Cretaceous Extinctions: Evidence for Wildfires and Search for Meteoritic Material

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Science  11 Oct 1985:
Vol. 230, Issue 4722, pp. 167-170
DOI: 10.1126/science.230.4722.167


Clay samples from three Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary sites contain 0.36 to 0.58 percent graphitic carbon, mainly as fluffy aggregates of 0.1 to 0.5 micrometers—apparently a worldwide layer of soot. It may have been produced by wildfires triggered by a giant meteorite. This carbon, corresponding to a global abundance of 0.021 ± 0.006 gram per square centimeter, could have greatly enhanced the darkening and cooling of the earth by rock dust, which has been suggested as a cause of the extinctions. The surprisingly large amount of soot (10 percent of the present biomass of the earth) implies either that much of the earth's vegetation burned down or that substantial amounts of fossil fuels were ignited also. The particle-size distribution of the soot is similar to that assumed for the smoke cloud of "nuclear winter," but the global distribution is more uniform and the amounts are much greater, suggesting that soot production by large wildfires is about 10 times more efficient that has been assumed for a nuclear winter. Thus cooling would be more pervasive and lasting. No trace of meteoritic noble gases and no meteoritic spinel were found in these carbon fractions. Accordingly, limits can be set on the mass fraction of the meteorite that escaped degassing (≤3 x 10-5) or vaporization (≤0.04). Thus it seems unlikely that comets contributed significant amounts of prebiotic organic matter to the primitive earth.