Another Cosmic Impact
The Younger Dryas, also referred to as the Big Freeze, was a geologically brief (about 1,300 years) period of cold climatic conditions and drought which occurred about 12,000 years ago. The Younger Dryas stadial is thought to have been caused by the collapse of the North American ice sheets, although rival theories have been proposed. 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 caused this event.
The Younger Dyas occurred at or close to the time of the 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 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The Younger Dryas saw a rapid return to glacial conditions in the higher latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere in sharp contrast to the warming of the preceding interstadial deglaciation. It has been believed that the transitions each occurred over a period of a decade or so, but the onset may have been faster. Thermally fractionated nitrogen and argon isotope data from Greenland ice core indicate that the summit of Greenland was approximately 27.0 °F colder during the Younger Dryas than today.
"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."
"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 air burst 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/air burst 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.
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.
The prevailing Younger Dyas theory holds that the Younger Dryas was caused by a significant reduction or shutdown of the North Atlantic Conveyor, which circulates warm tropical waters northward, in response to a sudden influx of fresh water from Lake Agassiz and deglaciation in North America; however, geological evidence for such an event is thus far lacking.
A recent alternative theory suggests instead that the jet stream shifted northward in response to the changing topographic forcing of the melting North American ice sheet, bringing more rain to the North Atlantic which freshened the ocean surface enough to slow the thermohaline circulation. There is also some evidence that a solar flare may have been responsible for the megafaunal extinction, though it cannot explain the apparent variability in the extinction across all continents.
For further information see Impact.
Grains image via UC Santa Barbara.