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.”

Challengers to Clovis-age impact theory missed key protocols, new study finds

An interdisciplinary team of scientists from seven U.S. institutions says a disregard of three critical protocols, including sorting samples by size, explains why a group challenging the theory of a North American meteor-impact event some 12,900 years ago failed to find iron- and silica-rich magnetic particles in the sites they investigated.

Not separating samples of the materials into like-sized groupings made for an avoidable layer of difficulty, said co-author Edward K. Vogel, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon.

The new independent analysis — published this week in the online Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences — did, in fact, isolate large quantities of the “microspherules” at the involved sites where the challengers previously reported none. Lead author Malcolm A. LeCompte, an astrophysicist at Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina, said the findings support the climate-altering cosmic impact, but his team stopped short of declaring this as proof of the event.

The Clovis-age cosmic-impact theory was proposed in 2007 by a 26-member team led by Richard B. Firestone. That team included University of Oregon archaeologists Douglas J. Kennett and Jon M. Erlandson. While other groups have found corroborating evidence of a potential cosmic event, other groups reported difficulties doing so. One group, led by Todd A Surovell of the University of Wyoming, did not find any microspherule evidence at five of seven sites they tested, including two previously studied locations where Firestone reported large numbers of microspherules.

“In investigating the two common sites and a third tested only by Surovell’s team, we found spherules in equal or greater abundance than did the Firestone team, and the reported enhancement was in strata dated to about 13,000 years before the present,” LeCompte said. “What we’ve done is provide evidence that is consistent with an impact, but we don’t think it proves the impact. We think there’s a mystery contained in the Younger Dryas strata, and that we’ve provided some validation to the original research by Firestone’s group.”

The particles in question, the team concluded, are terrestrial as was claimed by the Firestone group, and not of meteoric origin as claimed by other challengers including Surovell’s group, and are similar to metamorphic material in Earth’s crust. That determination was made using electron microscopy and spectroscopy.

“These spherules have evidence of very high-temperature melting and very rapid cooling, which is characteristic of debris ejected from an impact,” LeCompte said. Speherules would have melted at temperatures approaching 2,000 degrees Celsius (more than 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit), he added. Cosmic materials, including the some microspherules, regularly fall to earth from space due to meteorite ablation, but the spherules found in soils dating to 13,000 years ago are much different, he added. Other researchers had suggested that these spherules were deposited by a cosmic rain or resulted through slow, terrestrial processes occurring under ambient conditions.

LeCompte and some key collaborators wondered why Surovell didn’t find any spherules, and that led them to Vogel. Many of the spherules investigated were tiny, ranging in size from 20 to 50 micrometers (microns); about the diameter of a human hair.

“The inherent difficulty in finding these small, relatively rare magnetic microspherules suggested there may be inherent limitations in human faculties that needed to be addressed, and that’s how and why we sought out UO Professor Ed Vogel. His research into human cognitive capabilities proved so important in understanding both why the search was so difficult and why size-sorting was effective and important in making it easier,” LeCompte said.

Vogel specializes in the ability of people to find specific items amid multiple distractions.

“A visual search is a very error-prone process,” Vogel said. “This was a case of looking at millions of particles from which you are hoping to find something that might be present much less than 0.1 percent of the time.” Size-sorting, he said, is vital because it is easier to find a target item with a characteristic shape and color when all of the many more-distracting objects are very similar. “It is a slow, tedious process to examine such quantities of materials with the human eyes when object sizes are extremely dissimilar.”

“Science is only as good as the humans who conduct it, and this study shows how the minds of researchers can operate in some surprising ways,” said Kimberly Andrews Espy, UO vice president for research and innovation, and dean of the graduate school. “Dr. Vogel’s excellent work, which illustrates the importance of understanding how the human mind processes information and the consequences it can have beyond making everyday computations, reflects the University of Oregon’s strengths in interdisciplinary research.”

LeCompte described Surovell’s study “as possibly the most damning of the reports that had challenged the original theory.”

“Todd had worked very hard and couldn’t find the spherules, but I think he made some fatal errors that need to be pointed out,” LeCompte said. “It is instructive in that we initially made the same mistake and came to the same erroneous conclusion, but then we corrected our mistake. I would say this is a case of a missed opportunity due to their deviations from the protocol.”

Two other critical protocol deviations not followed by the challengers involved the amounts of material examined and the use of microscopy techniques specified in Firestone’s original research. Another two minor aspects of the protocol also were not repeated, reported LeCompte’s team, which, in addition to Vogel, included an archaeologist, two materials scientists, a botanist, a periglacial geographer and an aerospace engineer.

LeCompte’s team — using the protocols of Firestone’s group and electron microscopy — additionally studied a quarry site in Topper, S.C., where Clovis-age people had made stone tools. After removing chert debris associated with tool making in soil at the depth of the Clovis occupation, LeCompte said, researchers observed virtually no spherules below it, while in soil just above the chert fragments they found a spike in the number of telltale spherules.

Further above that level, he noted, the soil layers were essentially “a dead zone” somewhat analogous to the K-T boundary, or “tombstone layer,” from an extinction event that occurred 65 million years ago. At Topper, the dead zone showed almost no trace of human habitation for perhaps as long as 1,000 years duration.

“This suggests that something very dramatic happened,” LeCompte said.

“The effects of such an impact would have been catastrophic on a global scale,” said co-author Barrett Rock, a botanist at the University of New Hampshire. “On the order of 36 ice-age species became extinct, and the Clovis human culture eventually lost. All of this in response to dramatic changes in the vegetation at the base of the faunal food chain.”