Alvarez’s Asteroid: Did a Climate Catastrophe claim the Dinosaurs?
Written by William Walter Kay BA LL B
100 million years ago (100 Ma) Earth’s surface temperature, already hotter than now, resumed an intermittent warming march. Humidity kept apace.
By 70 Ma forests graced Antarctica and Greenland. By 60 Ma dense rainforests carpeted land masses pole to pole. By 66 Ma these forests hosted 30 species of flying bird, 34 species of mammal and scores of snake species.
The present is the key to the past.
Presently, a dozen snake species subsist exclusively via egg predation. Weasels, skunks and badgers also raid nests for their supper. Buzzards and crows do likewise.
Owls are living fossils; having emerged pre-65 Ma. Presently, 200 species of owl scour habitats from the Arctic to the Congo. Famously silent and equipped with remarkable night vision, owls often prey not on eggs but on recent hatchlings thereof. Dinosaurs would have been helpless against owls who, along with their ancestors and cousins, perched atop the food-chain 60 Ma.
Dinosaurs perished 66-64ish Ma. Thick dark woods flush with egg-cracking, hatchling-snatching critters proved inhospitable environs for these clumsy monsters.
The son of a Spanish royal family adjutant, Luis F Alvarez (1853-1937, pictured above), migrated to California, acquired an MD from Stanford, then moved to Hawaii to supervise hospitals and conduct experiments. Luis’s son, Walter, a Mayo Clinic professor, penned a medical column syndicated to hundreds of newspapers. Walter’s son, Luis W Alvarez, attained his PhD (Physics) from the University of Chicago and received a Nobel Prize (1968) for mathematical analysis of particle physics experiments.
A deep state denizen, Luis W Alvarez flew as a passenger in a B-29 alongside Enola Gay and Bockscar to watch the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. He investigated UFOs for the CIA. He secretly smeared Robert Oppenheimer as a Soviet spy. Chosen to refute a Congressional report on JFK’s assassination that indicated multiple shooters; Alvarez loyally upheld the Warren Commission’s lone shooter theory.
While Luis lacked geological or paleontological credentials, his son Walter had a Geology PhD (Princeton) and dabbled in archeology. The duo embarked on their asteroid-dinosaur adventure in 1977. Walter embalmed his recollections in: T Rex and the Crater of Doom.
Paleontologists and Geologists, being historians, agonize over periodization i.e. over how to best divide Earth’s past into chronological episodes. History is continuous; without precise beginnings and endings. Descriptive stable blocks of time are arbitrary, problematic conveniences. Absent periodization, however, there is no system; just scattered events. Geological/paleontological boundaries undergo constant re-categorization; the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg) boundary being no exception.
The International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS) is official keeper of the International Geological Time Scale. In 2008 ICS replaced “Tertiary” with “Paleogene.” K-T is now K-Pg (see table below). (K means Cretaceous.) This boundary divides a world blighted by conifers and dinosaurs from one blessed with flowers and mammals.
While K-Pg is renowned for dinosaur extinction; it is actually demarcated with reference to lineages of marine invertebrates found in Euro-Mediterranean rock strata. Geological timescales are biased towards shoreline rock-beds which, not having suffered terrestrial erosion, are easier to analyse.
Coastal rocks chronicle the rise and fall of oceanic protozoan species. Not to denigrate plankton, but other lifeforms are at least as interesting. Alongside the nanoplankton series now run alternative biostratigraphic series. Thirty mammalian bio-zones lay within the Paleogene Period (65.5 to 2.58 Ma). Advances in magnetic and isotropic analyses have engendered additional, parallel time columns.
ICS’s Global Boundary Stratotype Section and Point (GSSP) program began in 1977. “Golden spikes” are pounded in at accessible, well-preserved cites to serve as reference points for geological age boundaries. GSSPs are chosen paleontologically (from fossil evidence) but possess good secondary (isotropic, magnetic) markers. Sixty-four spikes have been pounded; 37 more are planned.
