If you think I’m nuts about the Olympics, you should hear me talk about dinosaurs. All anyone needs to say is “antorbital fenestra,” and I swoon. Or “Chicxulub crater,” which is the impact site for the theoretical asteroid that hit 65 million years ago and wiped out most of life on earth, except for the tree shrews, from which all of us are descended. (We’ll have to save the tree shrews for another time.)
So you can imagine my excitement upon learning of the controversy between the Boltysh crater and the Chicxulub crater. Which came first? Apparently, there’s big money in being first because scientists from India are also claiming precedence.
Also, I learned the word “palynological,” which satisfies my Weird-Word-of-the-Month fetish. It means “the study of live and fossil spores, pollen grains, and similar plant structures,” from the Greek palunein, which means “to scatter” as in dust or “pollen.” Fern spores are very much in play here. And, for those of you with allergies, you now know that they are palynological.
Ok, so these dudes back in 2010 noticed this crater in the Ukraine called the Boltysh crater. The crater was “roughly” the same age as Chicxulub, and when we’re talking 65 million years, roughly can be mean +/- a million years, right? They were trying to be a bit more precise—in the 10,000 year range maybe—to see whether Boltysh came before or after Chicxulub.
There’s fame and fortune in the Dinosaur Demise!
Were they both asteroids as part of a large-scale event? Or, was there one smaller asteroid a bit before the second, kind of like a John the Baptist warning—Repent All Ye Stegosauruses, the Big One’s Coming! Or, if the smaller one came second, did it pile on the damage, like an anvil hitting Wile E. Coyote after he fell of the cliff? Inquiring minds want to know these things.
Back in the Day of the Alvarezes…
Plus, don’t we love a good scientific knock-down-drag-out argument? That’s what started the whole volcano vs. asteroid mystery of the dino-pocalypse. Back in the 1970s, the death of the dinosaurs was still a mystery. Some thought they died off from volcanoes, others considered a virus in the ferns. There was always the “Dead from sin” argument. You think I’m being glib about the sin argument? This is from a Bible site written just a few years ago…
Eventually, about 4,300 years ago, God judged man’s wickedness with a worldwide Flood….Dinosaurs disappear above the K-T boundary…because the Flood and its aftermath dumped additional sediment on top of those dinosaur-bearing layers …Genesis explains the iridium boundary. answersingenesis.org
On the more science-y front, which involves Fact Facts, a guy and his dad thought it might be from an asteroid. The guy was a geologist, but dad was a Nobel-prize-winning astrophysicist, so he suspected E.T. because his son found large amounts of an off-planet element called iridium, right near the K-PG, the time period border between the Cretaceous and the Paleogene. In case you’re wondering how you would know when the K-Pg occurred, remember that geological material rests in layers. If you’ve been to a canyon somewhere, they often have a handy time period map, illustrating the geological eras based on the different colors of strata. It helps if someone puts a red marker on it, too.
The one thing Walter and his dad Luis Alvarez didn’t have, in 1979, was the giant crater that would have accounted for their Asteroid Theory. However, some Mexican oil drillers in the mid-1970s had found just such a giant crater, half underwater. When they talked to each other, plus got some handy photos from these newfangled things called satellites that were going up in the 1980s, they realized that the 93 mile depression at the tip of the Yucatan was The Asteroid Crater.
A Scotsman Walks into a Ukrainian Bar and Sez, Got Any Borscht?
However, in the Ukraine, they had also their own crater, called Boltysh. (I keep wanting to type “borscht,” but that’s a soup. Of course, if an asteroid hit, a lot of things would turn to soup. ) Those clever Ukrainians had known for decades that Boltysh happened “around” the time of the K-Pg dino-calypse. But was it before or after? If it was before, the whole set of meteors might get joint credit.
Professor David Jolley of Aberdeen found that there was a bunch of fossilized fern pollen– palynological— deep in the impact crater of Boltysh. But there was also a wee bit mor’ pollen, a second spike, further in the geological strata. Ferns are known to be among the first things to grow after an apocalypse, so Jolley theorized that there must have been two impacts. He also thought this meant that Chicxulub came AFTER, which would put Boltysh at the head of the line.
Trying to tell time from rocks is tricky stuff. Here’s the important part, for you geology nerds:
The target rocks date from the Cenomanian (98.9 to 93.5 million years ago) and Turonian (93.5 to 89 million years ago) epochs. Bore samples of sediments overlying the crater contain fossils dating from the Paleocene epoch, 66 to 54.8 million years ago. The age of the crater was thus constrained to between 54 and 98 million years. Subsequent radiometric dating reduced the uncertainty. The concentration of U 238 decay products in impact glasses from the crater were used to derive an age of 65.04 ± 1.10 million years. Analysis of argon radioactive decay products yielded an age of 65.17 ± 0.64 million years. These ages are similar to that of Chicxulub Crater which argon dating yielded an age of 66.043 ± 0.011 million years.
