode.

The cause of this cooling has been much debated, especially because it closely coincided with the abrupt extinction of the majority of the large animals then inhabiting the Americas, as well as the disappearance of the prehistoric Clovis culture, known for its big game hunting.

“What then did cause the extinction of most of these big animals, including mammoths, mastodons, giant ground sloths, American camel and horse, and saber- toothed cats?” asked Kennett, pointing to Charles Darwin’s 1845 assessment of the significance of climate change. “Did these extinctions result from human overkill, climatic change or some catastrophic event?” The long debate that has followed, Kennett noted, has recently been stimulated by a growing body of evidence in support of a theory that a major cosmic impact event was involved, a theory proposed by the scientific team that includes Kennett himself.

Now, in one of the most comprehensive related investigations ever, the group has documented a wide distribution of microspherules widely distributed in a layer over 50 million square kilometers on four continents, including North America, including Arlington Canyon on Santa Rosa Island in the Channel Islands. This layer — the Younger Dryas Boundary (YDB) layer — also contains peak abundances of other exotic materials, including nanodiamonds and other unusual forms of carbon such as fullerenes, as well as melt-glass and iridium. This new evidence in support of the cosmic impact theory appeared recently in a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences.

This cosmic impact, said Kennett, caused major environmental degradation over wide areas through numerous processes that include continent-wide wildfires and a major increase in atmospheric dust load that blocked the sun long enough to cause starvation of larger animals.

Investigating 18 sites across North America, Europe and the Middle East, Kennett and 28 colleagues from 24 institutions analyzed the spherules, tiny spheres formed by the high temperature melting of rocks and soils that then cooled or quenched rapidly in the atmosphere. The process results from enormous heat and pressures in blasts generated by the cosmic impact, somewhat similar to those produced during atomic explosions, Kennett explained.

But spherules do not form from cosmic collisions alone. Volcanic activity, lightning strikes, and coal seam fires all can create the tiny spheres. So to differentiate between impact spherules and those formed by other processes, the research team utilized scanning electron microscopy and energy dispersive spectrometry on nearly 700 spherule samples collected from the YDB layer. The YDB layer also corresponds with the end of the Clovis age, and is commonly associated with other features such as an overlying “black mat” — a thin, dark carbon-rich sedimentary layer — as well as the youngest known Clovis archeological material and megafaunal remains, and abundant charcoal that indicates massive biomass burning resulting from impact.

The results, according to Kennett, are compelling. Examinations of the YDB spherules revealed that while they are consistent with the type of sediment found on the surface of the earth in their areas at the time of impact, they are geochemically dissimilar from volcanic materials. Tests on their remanent magnetism — the remaining magnetism after the removal of an electric or magnetic influence — also demonstrated that the spherules could not have formed naturally during lightning strikes.

“Because requisite formation temperatures for the impact spherules are greater than 2,200 degrees Celsius, this finding precludes all but a high temperature cosmic impact event as a natural formation mechanism for melted silica and other minerals,” Kennett explained. Experiments by the group have for the first time demonstrated that silica-rich spherules can also form through high temperature incineration of plants, such as oaks, pines, and reeds, because these are known to contain biologically formed silica.

Additionally, according to the study, the surface textures of these spherules are consistent with high temperatures and high-velocity impacts, and they are often fused to other spherules. An estimated 10 million metric tons of impact spherules were deposited across nine countries in the four continents studied. However, the true breadth of the YDB strewnfield is unknown, indicating an impact of major proportions.

“Based on geochemical measurements and morphological observations, this paper offers compelling evidence to reject alternate hypotheses that YDB spherules formed by volcanic or human activity; from the ongoing natural accumulation of space dust; lightning strikes; or by slow geochemical accumulation in sediments,” said Kennett.

“This evidence continues to point to a major cosmic impact as the primary cause for the tragic loss of nearly all of the remarkable American large animals that had survived the stresses of many ice age periods only to be knocked out quite recently by this catastrophic event.”