ASTEROID DUST MAY HAVE TRIGGERED Ice Age
Ordovician Fossil Meteorite and nautiloid fossil (top). This specimen originated from the L chondrite parent body breakup and is on public display at the Field Museum in Chicago (Photo: John Weinstein/Field Museum).
These are cliffs made of marine limestone in Sweden that contain huge amounts of extraterrestrial dust from the L chondrite parent body breakup. The gray horizontal band in the rock shows rock deposited during a sea level lowstand hypothesized the be cause by an ice age triggered by the enhanced asteoroidal dust (Philipp Heck/Field Museum).
Dust from asteroid breakup may have caused Ordovician ice age
About 466 million years ago, long before the age of the dinosaurs, the Earth froze. The seas began to ice over at the Earth's poles, and the new range of temperatures around the planet set the stage for a boom of new species evolving. The cause of this ice age was a mystery, until now: a new study in Science Advances lead by Birger Schmitz, a Professor at Lund University and an international team of colleagues incl. Philipp Heck, Pritzker Associate Curator and University of Chicago Associate Professor (part time), argues that the ice age was caused by global cooling, triggered by extra dust in the atmosphere from a giant asteroid collision in outer space.
There's always a lot of dust from outer space floating down to Earth, little bits of asteroids and comets, but this dust is normally only a tiny fraction of the other dust in our atmosphere such as volcanic ash, dust from deserts and sea salt. But when a 93-mile-wide asteroid between Mars and Jupiter broke apart 466 million years ago, it created way more dust than usual. "Normally, Earth gains about 40,000 tons of extraterrestrial material every year," says Philipp Heck. "Imagine multiplying that by a factor of a thousand or ten thousand." To contextualize that, in a typical year, one thousand semi trucks' worth of interplanetary dust fall to Earth. In the couple million years following the collision, it'd be more like ten million semis a year.
"Our hypothesis is that the large amounts of extraterrestrial dust over a timeframe of at least two million years played an important role in changing the climate on Earth, contributing to cooling," says Heck.
"Our results show for the first time that such dust, at times, has cooled Earth dramatically," says Birger Schmitz of Sweden's Lund University, the study's lead author and a research associate at the Field Museum. "Our studies can give a more detailed, empirical-based understanding of how this works, and this in turn can be used to evaluate if model simulations are realistic."
To figure it out, researchers looked for traces of space dust in 466-million-year-old rocks, and compared it to tiny micrometeorites from Antarctica as a reference. "We studied extraterrestrial matter, meteorites and micrometeorites, in the sedimentary record of Earth, meaning rocks that were once sea floor," says Heck. "And then we extracted the extraterrestrial matter to discover what it was and where it came from."
Extracting the extraterrestrial matter--the tiny meteorites and bits of dust from outer space--involves taking the ancient rock and treating it with acid that eats away the stone and leaves the space stuff. The team then analyzed the chemical makeup of the remaining dust. The team also analyzed rocks from the ancient seafloor and looked for elements that rarely appear in Earth rocks and for isotopes--different forms of atoms--that show hallmarks of coming from outer space. For instance, helium atoms normally have two protons, two neutrons, and two electrons, but some that are shot out of the Sun and into space are missing a neutron. The presence of these special helium isotopes, along with rare metals often found in asteroids, proves that the dust originated from space.
Other scientists had already established that our planet was undergoing an ice age around this time. The amount of water in the Earth's oceans influences the way that rocks on the seabed form, and the rocks from this time period show signs of shallower oceans--a hint that some of the Earth's water was trapped in glaciers and sea ice. Schmitz and his colleagues are the first to show that this ice age syncs up with the extra dust in the atmosphere. "The timing appears to be perfect," he says. The extra dust in the atmosphere helps explain the ice age--by filtering out sunlight, the dust would have caused global cooling.
Since the dust floated down to Earth over at least two million years, the cooling was gradual enough for life to adapt and even benefit from the changes. An explosion of new species evolved as creatures adapted for survival in regions with different temperatures.
Heck notes that while this period of global cooling proved beneficial to life on Earth, fast-paced climate change can be catastrophic. "In the global cooling we studied, we're talking about timescales of millions of years. It's very different from the climate change caused by the meteorite 65 million years ago that killed the dinosaurs, and it's different from the global warming today--this global cooling was a gentle nudge. There was less stress."
It's tempting to think that today's global warming could be solved by replicating the dust shower that triggered global cooling 466 million years ago. But Heck says he would be cautious: "Geoengineering proposals should be evaluated very critically and very carefully, because if something goes wrong, things could become worse than before."
While Heck isn't convinced that we've found the solution to climate change, he says it's a good idea for us to be thinking along these lines.
"We're experiencing global warming, it's undeniable," says Heck. "And we need to think about how we can prevent catastrophic consequences, or minimize them. Any idea that's reasonable should be explored."
The story generated a lot of media interest and was featured in New York Times, CBC, Reuters, Cosmos Magazine among others.
This study was contributed to by scientists from the Field Museum, the University of Chicago, Lund University (lead), the California Institute of Technology, Vriije Universiteit Brussel, Ohio State University, Université Libre de Bruxelles, Russian Academy of Sciences, Federal University Kazan, Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, Durham University, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Center for Excellence in Comparative Paleontology China, ETH Zürich, Naturmuseum St. Gallen Switzerland, and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.