Microscopic diamonds suggest cosmic impact responsible for major period of climate change

Around 12,800 years ago, a sudden, catastrophic event plunged much of the Earth into a period of cold climatic conditions and drought. This drastic climate change-the Younger Dryas-coincided with the extinction of Pleistocene megafauna, such as the saber-tooth cats and the mastodon, and resulted in major declines in prehistoric human populations, including the termination of the Clovis culture.

With limited evidence, several rival theories have been proposed about the event that sparked this period, such as a collapse of the North American ice sheets, a major volcanic eruption, or a solar flare.

However, in a study published in The Journal of Geology, an international group of scientists analyzing existing and new evidence have determined a cosmic impact event, such as a comet or meteorite, to be the only plausible hypothesis to explain all the unusual occurrences at the onset of the Younger Dryas period.

Researchers from 21 universities in 6 countries believe the key to the mystery of the Big Freeze lies in nanodiamonds scattered across Europe, North America, and portions of South America, in a 50-million-square-kilometer area known as the Younger Dryas Boundary (YDB) field.

Microscopic nanodiamonds, melt-glass, carbon spherules, and other high-temperature materials are found in abundance throughout the YDB field, in a thin layer located only meters from the Earth’s surface. Because these materials formed at temperatures in excess of 2200 degrees Celsius, the fact they are present together so near to the surface suggests they were likely created by a major extraterrestrial impact event.

In addition to providing support for the cosmic impact event hypothesis, the study also offers evidence to reject alternate hypotheses for the formation of the YDB nanodiamonds, such as by wildfires, volcanism, or meteoric flux.

The team’s findings serve to settle the debate about the presence of nanodiamonds in the YDB field and challenge existing paradigms across multiple disciplines, including impact dynamics, archaeology, paleontology, limnology, and palynology.

Comet theory false; doesn’t explain Ice Age cold snap, Clovis changes, animal extinction

Controversy over what sparked the Younger Dryas, a brief return to near glacial conditions at the end of the Ice Age, includes a theory that it was caused by a comet hitting the Earth.

As proof, proponents point to sediments containing deposits they believe could result only from a cosmic impact.

Now a new study disproves that theory, said archaeologist David Meltzer, Southern Methodist University, Dallas. Meltzer is lead author on the study and an expert in the Clovis culture, the peoples who lived in North America at the end of the Ice Age.

Meltzer’s research team found that nearly all sediment layers purported to be from the Ice Age at 29 sites in North America and on three other continents are actually either much younger or much older.

Scientists agree that the brief episode at the end of the Ice Age – officially known as the Younger Dryas for a flower that flourished at that time – sparked widespread cooling of the Earth 12,800 years ago and that this cool period lasted for 1,000 years. But theories about the cause of this abrupt climate change are numerous. They range from changes in ocean circulation patterns caused by glacial meltwater entering the ocean to the cosmic-impact theory.

The cosmic-impact theory is said to be supported by the presence of geological indicators that are extraterrestrial in origin. However a review of the dating of the sediments at the 29 sites reported to have such indicators proves the cosmic-impact theory false, said Meltzer.

Meltzer and his co-authors found that only three of 29 sites commonly referenced to support the cosmic-impact theory actually date to the window of time for the Ice Age.

The findings, “Chronological evidence fails to support claim of an isochronous widespread layer of cosmic impact indicators dated to 12,800 years ago,” were reported May 12, 2014, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Co-authors were Vance T. Holliday and D. Shane Miller, both from the University of Arizona; and Michael D. Cannon, SWCA Environmental Consultants Inc., Salt Lake City, Utah.

“The supposed impact markers are undated or significantly older or younger than 12,800 years ago,” report the authors. “Either there were many more impacts than supposed, including one as recently as 5 centuries ago, or, far more likely, these are not extraterrestrial impact markers.”

Dating of purported Younger Dryas sites proves unreliable

The Younger Dryas Impact Hypothesis rests heavily on the claim that there is a Younger Dryas boundary layer at 29 sites in the Americas and elsewhere that contains deposits of supposed extraterrestrial origin that date to a 300-year span centered on 12,800 years ago.

The deposits include magnetic grains with iridium, magnetic microspherules, charcoal, soot, carbon spherules, glass-like carbon containing nanodiamonds, and fullerenes with extraterrestrial helium, all said to result from a comet or other cosmic event hitting the Earth.

