Did Asteroid, Volcano Combo Kill the Dinosaurs?

Hundreds of thousands of years of volcanic eruptions in India—accelerated by a massive asteroid impact 66 million years ago—may have caused a perfect storm that led to the extinction of dinosaurs and other animals.

For 35 years, paleontologists and geologists have debated the role these two global events played in the last mass extinction, with one side claiming the eruptions were irrelevant, and the other side claiming the impact was a blip in a long-term die-off.

The new evidence includes the most accurate dates yet for the volcanic eruptions before and after the impact. The new dates show that the Deccan Traps lava flows, which at the time were erupting at a slower pace, doubled in output within 50,000 years of the asteroid or comet impact that is thought to have initiated the last mass extinction on Earth.

Both the impact and the volcanism would have blanketed the planet with dust and noxious fumes, drastically changing the climate and sending many species to an early grave.

“Based on our dating of the lavas, we can be pretty certain that the volcanism and the impact occurred within 50,000 years of the extinction, so it becomes somewhat artificial to distinguish between them as killing mechanisms: both phenomena were clearly at work at the same time,” says lead researcher Paul Renne, professor-in-residence of earth and planetary science at the University of California, Berkeley, and director of the Berkeley Geochronology Center.

“It is going to be basically impossible to ascribe actual atmospheric effects to one or the other. They both happened at the same time.”

Geologists argue that the impact abruptly changed the volcanoes’ plumbing system, which produced major changes in the chemistry and frequency of the eruptions. After this change, long-term volcanic eruptions likely delayed recovery of life for 500,000 years after the KT boundary, the term for the end of the Cretaceous and the beginning of the Tertiary period when large land animals and many small sea creatures disappeared from the fossil record.

“The biodiversity and chemical signature of the ocean took about half a million years to really recover after the KT boundary, which is about how long the accelerated volcanism lasted,” Renne says. “We are proposing that the volcanism unleashed and accelerated right at the KT boundary suppressed the recovery until the volcanoes waned.”