- CALGARY (CP) -- In the ongoing
debate about whether a giant meteor or spewing volcanoes killed the dinosaurs,
notch one up for the volcanoes.
- At a scientific conference on Wednesday, a French researcher
presented a study of Indian lava fields that suggested ancient volcanic
activity was intense enough to have caused the climate changes believed
to lie behind the extinction of the giant lizards.
- "We can see that due to the surface degassing of
the lava flow we have a potential impact on climate," said Anne-Lise
Chenet of the Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris.
- Some scientists theorize that dinosaurs died out about
65 million years ago -- along with more than 70 per cent of all species
on Earth -- as a result of climate change caused by the impact of a massive
asteroid crashing into our planet.
- That impact would have sent trillions of tonnes of dust
into the air and sparked huge fires. That combination of dust and soot
-- some estimates suggest 25 per cent of earth's vegetation burned --
would have lowered temperatures and acidified rainfall around the globe,
destroying dinosaur habitat.
- An undersea crater off Mexico's Yucatan coast is thought
to be the impact site.
- But other scientists believe earth's climate changed
as a result of gases belched into the air from an upswing in volcanic activity.
- Eruptions release both carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse
gas, and sulphur dioxide, a source of acid rain. They also load the atmosphere
with fine dust and soot.
- Pro-volcano researchers have long pointed to the Deccan
Trap in India, a vast area of volcanic rock thought to have originally
contained up to three million cubic kilometres of ancient lava. That many
eruptions could have released enough gas to be climate-altering -- if they
happened in rapid enough succession.
- According to Dr. Chenet, that's exactly what happened.
- "We found that the volcanism duration is certainly
shorter than it was estimated before," she said.
- "A succession of different eruptions could lead
to climate disequilibrium. If we have no time between two eruptions, we
have no time to re-find climatic system balance."
- Dr. Chenet and her team dated the ancient lava flows
by taking advantage of how the earth's magnetic field has shifted over
- Lava contains magnetic minerals that align themselves
with the earth's magnetic field before the lava cools. By comparing that
alignment with what is known about how the magnetic field has shifted,
scientists can date the flow.
- Using that method, Dr. Chenet estimates that a layer
of lava 600 metres thick may have piled up in as little as 30,000 years,
and that the entire volcanic episode lasted about a million years.
- "Volcanism might be a key player in mass extinctions,"
Dr. Chenet said.
- As well, right in the middle of the lava, Dr. Chenet
also found a layer of iridium thought to have come from the Yucatan asteroid,
which would prove the volcanoes predated it.
- "Our view is that impact added to the stress already
generated by an ongoing massive eruption, enhancing significantly the extent
of the extinction -- which would have taken place even if the impact had
- Dr. Chenet's next task will be to calculate the amount
of gas and sulphur compounds that would have been emitted during the period
of the eruptions. Scientists will then attempt to estimate the changes
those gases might have caused.
- Dr. Chenet points out that over the last 300 million
years, all mass extinctions have coincided with major volcanic activity.
- The extinction that killed off the dinosaurs, known as
the Cretaceous-Tertiary mass extinction, is the largest the earth has ever
known. All land animals, everywhere on earth, that were larger than 25
kilograms were killed off.
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