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.”

The secret of life may be as simple as what happens between the sheets — mica sheets

This is a diagram of biomolecules between sheets of mica in a primitive ocean. The green lines depict mica sheets and the gray structures depict various ancient biological molecules and fatty vesicles. In the 'between the sheets' mica hypothesis, water may have moved in and out of the spaces between stacks of sheets, thereby forcing the sheets to move up and down. This kind of energy may have ultimately pushed biological molecules and/or fatty acids together to form cells. -  Helen Greenwood Hansma, University of California, Santa Barbara
This is a diagram of biomolecules between sheets of mica in a primitive ocean. The green lines depict mica sheets and the gray structures depict various ancient biological molecules and fatty vesicles. In the ‘between the sheets’ mica hypothesis, water may have moved in and out of the spaces between stacks of sheets, thereby forcing the sheets to move up and down. This kind of energy may have ultimately pushed biological molecules and/or fatty acids together to form cells. – Helen Greenwood Hansma, University of California, Santa Barbara

That age-old question, “where did life on Earth start?” now has a new answer. If the life between the mica sheets hypothesis is correct, life would have originated between sheets of mica that were layered like the pages in a book.

The so-called “life between the sheets” mica hypothesis was developed by Helen Hansma of the University of California, Santa Barbara, with funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF). This hypothesis was originally introduced by Hansma at the 2007 annual meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology, and is now fully described by Hansma in the September 7, 2010 issue of Journal of Theoretical Biology.

According to the “life between the sheets” mica hypothesis, structured compartments that commonly form between layers of mica–a common mineral that cleaves into smooth sheets–may have sheltered molecules that were the progenitors to cells. Provided with the right physical and chemical environment in the structured compartments to survive and evolve, the molecules eventually reorganized into cells, while still sheltered between mica sheets.

Mica chunks embedded in rocks could have provided the right physical and chemical environment for pre-life molecules and developing cells because:

Mica compartments could have held, protected and sheltered molecules, and thereby promoted their survival. Also, mica could have provided enough isolation for molecules to evolve without being disturbed and still allow molecules to migrate towards one another and eventually bond together to form large organic molecules. And mica compartments may have provided something akin to a template for the production of a life form composed of compartments, which are now known as cells.

Mica sheets are held together by potassium. If high levels of potassium were donated by mica sheets to developing cells, the high levels of potassium found in mica sheets could account for the high levels of potassium currently found in human cells.

Mica chunks embedded in rocks that were sitting in an early ocean would have received an endless supply of energy from waves, the sun, and the occasional sloshing of water into the spaces between the mica sheets. This energy could have pushed the mica sheets into up-and-down motions that could have pushed together molecules sitting between mica sheets, thereby enabling them to bond together.

Because mica surfaces are hospitable to living cells and to all the major classes of large biological molecules, including proteins, nucleic acids, carbohydrates and fats, the “between the sheets” mica hypothesis is consistent with other well-known hypotheses that propose that life originated as RNA, fatty vesicles or primitive metabolisms. Hansma says a “mica world” might have sheltered all the ancient metabolic and fat-vesicle and RNA “worlds.”

Hansma also says that mica would provide a better substrate for developing cells than other minerals that have been considered for that role. Why? Because most other minerals would probably have tended to intermittently become either too wet or too dry to support life. By contrast, the spaces between mica sheets would probably have undergone more limited wet/dry cycles that would support life without reaching killing extremes. In addition, many clays that have been considered as potential surfaces for life’s origins respond to exposure to water by swelling. By contrast, mica resists swelling and would therefore provide a relatively stable environment for developing cells and biological molecules, even when it did get wet.

Hansma sums up her hypothesis by observing that “mica would provide enough structure and shelter for molecules to evolve but also accommodate the dynamic, ever-changing nature of life.”

What’s more, Hansma says that “mica is old.” Some micas are estimated to be over 4 billion years old. And micas such as biotite have been found in regions containing evidence of the earliest life-forms, which are believed to have existed about 3.8 million years ago.

Hansma’s passion for mica evolved gradually–starting when she began conducting pioneering, NSF-funded research in former husband Paul K. Hansma’s AFM lab to develop techniques for imaging DNA and other biological molecules in the atomic force microscope (AFM)–a high-resolution imaging technique that allows researchers to observe and manipulate molecular and atomic level features.

Says Helen Hansma, “Mica sheets are atomically flat, so we can see DNA molecules on the mica surface without having to cover the DNA with something that makes it look bigger and easier to see. Sometimes we can even see DNA molecules swimming on the surface of mica, under water, in the AFM. Mica sheets are so thin (one nanometer) that there are a million of them in a millimeter-thick piece of mica.”

Hansma’s “life between the sheets” hypothesis first struck her a few years ago, after she and family members had collected some mica from a Connecticut mine. When she put water on a piece of the mica under her dissecting microscope, she noticed a greenish organic ‘crud’ at some step edges in the mica. “It occurred to me that this might be a good place for the origins of life–sheltered within these stacks of sheets that can move up and down in response to flowing water, which could have provided the mechanical energy for making and breaking chemical bonds,” says Hansma.

Hansma says that recent advancements in imaging techniques, including the AFM, made possible her recent research, leading to her “between mica sheets” hypothesis. She adds that direct support for her hypothesis might be obtained from additional studies involving mica sheets in an AFM, being subjected its push-and-pull forces while sitting in liquids resembling an early ocean.



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Helen Hansma of the University at Santa Barbara discusses why the origin of life is an important topic and her new hypothesis that life started between mica sheets that were embedded in rocks that were sitting in an early ocean. – University of California, Santa Barbara/National Science Foundation