Archive for the ‘Close To Home by Evan Finnes’ Category

What Killed Off The Dinosaurs?

Friday, December 19th, 2008 by Evan Finnes

Throughout the Earth’s history there have been several mass extinctions. Perhaps the most famous and controversial is the extinction event which killed off the dinosaurs and 70% of all other living creatures on the Earth. This mass extinction occurred about 65 million years ago, and marks the end of the cretaceous period, and is often referred to as the K-T extinction event.

It is referred to as the K-T extinction event because of a layer of sediment found around the world which marks the boundary between the cretaceous and tertiary periods. Below this layer, there are several non-avian dinosaur fossils, and above it there are no such fossils. Besides dinosaurs, several species of plants and invertebrates also disappear from this top layer of soil. The few lucky survivors of the extinction event include several mammalian and bird clades.

The leading hypothesis for this mass extinction event is called the Alvarez hypothesis, named after a team of father and son scientists, Luis and Walter Alvarez, who first suggested it in 1980. The Alvarez team found concentrations of iridium hundreds of times higher than normal in the rocks around the K-T boundary. Iridium is a high density element, which is rarely found in the Earth’s crust; because of its high-density and iron-loving characteristics, iridium is believed to be found at its highest concentrations in the Earth’s core. Because Iridium is an iron-loving element, the Alvarez team speculated that the high concentrations of iridium found around the K-T boundary, was due to a large asteroid impact.

Using the concentrations of iridium found around the K-T boundary, the Alvarez team was able to determine that these concentrations were normal in a type of asteroid known as chondrites. They were also able to calculate that the size of the asteroid would have been about 10 kilometers in diameter. The energy released during such an impact would be equivalent to 100 trillion tons of TNT—twice as powerful as the largest nuclear bomb ever tested.

An impact of this magnitude would likely have produced a dense cloud of dust, which would have engulfed the entire planet. This dust would have blocked off sunlight, which would cause a change in the climate, and temporarily prevented photosynthesis. The lack of photosynthesis could account for the extinction of several species of plant life. The loss of plant life, coupled with a cooling climate, would reverberate through the food chain, causing the extinction of many types of animals, including the dinosaurs.

The scar of such an impact is located in the Yucatan Peninsula, and is called the Chicxulub Crater. This crater was created by an asteroid impact approximately 10km in diameter, and isotope analysis dates this crater to the end of the cretaceous—about 65 million years ago. To some, this is enough to confirm Alvarez hypothesis; but Gerta Keller, a professor of geosciences at Princeton University, believes otherwise.

Professor Keller agrees that the extinction was due to a changing climate, but she disagrees with what may have caused such a change. Her research implies that the mass extinction occurred 300,000 years before the Chicxulub impact. Her team estimates the age of the impact based on spherules found in Texas and New Mexico. A layer of spherules was formed when rock was vaporized by the impact, shot into the stratosphere, and then rained down over North and Central America. This layer was used to determine that the impact happened precisely 300,000 years before the mass extinction occurred.

The layers of sediment above and below the spherules layer show exactly how life was affected by the impact. Keller’s studies show that not a single species found in the layer beneath the spherules layer disappeared from the layer above. She believes that the mass extinction that occurred 300,000 years after the Chicxulub impact was caused by a series of volcanic eruptions in the Deccan Traps.

These volcanic eruptions were periodic, and lasted from 10 to 100 years, producing a volume of lava, in cubic miles, greater than the Rockies and Sierras combined. From each eruption, toxic gas was spewed into the atmosphere and oozing lava spread 650 miles across India, forming the longest lava flows on Earth. The sulfur dioxide injected into the atmosphere would have turned to aerosols, causing global cooling, while acidizing the ocean through acid rain. The marine record shows that 50% of ocean life was killed off by the first eruptions, and the mass extinction was complete by the end of the eruption frenzy.

