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Impacts, volcanism and mass extinction: random coincidence or cause and effect?

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Large impacts are credited with the most devastating mass extinctions in Earth's history and the Cretaceous–Tertiary (K/T) boundary impact is the strongest and sole direct support for this view. A review of the five largest Phanerozoic mass extinctions provides no support that impacts with craters up to 180 km in diameter caused significant species extinctions. This includes the 170 km-diameter Chicxulub impact crater regarded as 0.3 million years older than the K/T mass extinction. A second, larger impact event may have been the ultimate cause of this mass extinction, as suggested by a global iridium anomaly at the K/T boundary, but no crater has been found to date. The current crater database suggests that multiple impacts, for example comet showers, were the norm, rather than the exception, during the Late Eocene, K/T transition, latest Triassic and the Devonian–Carboniferous transition, but did not cause significant species extinctions. Whether multiple impacts substantially contributed to greenhouse warming and associated environmental stresses is yet to be demonstrated. From the current database, it must be concluded that no known Phanerozoic impacts, including the Chicxulub impact (but excluding the K/T impact) caused mass extinctions or even significant species extinctions. The K/T mass extinction may have been caused by the coincidence of a very large impact (>250 km) upon a highly stressed biotic environment as a result of volcanism. The consistent association of large magmatic provinces (large igneous provinces and continental flood-basalt provinces) with all but one (end-Ordovician) of the five major Phanerozoic mass extinctions suggests that volcanism played a major role. Faunal and geochemical evidence from the end-Permian, end-Devonian, end-Cretaceous and Triassic/Jurassic transition suggests that the biotic stress was due to a lethal combination of tectonically induced hydrothermal and volcanic processes, leading to eutrophication in the oceans, global warming, sea-level transgression and ocean anoxia. It must be concluded that major magmatic events and their long-term environmental consequences are major contributors, though not the sole causes of mass extinctions. Sudden mass extinctions, such as at the K/T boundary, may require the coincidence of major volcanism and a very large Impact.
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Keywords: Phanerozoic; impact; mass extinction; volcanism

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Department of Geosciences, Princeton University, Princeton, 08544, NJ, USA, Email: [email protected]

Publication date: January 1, 2005

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