After a giant asteroid hit Earth about 66 million years ago, the planet’s climate went on a roller coaster ride.
The space rock’s impact set off tsunamis and wildfires before climate-chilling clouds of sulfur gas engulfed the planet for decades, wiping out most life (SN: 11/25/17, p. 14). As these clouds dissipated, billions of tons of carbon dioxide, which spewed into the atmosphere when the asteroid hit, fueled roughly 100,000 years of global warming, new data suggest. Analyzing fossilized fish bits hints that the influx of the greenhouse gas raised the temperature of the ocean on average by 5 degrees Celsius, scientists report online May 24 in Science.
It’s not surprising that the climate heated up after the collision, which left a 200-kilometer-wide crater centered around what’s now Chicxulub, Mexico, says Johan Vellekoop, a geologist at KU Leuven in Belgium. But finding evidence to back up the warming claim has been challenging.
A common way to estimate past temperatures on Earth is to measure the proportion of heavier to lighter forms of oxygen in the carbonate shells left behind by dead invertebrates. Animals incorporate different oxygen forms into shells, teeth and bones at different rates depending on temperature. But carbonate fossils from around the time of the impact aren’t well enough preserved to be a reliable thermometer.
Instead, paleogeologist Ken MacLeod of the University of Missouri in Columbia and colleagues analyzed those same types of oxygen ratios in a crushed jumble of fish bones, teeth and scales — a different way to measure past temperatures. The team collected sediment samples from a section of rock in what’s now El Kef, Tunisia, that records the transition between the periods before and after the impact in its layers. (Samples from 2 meters of rock laid down before the impact and 6.6 meters laid down after the strike recorded almost 250,000 years of geologic history.) Back in the lab, the researchers spent hours peering through microscopes to sort out glassy, amber fish teeth and mineralized scales and measure the oxygen content within them.
The ratio of heavier oxygen to lighter decreased by about 1 percent in the fish bits collected after the impact compared with those pieces from before the impact, the team found. That change translates to an increase in seawater temperature of about 5 degrees Celsius — a substantial amount.
The elevated temperatures persisted for about 100,000 years before the planet cooled down again, an analysis of fish debris collected from different levels of rock showed. While the study looked only at ocean temperature, air temperature would probably reflect that increase, too, MacLeod says.
“It’s a pretty robust result,” says Clay Tabor, a climate scientist at the University of Connecticut in Hartford. But getting similar results from sites elsewhere in the world would boost the case that this was a global effect and not a local fluke, he says.
The story is far from over, MacLeod agrees. It’s not clear how long after the impact the warming began, for instance. His team hopes to analyze fish debris from other sites that might reveal finer-scale changes in temperature.