Fossils Reveal Post-Asteroid Cold Snap Doomed Dinos

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The first-ever fossil proof of dramatic global cooling after the cosmic impact that ended the Age of Dinosaurs has been discovered.

The darkness and cold from the dust and ash thrown up by the giant collision was likely the main driver of the resulting mass die-off, known as the K-T extinction, scientists say. This extinction at the end of the Cretaceous period finished the reign of the dinosaurs. The only dinosaurian survivors were the birds; other reptiles such as turtles and crocodiles survived as well, although these are not descended from dinosaurs.

Asteroids reach Earth's atmosphere every day — but only the biggest make it to the ground.
emyerson/iStockphoto

The prime suspect behind this disaster is a cosmic impact from an asteroid or comet. Scientists have found evidence of this collision near the town of Chicxulub (CHEEK-sheh-loob) in Mexico in the form of a giant crater more than 110 miles (180 kilometers) wide. The explosion that carved out this crater, likely caused by an object about 6 miles (10 km) across, would have released as much energy as 100 trillion tons of TNT, more than a billion times more than the atom bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. [Wipe Out: History's Most Mysterious Mass Extinctions]

PHOTOS: NASA's Asteroid Capture Mission

"When such an asteroid hits the Earth, the results are devastating," said lead study author Johan Vellekoop, a PhD candidate in paleoclimatology at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. "The impact itself releases an enormous amount of energy, so much that in the first hours after the impact, the air is heated up, igniting global wildfires."

Speculative cooling

In principle, such impacts also loft dust and soot into the atmosphere, "blocking incoming sunlight," Vellekoop said. "The sun is both our source of light as well as our main source of heat — hence, when sunlight can no longer reach the surface of the Earth, this surface rapidly cools down, creating a so-called 'impact winter,' a period of darkness and cold lasting for decades."

Prior studies hint that the impact winter reduced the amount of sunlight reaching Earth's surface by as much as 80 percent, cooling the land from tropical warmth to below freezing. This darkness and cold would have killed off plants and caused a global collapse of terrestrial and marine food webs.

"Ultimately, more than 50 percent of all plants and animals on Earth died out because of this," Vellekoop said.

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