I’ll translate that. I’m not a geology nerd, but I used to teach SAT students how to read technical passages, so I got this. (The trick is whenever you see a word you don’t know, just substitute the voice of one of those Charlie Brown teachers WAH WAH WAH.) Suppose you know that the end of the dinosaur days was around 66 million years ago, 66.04 ± 0.05/0.10 to be more specific. The part that says “the age of the crater is between 54 and 98” means it was too vague to know when the crater hit. EXACTLY when, mon ami, ask the little gray cells…? By using some radioactive stuff and standing very far away, with a Geiger counter like in the 1950s scifi movies, the scientists measured it at 65.17 million +/- 640,000 which is, guess when? Be-fore the T-Rex went screaming and waving its tiny arms is when.
Ah, But the Plot Thickens Like Haggis
However! Another canny lassie up in Glasgow named Annemarie Pickersgill–which has to be the best name for a scientist that I have heard this month!–Dr. Pickersgill suspected there was more to it. She matched data from the Ukraine with comparable data in strata from Montana, which I’m guessing is drier and easier to analyze than under-water strata in the Gulf of Mexico. Pickersgill and Friends were able to date the Boltysh crater very precisely to “65.39 ± 0.14/0.16 million years or ~0.65 million years after the mass extinction.” a-HA! It apparently was quite well done, because another famous scientist said:
Now, when scientists come up with an alternate theory, they have to explain why the other theory doesn’t work. So what about those Two Spikes? There’s a climate change link. Imagine that the planet is already going crazy from the big daddy at Chicxulub: there’s volcanoes, there’s parasaurolophuses writing their last will and testament, pterosaur divas screeching EVERY-where… And another asteroid hits. Even though it’s smaller, it creates devastation and recovery (fern spike #1) THEN more flooding and more recovery (fern spike #2).
Which means that when climate change is triggered by ANY cause, this will create a chain of additional climate change spikes, triggers, and more recoveries. This is something we all want to know.
But What About The Teardrop in India…?
Meanwhile, Dr. Sankar Chatterjee, over in southwest India, had theorized there was yet another crater under the Indian Ocean, that might have been synchronous with or predated Chicxulub. He had also been making the rounds claiming that his crater might also have been part of this asteroid shower. Did his come first? Would he get credit? He called his crater Shiva, after the Hindu god that dances to destroy the world. Shiva is a much cooler name than Boltysh and easier to spell than Chicxulub, but….!
This is what I can tell you. The Boltysh and Chicxulub guys have several scientific papers written by many scientists reconfirming each other’s results. In the last 30 years, they keep finding more data that adds and refines the original idea. Chatterjee seems to just be repeating himself, ever since his first paper back in 1997. Currently, the evaluation of his theory is rated as “1” on a key science scale: 0 for proven, 1 for probable, 2 for potential, 3 for questionable and 4 for discredited. At least, it’s not discredited, but it’s not proven. (We need to apply this scale to political twitter commentary, but that’s another story.)
So, it’s good that Dr. Chatterjee is quasi-proven, but it’s been 23 years. Skeptics already take issue with the unusual tear-drop shape of his crater. He explains why that’s possible, but other scientists haven’t gotten on board yet. Also the sea floor right around the area shifts a lot, with lots of lava, so perhaps all his good argon-argon evidence has been just covered up, you know, from the lava. If it weren’t for all that lava and floor-shifting, he would have been able to prove that his asteroid got there first.
At least one professor, Gerta Keller, said of Chatterjee’s ideas, “Unfortunately, we have found no evidence to support his claims. Sorry to say, this is all nonsense.” Only Dr. Keller herself is kind of on the outs because she seems to think volcanoes caused the dinosaurs to die off. Which means we’re close to back to the flood and sin and Noah next.
The gist of all this as follows: The Mexican crater has been confirmed and reconfirmed to have been caused by a giant asteroid around 66 million years ago, after which dinosaurs disappear from the fossils, worldwide. So there’s wide consensus that Chicxulub triggered the Dino-calypse. Although there are other impact craters, Boltysh has been precisely dated to come after, only 65 million years ago. Mostly, it just caused all sorts of extra trouble. Shiva sounds like it would make much better artist’s renderings, but there are scientific problems with the theory that haven’t been resolved in 30 years.
My money’s on the lassie with the beautiful argon ages..