Meltzer and his colleagues tested that hypothesis by investigating the existing stratigraphic and chronological data sets reported in the published scientific literature and accepted as proof by cosmic-impact proponents, to determine if these markers dated to the onset of the Younger Dryas.

They sorted the 29 sites by the availability of radiometric or numeric ages and then the type of age control, if available, and whether the age control is secure.

The researchers found that three sites lack absolute age control: at Chobot, Alberta, the three Clovis points found lack stratigraphic context, and the majority of other diagnostic artifacts are younger than Clovis by thousands of years; at Morley, Alberta, ridges are assumed without evidence to be chronologically correlated with Ice Age hills 2,600 kilometers away; and at Paw Paw Cove, Maryland, horizontal integrity of the Clovis artifacts found is compromised, according to that site’s principal archaeologist.

The remaining 26 sites have radiometric or other potential numeric ages, but only three date to the Younger Dryas boundary layer.

At eight of those sites, the ages are unrelated to the supposed Younger Dryas boundary layer, as for example at Gainey, Michigan, where extensive stratigraphic mixing of artifacts found at the site makes it impossible to know their position to the supposed Younger Dryas boundary layer. Where direct dating did occur, it’s sometime after the 16th century A.D.

At Wally’s Beach, Alberta, a radiocarbon age of 10,980 purportedly dates extraterrestrial impact markers from sediment in the skull of an extinct horse. In actuality, the date is from an extinct musk ox, and the fossil yielding the supposed impact markers was not dated, nor is there evidence to suggest that the fossils from Wally’s Beach are all of the same age or date to the Younger Dryas onset.

At nearly a dozen other sites, the authors report, the chronological results are neither reliable nor valid as a result of significant statistical flaws in the analysis, the omission of ages from the models, and the disregard of statistical uncertainty that accompanies all radiometric dates.

For example, at Lake Cuitzeo, Mexico, Meltzer and his team used the data of previous researchers and applied a fifth-order polynomial regression, but it returned a different equation that put the cosmic-impact markers at a depth well above that which would mark the Younger Dryas onset.

The authors go on to point out that inferences about the ages of supposed Younger Dryas boundary layers are unsupported by replication in more cases than not.

In North America, the Ice Age was marked by the mass extinction of several dozen genera of large mammals, including mammoths, mastodons, American horses, Western camels, two types of deer, ancient bison, giant beaver, giant bears, sabre-toothed cats, giant bears, American cheetahs, and many other animals, as well as plants.

Prehistoric climate change due to cosmic crash in Canada

An artist's rendition of mastodons, camels and a ground sloth before the environmental changes of the Younger Dryas led to their extinction. -  Barry Roal Carlsen, University of Wisconsin
An artist’s rendition of mastodons, camels and a ground sloth before the environmental changes of the Younger Dryas led to their extinction. – Barry Roal Carlsen, University of Wisconsin

For the first time, a dramatic global climate shift has been linked to the impact in Quebec of an asteroid or comet, Dartmouth researchers and their colleagues report in a new study. The cataclysmic event wiped out many of the planet’s large mammals and may have prompted humans to start gathering and growing some of their food rather than solely hunting big game.

The findings appear next week in the online Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. A preprint of the article is available to journalists starting Wednesday, Aug. 28, at http://www.eurekalert.org/account.php.

The impact occurred about 12,900 years ago, at the beginning of the Younger Dryas period, and marks an abrupt global change to a colder, dryer climate with far-reaching effects on both animals and humans. In North America, the big animals all vanished, including mastodons, camels, giant ground sloths and saber-toothed cats. Their human hunters, known to archaeologists as the Clovis people, set aside their heavy-duty spears and turned to a hunter-gatherer subsistence diet of roots, berries and smaller game.

“The Younger Dryas cooling impacted human history in a profound manner,” says Dartmouth Professor Mukul Sharma, a co-author of the study. “Environmental stresses may also have caused Natufians in the Near East to settle down for the first time and pursue agriculture.”

It is not disputed that these powerful environmental changes occurred, but there has long been controversy over their cause. The classic view of the Younger Dryas cooling interlude has been that an ice dam in the North American ice sheet ruptured, releasing a massive quantity of freshwater into the Atlantic Ocean. The sudden influx is thought to have shut down the ocean currents that move tropical water northward, resulting in the cold, dry climate of the Younger Dryas.