K-Pg’s spike adorns a ravine outside El Kef, Tunisia. This site was chosen for its clear depiction of the first appearance date of the flagellate, Danea californica, which heralds the disappearance of signature Cretaceous plankton.
It was at another K-Pg boundary site (Gubbio, Italy) where Luis and Walter Alvarez made their fabled find. In a centimeter-thick clay layer separating Cretaceous from Paleogene limestone strata they discovered abnormally high iridium concentrations. Iridium is rare in Earth’s crust. It is more abundant in Earth’s mantle and far more abundant in meteorites. The duo surmised that Earth had been struck by a 10-kilometre wide asteroid circa 66 Ma. Fallout from said asteroid spread iridium around the globe whilst inflicting the mass extinction which claimed the dinosaurs.
The alleged killing mechanism… Catastrophic Climate Change!
Alvarez’s asteroid kicked-up sky-darkening dust that suppressed photosynthesis and wrought famine.
“Global cooling” memes circulated in the 1970s. This theory, much like Alvarez’s “impact winter,” claims industrial pollution significantly blocks sunlight. A related horror-show, “nuclear winter,” envisions an ice age triggered by nuclear war. Circa 1980 two additional potential climate catastrophes gained notoriety – greenhouse warming and acid rain. Alvarez mongered all three scares.
William Glen, scribe of dinosaur extinction controversies, notes:
“Enhanced greenhouse warming has been suggested as a killing mechanism almost from the time the impact hypothesis was put forward.”
A key concept here is “shock metamorphism.” Limestone, it is contended, when pulverized by meteorites generates heat-trapping CO2. In the late-1980s a Caltech team blasted cannonballs into limestone. They concluded Alvarez’s asteroid tripled atmospheric CO2, setting off global heat devastation.
A famous September 1991 K-Pg paper speculated:
“…shock-produced CO2 from the impact may have caused a severe greenhouse warming.”
This paper came out in advance of the June 1992 Rio Summit; a milestone in CO2 diabolization.
Immediately after the 1980 release of the original Alvarez paper, an MIT team began issuing papers detailing how heat from the asteroid’s ejecta plum, through shock metamorphism, fused atmospheric nitrogen and oxygen into nitric acid. The resultant acid rain not only killed dinosaurs, it dissolved their bones; thereby explaining the annoying dearth of dinosaur fossils immediately below the K-Pg boundary.
Another impact-induced climate catastrophe scenario has the asteroid annihilating sulphur emitting microalgae. The resultant shortage of atmospheric sulphate particles thwarted cloud formation, kindling lethal warming.
Debate was restricted to asteroid partisans versus vulcanists. The latter, also climate catastrophists, contended mass extinction resulted from either SO2 (acid rain) or CO2 (global warming) volcanic emissions.
A compromise faction argued Alvarez’s asteroid rang Earth like a bell, waking dormant volcanos; hence an asteroid-volcano double-whammy dealt the dinos their deathblow.
Paleontologists were denied a podium on the debate stage.
The K-Pg iridium anomaly became a battlefield. In 1981 geologists examining Alvarez’s Gubbio site found high iridium levels above and below the K-Pg boundary. They concluded the iridium enrichment was of local volcanogenic, not cosmogenic, origins. Alvarez bitterly disputed their findings.
Charles B. Officer, leader of the opposition, received his PhD (Oceanography) from Columbia U before settling in as a Geophysics professor at Dartmouth College. Officer authored 10 science texts and countless papers.
In 1988 Officer’s team analysed rock 2.85 metres above, and 219 metres below, the K-Pg boundary layer at Gubbio. They found four fluxes in iridium concentration above the boundary; consistent with 3 million years of intense volcanic activity.
Officer’s allies also noted that the tiny spherical rocks, which Alvarez claimed were ejecta raining down from a single impact, could be found in several million years of rock strata.
Others noted wide variations in iridium concentrations at K-Pg boundary sites around the world; again suggesting local volcanic origins.
There is no consensus that K-Pg boundary layer iridium enrichment resulted from extraterrestrial impact. There is consensus regarding a 10,000-to-100,000 year intense volcanic episode in the late Cretaceous. This volcanic uprising explains the iridium anomaly.