Everybody asks the question, “What killed the dinosaurs?” Perhaps the better question is, “why didn’t they return?” Keller states that the dinosaurs were steadily dying off before the chicxulub impact; her solution is that the volcanoes were slowly killing everything. Why then didn’t the dinosaurs, or something similar make a comeback after the volcanoes quit, and the Earth regained equilibrium? Did the volcanoes permanently alter the composition of the atmosphere? Did the Chicxulub impact hit the Earth hard enough to change its axial tilt? Was there a reduction in solar flux reaching the Earth due to an aging sun? One thing seems certain: after the demise of the Dinosaurs, there was not enough energy reaching the Earth to sustain such massive life forms. One might speculate that the conditions which led to the demise of these magnificent creatures, also created an environment suitable for the evolution of intelligent life, and eventually present day man.

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Friday, December 5th, 2008 by Evan Finnes

Most of us have seen or read the late Michael Crichton’s book, JURRASIC PARK , which deals with the moral issues and possible consequences of recreating the dinosaurs. Dinosaurs are one thing, but what would happen if we were able to bring back the Wooly Mammoth, the Neanderthal, or other creatures that existed more recently in geologic history?

Using the well preserved hair of two mammoths, scientists have been able to map out 70% of the creatures DNA, and they are finding that so far it is about 99.4% identical to the genome of the African Elephant. Biologists are discussing ways to modify the egg of an African Elephant so that its DNA would resemble the DNA of a mammoth egg, which could then be fertilized and delivered by a female elephant.

The Wooly Mammoth lived from the early Pliocene epoch to the early Pleistocene, or from about 4.8 million to 4500 years ago. The Wooly mammoth belonged to the order Proboscidea , and the elephant family. Mammoths reached a height of 16 feet, weighed as much as 12 tonnes, had massive tusks, and were covered in shaggy brown hair. The mammoths went extinct slightly after the last ice age around 10,000BC.

Some believe that the mammoth went extinct because they were over hunted by Homo erectus , while others believe it was due to a changing climate. Most likely this extinction was caused by a combination of several variables. Just after the ice age, as the climate warmer and wetter, and the mammoths grassy habitat was replaced by lush forests. The loss of habitat, along with the introduction of new disease brought forth by the changing climate may have started off the decline of the animal. The remaining population was probably hunted off by the humanoids who were also adapting to the changing climate.

If it is possible to resurrect the mammoth, it may also someday be possible to resurrect other animals from the same time frame, animals such as the saber-tooth tiger , Megatherium , or even the Neanderthals. Recreating these animals would tremendously benefit the studies of paleontologists, biologists, and archeologists as we try to remap the evolution of the modern man and animal.

As demonstrated by Michael Crichton, this sort of science does not come without raising some ethical questions. Most people may not have a problem going to the local zoo to observe the amazing diversity of prehistoric animals, but how will the public react to the re-creation of prehistoric man? Much could be learned about our own evolution if we could observe the Neanderthal, but could you walk into a place called Pleistocene Park and look through a cage, and into the eyes of a very ancient relative without a feeling remorse?

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Plate Tectonics May Have Begun 4.4 Billion Years Ago.

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2008 by Evan Finnes

A new study suggests that the Earth’s tectonic activity may have begun as many as 4.4 billion years ago. The evidence stems from tiny minerals called zircons found in rocks of the Jack Hills region of Western Australia. Zircons, or zirconium silicate (ZrSiO4), are amazing minerals because of the fact that they are very widespread, and can exist in igneous, sedimentary, or metamorphic rocks.

By analyzing tiny mineral inclusions found inside seven of the zircon crystals found in Western Australia ( seven out of 400 found) scientists were able to determine that there was tectonic activity in the earliest eon of our planet, the Hadean. These inclusions allowed the scientist to determine the temperature and pressures at which the zircons formed. Six of the seven bits of zircon contained inclusions composed of the mineral muscovite (KAl2(AlSi3O10)(OH)2). The Silicon to Aluminum ratio in these muscovite inclusions suggest that the rocks formed at depths of about 25 km beneath the Earth’s surface. Because of the amount of Titanium atoms present in the zircons, the scientists were able to determine that temperature of crystallization was between 665 and 745 degrees Celsius. The seventh inclusion consisted of a mineral known as hornblende ( (Ca,Na)2-3(Mg,Fe,Al)3Si6(Si,Al)2O22(OH)2) ). After analyzing the hornblende inclusions, (using methods similar to the above methods), scientists were able to confirm the determined results of the muscovite. However, because this discovery is based only on seven samples, there is some healthy criticism.

