[meteorite-list] Extraterrestrial Impact Preceded Ancient Global Warming Event

From: Ron Baalke <baalke_at_meteoritecentral.com>
Date: Fri, 14 Oct 2016 16:44:20 -0700 (PDT)
Message-ID: <201610142344.u9ENiKd6006639_at_zagami.jpl.nasa.gov>


Extraterrestrial Impact Preceded Ancient Global Warming Event
By Mary L. Martially
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
October 13, 2016

A comet strike may have triggered the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum
(PETM), a rapid warming of the Earth caused by an accumulation of atmospheric
carbon dioxide 56 million years ago, which offers analogs to global warming
today. Sorting through samples of sediment from the time period, researchers
at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute discovered evidence of the strike
in the form of microtektites - tiny dark glassy spheres typically formed
by extraterrestrial impacts. The research will be published tomorrow in
the journal Science.

"This tells us that there was an extraterrestrial impact at the time
this sediment was deposited - a space rock hit the planet," said Morgan
Schaller, an assistant professor of earth and environmental sciences at
Rensselaer, and corresponding author of the paper. "The coincidence
of an impact with a major climate change is nothing short of remarkable."
Schaller is joined in the research by Rensselaer professor Miriam Katz
and graduate student Megan Fung, James Wright of Rutgers University, and
Dennis Kent of Columbia University.

Schaller was searching for fossilized remains of Foraminifera, a tiny
organism that produces a shell, when he first noticed a microtektite in
the sediment he was examining. Although it is common for researchers to
search for fossilized remains in PETM sediments, microtektites have not
been previously detected. Schaller and his team theorize this is because
microtektites are typically dark in color, and do not stand out on the
black sorting tray researchers use to search for light-colored fossilized
remains. Once Schaller noticed the first microtektite, the researchers
switched to a white sorting tray, and began to find more.

At peak abundance, the research team found as many as three microtektites
per gram of sediment examined. Microtektites are typically spherical,
or tear-drop shaped, and are formed by an impact powerful enough to melt
and vaporize the target area, casting molten ejecta into the atmosphere.
Some microtektites from the samples contained "shocked quartz," definitive
evidence of their impact origin, and exhibited microcraters or were sintered
together, evidence of the speed at which they were traveling as they solidified
and hit the ground.

Atmospheric carbon dioxide increased rapidly during the PETM, and an accompanying
spike in global temperatures of about 5 to 8 degrees Celsius lasted for
about 150,000 years. Although this much is known, the source of the carbon
dioxide had not been determined, and little is known about the exact sequence
of events - such as how rapidly carbon dioxide entered the atmosphere,
how quickly and at what rate temperatures began to rise, and how long
it took to reach a global high temperature.

One clue can be found in a sudden shift in the ratio of carbon isotopes
(atoms containing a number of neutrons unequal to the protons in their
nucleus) in certain fossils from the time period. In particular, Foraminifera,
or "forams," produce a shell whose chemistry is representative of
atmospheric and ocean carbon isotopes. The research team initially set
out to examine the ratio of carbon isotopes in Foraminifera fossils over
time, to more closely pinpoint events during the PETM.

"In sediment records, when you look at the ratio of carbon-12 to carbon-13
in a particular species, you see that it's stable and then it abruptly
shifts, wiggles back and forth and slowly returns to pre-event values
over hundreds of thousands of years," Schaller said. "This evidence
defines the event, and tells us that the atmosphere changed, in particular
adding carbon from a source depleted in carbon-13. A comet impact on its
own may have contributed carbon to the atmosphere, but is too small to
explain the whole event and more likely acts as a trigger for additional
carbon releases from other sources."

As a source of fossils, the team used sediment cores - cylinders of
sediment extracted vertically from sediment deposits with a hollow bit
- known to correspond to the time period of the PETM. Sediments near
the top are more recent, those further down are older, and signature layers
indicating known events are used to calibrate the timescale represented
in the sample. The team chose cores from three sites - Wilson Lake
and Millville in New Jersey, and Blake Nose, an underwater site east of
Florida - known for a rich sedimentary record of the time period.

As Schaller tells it, the discovery of microtektites was "completely
by accident." Ordinarily, the team passes samples through sieves of
various sizes, to isolate samples most likely to contain forams. The tektites,
which are smaller than most forams, would have been largely removed in
this process.

"We were having lousy luck looking for forams, and I was frustrated.
I went to the lab and dumped a sample on the sorting tray without sieving
it, and there it was," Schaller said. "It was a stunning moment. I
knew what I was looking at was not normal."

Once the team made the discovery, they obtained a sample from a fourth
site - Medford - where the unit is naturally exposed at the surface,
to rule out the possibility that the samples had been contaminated by
the drilling process. The Medford samples also contained microtektites.
Received on Fri 14 Oct 2016 07:44:20 PM PDT

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