(A third iridium anomaly hypothesis, that Earth experienced an uptick in meteor showers over several thousand years, was useless to Alvarez as this couldn’t cause mass extinction.)
By 1988 Alvarez’s asteroid appeared destined for the dustbin. Geophysicist R Jastrow confidently wrote:
“It is now clear that a catastrophe of extraterrestrial origins had no discernable impact on the history of life as measured over a million years.”
Then, in 1991, evidence of a huge crater was found under the Gulf of Mexico. Alvarez’s camp unleashed a salvo of papers aimed at proving “Chicxulub” to be their asteroid’s tomb.
In two papers (1993 and 1994) Officer’s team intercepted and destroyed Alvarez’s evidence. As PEMEX had done much drilling in the area; there was grist for the geological mill.
A 10-kilometre wide asteroid would have left unmistakable splatter around the immediate vicinity. The evidence shows a regional hiatus of impact-generated and/or tsunami-generated deposits at the K-Pg layer. Conversely, the Caribbean’s K-Pg boundary layer resides amidst 3 metres of volcanic deposits.
Officer’s team showed that one of Alvarez’s prize K-Pg rocks contained fossils millions of years too old. Also, a Cuban boulder that Alvarez claimed to be impact ejecta was proven to be the product of local erosion. Alvarez’s trophies from northern Mexico and Haiti were not impact ejecta but river-bed deposits built-up slowly with telltale gravity drainage features.
Signing off on Officer’s conclusions was the legendary A. A. Meyerhoff. As Project Geologist for PEMEX’s deep drilling program Meyerhoff inspected every sample. He saw scant evidence of spectacular asteroid impact. He saw ample evidence of six volcanic episodes.
Another Alvarez opponent, William Clemens (pictured above), is currently Professor Emeritus at Berkeley. Clemens chaired Berkeley’s Paleontology Department and ran their museum. He won several awards.
An authority on North American dinosaurs, Clemens believes these dinosaurs died out over a 500,000 year period. Flood plain dinosaurs disappeared quickly. River valley dinos clung on.
Dinosaurs inhabited Alaska’s North Slope for millions of years. While it was much warmer then than now, these dinosaurs still endured many cool dark polar winters. It is unlikely a meteorite off southern Mexico wiped them out.
Alvarez claimed his asteroid wreaked havoc uniquely upon larger animals. Clemens notes that during the K-Pg transition many small animals also disappeared.
According to Clemens, a sudden extinction paroxysm is simply not where the evidence points. Countless studies of K-Pg era fossils chronical complex floral and faunal transitions lasting over 100,000 years and exhibiting a range of regional sequences and timelines. Paleontologists explains K-Pg with reference to continental drift, long-term climate change, and gradual terrestrial and oceanic re-configurations.
Layers of rock, varying in thickness from 1 to 4.5 metres, separate the last dinosaur fossils from strata celebrating the triumph of modern plants. This is consistent with gradual, regional extinctions. The Alvarez hypothesis has all dinosaurs vanishing in a few years, if not months, circa 66.7 Ma. More troubling for the Alvarez hypothesis are dinosaur fossils radiometrically dated to 63.6 Ma.
Asteroid impact cannot explain the selectivity of K-Pg extinctions. Many lifeforms survived K-Pg unscathed. Alligators, sharks and turtles thrived. A review of 31 sites showed some equatorial regions enjoying 50% increases in bio-diversity during the K-Pg transition; albeit higher latitudes suffered 70% declines.
Extinctions occur continuously. These “turnovers” involve certain lifeforms displacing others. “Mass extinctions” are merely accelerated turnovers. 100,000 years is a jiffy to paleontologists.
Alvarez’s hypothesis debuted as a lead Science article (June, 1980) after a contrived roll-out. Starting in 1978 Science Digest, Science News and Time ran preparatory articles. In 1979 Astronomy published: Death of the Dinosaurs.
(Astrophysicists embraced the impact-extinction hypothesis; using it to campaign for asteroid research funding. They claimed meteorites caused all mass extinctions.)