These temperatures and pressures indicate that the temperature flux during the zircon crystallization was approximately 75 mW/m2. This flux is slightly higher than what is observed on Earth today. Because the Earth was so much hotter during its first six hundred million years, a higher paleo-flux is expected. However, the calculated flux was also determined to be about 1/5 lower than the expected flux of the hadean eon. It is because of this abnormally lower than average flux of the hadean eon zircons, that it was determined that the plate tectonics had to have begun so early in Earth’s history.

On Earth today, fluxes much lower than average occur above subduction zones, where one plate subducts beneath another. It is hypothesized that these zircons were formed as the descending plate subducted, bringing liquid water with it, where it cooled the surrounding mantle enough for the zircons, and the inclusion minerals, to crystallize out of solution. Zircon contains uranium isotopes, which allowed the year of this crystallization to be calculated using radiometric dating techniques.

This could be an important discovery because it will help us understand the evolution of terrestrial planets. Plate tectonics play a very important role in recycling the gasses which make up our atmosphere, and therefore directly affect the ability of a planet to sustain life. With the right atmospheres, Venus and Mars could have been within the habitable zone of our solar system, however neither planet is believed to have developed plate tectonics.

Besides providing clues to the development of plate tectonics, the zircons also contain oxygen isotopes that suggest that water was also present on the Earth some 4.4 billion years ago. These Western Australian zircons are the oldest minerals on Earth, and have provided us with great insight into the dawning hours of our planet.

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ExtraSolar CO2

Monday, December 1st, 2008 by Evan Finnes

For the first time carbon dioxide has been found in the atmosphere of a planet outside of our own solar system. This is an important discovery because carbon dioxide is one the chemicals we would expect to find on a planet that harbors life, the other chemicals include: oxygen, water, and methane. Water vapor, along with carbon monoxide has previously been detected in the planet’s atmosphere.

Unfortunately, the discovery of carbon dioxide on this planet cannot be correlated to life. This Jupiter sized planet, which is located 63 light years from Earth, is known as HD 189733b. It has an orbital period of about 2.2 days and has a scorching surface temperature of about 1117 K. The close proximity of the planet to its host star may be responsible for the formation of carbon dioxide in the planet’s atmosphere. As the planet orbits, relatively close to its sun, it receives a high dosage of ultraviolet radiation. This radiation may have stripped apart other chemicals in the planet’s atmosphere while creating new chemicals, such as carbon dioxide.

The carbon dioxide was detected by analyzing the infrared spectrum of the planet. Because HD 189733b lies so close to its host star, the combined spectrum of the star/planet system had to first be analyzed and recorded. Scientists then waited for the planet to disappear behind its host star, so that the suns individual spectrum could be recorded. To obtain the planets individual spectrum, the spectrum of the star was subtracted from the star/planet system.

French astronomers discovered HD 189733b, in the constellation Vulpecula, on Oct. 5, 2005 by observing the transit of the planet across its host star. Since its discovery, the planet has reached a number of milestones. It was the first extrasolar planet to be mapped, it was the first found to contain water vapor and methane (which probably react in the high temperatures to form the carbon monoxide), and now it is the first exosolar planet known to contain carbon dioxide.

This discovery confirms our ability to detect the chemical compositions of planets outside of our solar system. If, and hopefully when, an Earth-like is discovered, analyzing the spectral signatures will be more difficult due to the small sizes of terrestrial planets. As we continue to develop our techniques by recording the spectral signatures of Jupiter-like planets, and super Earths, there should be little doubt that we will be ready to analyze the atmosphere of an Earth or Mars sized planet when the discovery occurs, bringing us one step closer to eventually detecting life on another planet.

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