The most detailed three-dimensional seismic images yet of the Chicxulub crater, a mostly submerged and buried impact crater on the Mexico coast, may modify a theory explaining the extinction of 70 percent of life on Earth 65 million years ago.
The Chicxulub crater was formed when an asteroid struck the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. Most scientists agree the impact played a major role in the ÒKT Extinction EventÓ that caused the extinction of most life on Earth, including dinosaurs.
According to Sean Gulick, a research scientist at the Institute for Geophysics at The University of Texas at Austin's Jackson School of Geosciences and principal investigator for the project, the new images reveal the asteroid landed in deeper water than previously assumed and therefore released about 6.5 times more water vapor into the atmosphere.
The impact site also contained sulfur-rich sediments called evaporites, which would have reacted with water vapor to produce sulfate aerosols. According to Gulick, an increase in the atmospheric concentration of the compounds could have made the impact deadlier in two ways: by altering climate (sulfate aerosols in the upper atmosphere can have a cooling effect) and by generating acid rain (water vapor can help to flush the lower atmosphere of sulfate aerosols, causing acid rain). Earlier studies had suggested both effects might result from the impact but to a lesser degree.
“The greater amount of water vapor and consequent potential increase in sulfate aerosols needs to be taken into account for models of extinction mechanisms,“ Gulick says.
The results appear in the February 2008 print edition of the journal Nature Geosciences.