But Sharma and his co-authors have discovered conclusive evidence linking an extraterrestrial impact with this environmental transformation. The report focuses on spherules, or droplets of solidified molten rock expelled by the impact of a comet or meteor. The spherules in question were recovered from Younger Dryas boundary layers at sites in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, the layers having been deposited at the beginning of the period. The geochemistry and mineralogy profiles of the spherules are identical to rock found in southern Quebec, where Sharma and his colleagues argue the impact took place.

“We have for the first time narrowed down the region where a Younger Dryas impact did take place,” says Sharma, “even though we have not yet found its crater.” There is a known impact crater in Quebec – the 4-kilometer wide Corossal crater — but based on the team’s mineralogical and geochemical studies, it is not the impact source for the material found in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

People have written about many impacts in different parts of the world based on the presence of spherules. “It may well have taken multiple concurrent impacts to bring about the extensive environmental changes of the Younger Dryas,” says Sharma. “However, to date no impact craters have been found and our research will help track one of them down.”

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 finds new evidence supporting theory of extraterrestrial impact

This is James Kennett. -  UCSB
This is James Kennett. – UCSB

An 18-member international team of researchers that includes James Kennett, professor of earth science at UC Santa Barbara, has discovered melt-glass material in a thin layer of sedimentary rock in Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Syria. According to the researchers, the material — which dates back nearly 13,000 years — was formed at temperatures of 1,700 to 2,200 degrees Celsius (3,100 to 3,600 degrees Fahrenheit), and is the result of a cosmic body impacting Earth.

These new data are the latest to strongly support the controversial Younger Dryas Boundary (YDB) hypothesis, which proposes that a cosmic impact occurred 12,900 years ago at the onset of an unusual cold climatic period called the Younger Dryas. This episode occurred at or close to the time of major extinction of the North American megafauna, including mammoths and giant ground sloths; and the disappearance of the prehistoric and widely distributed Clovis culture. The researchers’ findings appear today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“These scientists have identified three contemporaneous levels more than 12,000 years ago, on two continents yielding siliceous scoria-like objects (SLO’s),” said H. Richard Lane, program director of National Science Foundation’s Division of Earth Sciences, which funded the research. “SLO’s are indicative of high-energy cosmic airbursts/impacts, bolstering the contention that these events induced the beginning of the Younger Dryas. That time was a major departure in biotic, human and climate history.”

Morphological and geochemical evidence of the melt-glass confirms that the material is not cosmic, volcanic, or of human-made origin. “The very high temperature melt-glass appears identical to that produced in known cosmic impact events such as Meteor Crater in Arizona, and the Australasian tektite field,” said Kennett.

“The melt material also matches melt-glass produced by the Trinity nuclear airburst of 1945 in Socorro, New Mexico,” he continued. “The extreme temperatures required are equal to those of an atomic bomb blast, high enough to make sand melt and boil.”

The material evidence supporting the YDB cosmic impact hypothesis spans three continents, and covers nearly one-third of the planet, from California to Western Europe, and into the Middle East. The discovery extends the range of evidence into Germany and Syria, the easternmost site yet identified in the northern hemisphere. The researchers have yet to identify a limit to the debris field of the impact.

“Because these three sites in North America and the Middle East are separated by 1,000 to 10,000 kilometers, there were most likely three or more major impact/airburst epicenters for the YDB impact event, likely caused by a swarm of cosmic objects that were fragments of either a meteorite or comet,” said Kennett.

The PNAS paper also presents examples of recent independent research that supports the YDB cosmic impact hypothesis, and supports two independent groups that found melt-glass in the YDB layers in Arizona and Venezuela. “The results strongly refute the assertion of some critics that ‘no one can replicate’ the YDB evidence, or that the materials simply fell from space non-catastrophically,” Kennett noted.

He added that the archaeological site in Syria where the melt-glass material was found — Abu Hureyra, in the Euphrates Valley — is one of the few sites of its kind that record the transition from nomadic hunter-gatherers to farmer-hunters who live in permanent villages. “Archeologists and anthropologists consider this area the ‘birthplace of agriculture,’ which occurred close to 12,900 years ago,” Kennett said.

“The presence of a thick charcoal layer in the ancient village in Syria indicates a major fire associated with the melt-glass and impact spherules 12,900 years ago,” he continued. “Evidence suggests that the effects on that settlement and its inhabitants would have been severe.”