By 1992 the Alvarez paper had been cited 2,000 times. 130 scientific journals ran 500 articles about it. Thirteen major periodicals printed 143 stories on the topic. Graphic accounts of a dino-killing asteroid appeared 25 times in Newsweek, Time, New Yorker and Scientific American; often as a cover story. Walter Alvarez’s lectures packed halls at science confabs.
Despite the hype, many scientists, and most paleontologists, rejected Alvarez’s hypothesis. A 1985 survey found paleontologists complaining that the impact theory sought to solve a non-existent mystery. Seeking silver-bullet explanations for dinosaur extinction was likened to searching for the Missing Link.
Papers from either side of the debate were published weekly throughout the decade. Rapid, coordinated responses by Alvarez supporters, from across several disciplines, betrayed conspiracy. Nature’s editor complained pre-prints of yet-to-be published articles circulated in Alvarez’s camp.
Luis Alvarez stooped to nasty, dishonest personal attacks. Worse, according to journalist Bruce Fellman:
“…critics of the asteroid-impact theory are firmly convinced that the late Nobel laureate was pulling strings behind the scenes – and the price of hewing to what they perceive to be the scientific truth was loss of access to news coverage, grant money, the leading journals, and even tenure.”
A New York Times exposé of the dispute claimed:
“Charges and recriminations have also flowed through the informal academic grapevine that can make or break a scientific career.”
Professor Dewey McLean argued convincingly that the iridium anomaly was volcanogenic. Several scientists, who requested anonymity, claimed Alvarez agents tried to block Dewey’s promotion to full professor. Alvarez denied the charge but was quick to call Mclean a “weak sister” whose reputation had been destroyed, gloating: “nobody invites him to conferences anymore.”
“I don’t like to say bad things about paleontologists, but they’re really not very good scientists. They’re more like stamp collectors.”
The struggle continues. A 2010 paper, signed by 41 scientists, declared the K-Pg asteroid-extinction event to be a fact. The paper elicited a counter-paper led by Clemens and signed by 29 scientists. The counter-paper, published in Science, noted the absence of vertebrate paleontologists among the 41 bombardiers. It went on to point out that no other known mass extinction event corresponds to a meteorite impact, and that no other known meteorite impact corresponds to any extinction.
Catastrophists, controlling the commanding heights, continue dispensing ‘ground-breaking’ evidence for their theory. Many circumspect paleontologists now privately disparage Alvarez’s hypothesis but publically avoid the topic.
Farcically millenarian, environmentalists traffic in: tipping points, carrying capacities, ecological thresholds, population overshoots, feedback loops, rumours of doom and horrors to come. While eco-apocalyptic pseudoscience dates to the 1800s, an unprecedented resurgence swept the late-1960s after its affiliated political tendency re-marshalled their assault upon the state.
“Millenarian” derives from millennium, 1,000 years. Numerologically 1,000 indicates completeness. 1,000 years translates to “epoch.” Bewildering calculations go into apocalyptic timetables but cabbalistic foreshortening invariably reels the final epoch into imminent proximity.
Faith in an imminent cataclysm appears across history and around the globe. Hindus preach a cycle of cosmic disasters. Shiites await a riotous finale. Rastafarians, Mormons and Marxists brace for the ultimate transformation.
Between 200 BC and 300 AD Jewish/Christian pamphleteers prophesied an apocalypse rife with infernos and deluges. End Times doctrine undergirds Christian soteriology and theodicy. Suppressed during the Middle Ages, millenarianism rebounded in Protestantism and remains fundamental to American Christianity. Europe’s most prescient modern theologian, Albert Schweitzer, stressed Christianity’s millenarian constitution; recommending its revival.
Geology was born bearing millenarian defects.
Until the late-1800s “catastrophism” was Geology’s consensus view. Catastrophists believed Earth’s crustal features resulted from exotic cataclysms. Disparate fossils unearthed in rock strata were explained as products of repeated Acts of God lacking any connection to profane scientific laws.
