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.”

Study rebuts hypothesis that comet attacks ended 9,000-year-old Clovis culture

Rebutting a speculative hypothesis that comet explosions changed Earth’s climate sufficiently to end the Clovis culture in North America about 13,000 years ago, Sandia lead author Mark Boslough and researchers from 14 academic institutions assert that other explanations must be found for the apparent disappearance.

“There’s no plausible mechanism to get airbursts over an entire continent,” said Boslough, a physicist. “For this and other reasons, we conclude that the impact hypothesis is, unfortunately, bogus.”

In a December 2012 American Geophysical Union monograph, first available in January, the researchers point out that no appropriately sized impact craters from that time period have been discovered, nor have any unambiguously “shocked” materials been found.

In addition, proposed fragmentation and explosion mechanisms “do not conserve energy or momentum,” a basic law of physics that must be satisfied for impact-caused climate change to have validity, the authors write.

Also absent are physics-based models that support the impact hypothesis. Models that do exist, write the authors, contradict the asteroid-impact hypothesizers.

The authors also charge that “several independent researchers have been unable to reproduce reported results” and that samples presented in support of the asteroid impact hypothesis were later discovered by carbon dating to be contaminated with modern material.

The Boslough trail

Boslough has a decades-long history of successfully interpreting the effects of comet and asteroid collisions.

His credibility was on the line on in July 1994 when Eos, the widely read newsletter of the American Geophysical Union, ran a front-page prediction by a Sandia National Laboratories team, led by Boslough, that under certain conditions plumes from the collision of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 with the planet Jupiter would be visible from Earth.

The Sandia team – Boslough, Dave Crawford, Allen Robinson and Tim Trucano – were alone among the world’s scientists in offering that possibility.

“It was a gamble and could have been embarrassing if we were wrong,” said Boslough. “But I had been watching while Shoemaker-Levy 9 made its way across the heavens and realized it would be close enough to the horizon of Jupiter that the plumes would show.” His reasoning was backed by simulations from the world’s first massively parallel processing supercomputer, Sandia’s Intel Paragon.

On the one hand, it was a chance to check the new Paragon’s logic against real events, a shakedown run for the defense-oriented machine. On the other, it was a hold-your-breath prediction, a kind of Babe Ruth moment when the Babe is reputed to have pointed to the spot in the center field bleachers he intended to hit the next ball. No other scientists were willing to point the same way, partly due to previous failures in predicting the behavior of comets Kohoutek and Halley, and partly because most astronomers believed the plumes would be hidden behind Jupiter’s bulk.

That the plumes indeed proved visible started Boslough on his own trajectory as a media touchstone for things asteroidal and meteoritic.

It didn’t hurt that, when he stands before television cameras to discuss celestial impacts, his earnest manner, expressive gestures and extraterrestrial subject matter make him seem a combination of Carl Sagan and Luke Skywalker, or perhaps Tom Sawyer and Indiana Jones.

Standing in jeans, work shirt and hiking boots for the Discovery Channel at the site in Siberia where a mysterious explosion occurred 105 years ago, or discussing it at Sandia with his supercomputer simulations in bold colors on a big screen behind him, the rangy, 6-foot-3 Sandia researcher vividly and accurately explained why the mysterious explosion at Tunguska that decimated hundreds of square miles of trees and whose ejected debris was seen as far away as London most probably was caused neither by flying saucers drunkenly ramming a hillside (a proposed hypothesis) nor by an asteroid striking the Earth’s surface, but rather by the fireball of an asteroid airburst – an asteroid exploding high above ground, like a nuclear bomb, compressed to implosion as it plunged deeper into Earth’s thickening, increasingly resistive atmosphere. The governing physics, he said, was precisely the same as for the airburst on Jupiter.

Among later triumphs, Boslough was the Sandia component of a National Geographic team flown to the Libyan Desert to make sense of strange yellow-green glass worn as jewelry by pharaohs in days past. Boslough’s take: It was the result of heat on desert sands from a hypervelocity impact caused by an even bigger asteroid burst.

In the present case

In the Clovis case, Boslough felt that his ideas were taken further than he could accept when other researchers claimed that the purported demise of Clovis civilization in North America was the result of climate change produced by a cluster of comet fragments striking Earth.

In a widely reported press conference announcing the Clovis comet hypothesis in 2007, proponents showed a National Geographic animation based on one of Boslough’s simulations as inspiration for their idea.

Indiana Jones-style, Boslough responded. Confronted by apparently hard asteroid evidence, as well as a Nova documentary and an article in the journal Science, all purportedly showing his error in rebutting the comet hypothesis, Boslough ordered carbon dating of the major evidence provided by the opposition: nanodiamond-bearing carbon spherules associated with the shock of an asteroid’s impact. The tests found the alleged 13,000-year-old carbon to be of very recent formation.

While this raised red flags to those already critical of the impact hypothesis, “I never said the samples were salted,” Boslough said carefully. “I said they were contaminated.”

That find, along with irregularities reported in the background of one member of the opposing team, was enough for Nova to remove the entire episode from its list of science shows available for streaming, Boslough said.

“Just because a culture changed from Clovis to Folsom spear points didn’t mean their civilization collapsed,” he said. “They probably just used another technology. It’s like saying the phonograph culture collapsed and was replaced by the iPod culture.”