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Researchers Explain What Happened When Dinosaur-Killing Asteroid Hit Earth

10 September 2019

A scientific mission led by IODP (International Ocean Discovery Program) studies rock cores from the Chicxulub impact crater in the Gulf of Mexico, May 7, 2016. An worldwide team of more than two dozen scientists contributed to this study. This finding suggests that the impact vaporized these rocks forming sulfate aerosols in the atmosphere, causing cooling on the global scale.

This scenario has always been suggested by scientists investigating why the dinosaurs, and 75 per cent of all life on Earth, were wiped out by the asteroid - but this is the first direct evidence from the crater itself. After a day, about 425 feet of material had accumulated, the highest rate of outpouring of rocks that has ever been recorded in Earth's geologic history.

Prof Gulick described it as a short-lived regional inferno - followed by a long period of global cooling.

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"What we have from drilling at ground zero is a fairly complete picture of how the crater formed and what the processes were within the crater on the first day of the Cenozoic", Gulick says. The only survivors among the dinosaurs were avian species, which eventually became modern-day birds. This showed how the blast ignited trees and plants thousands of miles away from the impact zone, and triggered a far-reaching inland tsunami across the Americas.

Charcoal and a chemical biomarker linked to soil fungi were also found within or above layers of sand in the impact crater. Known as the Chicxulub crater, it's located in the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico. This suggests that the charred landscape arrived at the crater at the same time as the receding waters of the tsunami.

However, one of the most important takeaways from the research is what was missing from the core samples.

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The team was perhaps most interested by what wasn't present in the samples: sulfur-rich rocks.

The new research allows scientists "to get a really clear snapshot" of what happened that day, according to Derrick Pitts, chief astronomer at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.

Professor Joanna Morgan, from the Department of Earth Science and Engineering at Imperial, who co-led the project to drill into the crater and co-authored the new study, said: "At least 325 billion metric tons of sulphur would have been released by the impact". To put that in perspective, that's about four orders of magnitude greater than the sulfur that was spewed during the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa-which cooled the Earth's climate by an average of 2.2 degrees Fahrenheit for five years. The research, published Monday and reported earlier by The Wall Street Journal, shows the asteroid caused wildfires and tsunamis after hitting with the impact of 10 billion WWII-era atomic bombs. The impact did cause devastation in the locality of the impact but the global extinction took place due to the climate change caused by the release of massive volumes of sulphur, nearly 325 billion metric tonnes. "The only way you get a global mass extinction like this is an atmospheric effect".

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Researchers Explain What Happened When Dinosaur-Killing Asteroid Hit Earth