Guided by Natural Theology, catastrophists reconciled scripture with Geology. They believed in a recent divine creation event. They rejected evolution, contending modern animals appeared as God made them. They sought geological evidence for the Garden of Eden and the Great Flood. They deemed Noah’s flood to be the most recent of a series of worldwide inundations.
Catastrophism yielded to “uniformitarianism” and its linear geological column. Uniformitarians emphasised gradualism, sedimentation, erosion, evolution etc. They confined theorising to observable processes. The present was key to the past.
Millenarianism, often a feature of populist uprisings, can be an instrument of oppression. Imperial-aristocratic millenarianism is nostalgic, traditionalist, conservationist and restorative. It brandishes a vision of theocratic global conquest.
Ritual masks worn by today’s crafty practitioners exploit engrained religious symbology. This is evident in “sixth mass extinction” propaganda. Cabbalistic numerology fixates on the passage of six to seven. The sixth yom of Creation was followed by the Sabbath. The six millennia of tribulations are followed by the Jubilee. This sixth mass extinction will surely be our last.
After an early 20th century nadir millenarianism filtered back into scientific discourse. This disguised attack on science manifests in astronomy, cosmology, ecology, climatology and math (catastrophe theory).
In 1977 Alvarez hatched his asteroid caper amidst a zeitgeist saturated with eco-apocalyptic propaganda supplemented by mega-hyped screeds like The Late Great Planet Earth (25 million copies sold) and the syzygy scare, The Jupiter Effect (which also sold millions).
Sociology of Science professor Elisabeth Clemens (William Clemens’ daughter) enlivened the fray with poignant commentary about how politics corrupts science. She claims Alvarez’s hypothesis received lavish attention because it buttressed trending climate catastrophe narratives.
Institutions of science popularization, especially science journalism, steer professional scientific research – it’s not the other way around. Dig into highfalutin, jargon-dense papers from august specialised science journals, and you shall unearth: agenda-driven pop science baubles.
Browne, Malcolm. The Debate over Dinosaur Extinction Takes an Unusually Rancorous Turn; New York Times, January 19, 1988
Clemens, Elisabeth. The Impact Hypothesis and Popular Science: Conditions and Consequences of Interdisciplinary Debate; in William Glen’s The Mass Extinction Debate How Science Works in a Crisis; Stanford University Press, Stanford, California, 1994.
Clemens, Elisabeth. Of Asteroids and Dinosaurs: The Role of the Press in Shaping Scientific Debate; Social Studies of Science, 1986.
Clemens W et al. Late Cretaceous Extinctions; American Scientist, 1982.
Clemens W. Patterns of extinction and survival of the terrestrial biota during the Cretaceous/Tertiary transition; Geological Society of America, 1982.
Clemens W et al. Cretaceous Extinctions: Multiple Causes; Science, 2010.
Fellman, Bruce. Shootout at the K/T Boundary; The Scientist, October 3, 1988.
Glen, William. What Killed the Dinosaurs? American Scientist, July/August 1990.
Hildebrand, Alan et al. Chicxulub Crater: A possible Cretaceous/Tertiary boundary impact on the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico; Geology, September 1, 1991.
International Commission on Stratigraphy
Officer, CB. Terminal Cretaceous environmental events; Science, 1985.
Officer, CB. Late Cretaceous and paroxysmal Cretaceous/Tertiary extinctions; Nature, 1987.
Officer, CB et al. Distribution of noble metals across the Cretaceous/Tertiary boundary at Gubbio, Italy; Geology, 1988.
Officer, CB et al. Deposition of channel deposits near the cretaceous-Tertiary boundary in northeast Mexico: catastrophic or “normal” sedimentary deposits?; Geoscience World, 1993.
Officer, CB, Meyerhoff A. A. Chicxulub Structure, Geology, 1994.
Schulte, Peter et al. The Chicxulub Asteroid Impact and Mass Extinction at the Cretaceous-Paleogene Boundary; Science, March 5, 2010.
PRINCIPIA SCIENTIFIC INTERNATIONAL, legally registered in the UK as a company incorporated for charitable purposes. Head Office: 27 Old Gloucester Street, London WC1N 3AX.