Was a giant comet responsible for a North American catastrophe in 11000 BC?

Apr 01, 2010 by Robert Massey
HST image of fragment B of Comet Schwassmann-Wachmann 3. Credit: NASA / ESA / H. Weaver (JHU/APL) / M. Mutchler / Z. Levay (STScI)

(PhysOrg.com) -- 13,000 years ago the Earth was struck by thousands of Tunguska-sized cometary fragments over the course of an hour, leading to a dramatic cooling of the planet, according to astronomer Professor Bill Napier of the Cardiff University Astrobiology Centre. He presents his new model in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

The cooling, by as much as 8°C, interrupted the warming which was occurring at the end of the last and caused glaciers to readvance. Evidence has been found that this catastrophic change was associated with some extraordinary extraterrestrial event. The boundary is marked by the occurrence of a "black mat" layer a few centimetres thick found at many sites throughout the United States containing high levels of soot indicative of continental-scale wildfires, as well as microscopic hexagonal diamonds (nanodiamonds) which are produced by shocks and are only found in meteorites or impact craters. These findings led to the suggestion that the catastrophic changes of that time were caused by the impact of an asteroid or 4 km across on the Laurentide ice sheet, which at that time covered what would become Canada and the northern part of the United States.

The cooling lasted over a thousand years, and its onset coincides with the rapid extinction of 35 genera of North American mammals, as well as the disruption of the Palaeoindian culture. The chief objection to the idea of a big impact is that the odds against the Earth being struck by an asteroid this large only 13,000 years ago are a thousand to one against. And the heat generated by the rising fireball would be limited by the curvature of the horizon and could not explain the continent-wide occurrence of wildfires.

Professor Napier has now come up with an astronomical model which accounts for the major features of the catastrophe without involving such an improbable event. According to his model, the Earth ran into a dense trail of material from a large disintegrating comet. He points out that there is compelling evidence that such a comet entered the inner planetary system between 20 000 and 30 000 years ago and has been fragmenting ever since, giving rise to a number of closely related meteor streams and comoving asteroids known as the Taurid Complex.

In the course of the giant comet's disintegration, the environment of the interplanetary system would have been hazardous and the Earth would probably have run through at least one dense swarm of cometary material. The new model indicates that such an encounter would last for about an hour during which thousands of impacts would take place over continental dimensions, each releasing the energy of a megaton-class nuclear bomb, generating the extensive wildfires which took place at that time. The nanodiamonds at the extinction boundary would then be explained as having come in with the comet swarm.

One recent meteorite is known which may have come from this giant comet progenitor: the Tagish Lake meteorite, which fell over Yukon Territory in January 2000. It has the highest abundance of nanodiamonds of any so far analysed.

Professor Napier sums up his model: "A large comet has been disintegrating in the near-Earth environment for the past 20,000 to 30,000 years, and running into thousands of fragments from this comet is a much more likely event than a single large collision. It gives a convincing match to the major geophysical features at this boundary."

Explore further: Asteroid Apophis could experience landslides when it passes near Earth

More information: The paper will appear in journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. A preprint can be seen at arxiv.org/abs/1003.0744

Related Stories

How a cometary boulder lit up the Spanish sky

Feb 13, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- Last July, people in Spain, Portugal and France watched the brilliant fireball produced by a boulder crashing down through the Earth’s atmosphere. In a paper to be published in the journal ...

NASA probe could reveal comet life, scientists claim

Jun 29, 2005

UK team say Deep Impact will reveal organic matter Cardiff (UK) scientists are playing a major role in a NASA mission, which they believe could reveal living matter in the icy layers beneath the surface of a comet. NASA's D ...

Spitzer Telescope Sees Trail of Comet Crumbs

May 11, 2006

NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope has snapped a picture of the bits and pieces making up Comet 73P/Schwassman-Wachmann 3, which is continuing to break apart on its periodic journey around the sun. The new infrared ...

New Comet Discovered from Mauna Kea

Dec 05, 2005

While searching for "killer asteroids" on Halloween night, University of Hawaii astronomer Fabrizio Bernardi found a new comet, the first discovered from Mauna Kea Observatories.

Recommended for you

NASA image: Sunrise from the International Space Station

40 minutes ago

NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman posted this image of a sunrise, captured from the International Space Station, to social media on Oct. 29, 2014. Wiseman wrote, "Not every day is easy. Yesterday was a tough one. ...

Copernicus operations secured until 2021

1 hour ago

In a landmark agreement for Europe's Copernicus programme, the European Commission and ESA have signed an Agreement of over €3 billion to manage and implement the Copernicus 'space component' between 2014 ...

Steering ESA satellites clear of space debris

1 hour ago

Improved collision warnings for its Earth observation missions means ESA controllers can now take more efficient evasive action when satellites are threatened by space junk.

User comments : 4

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

otto1923
5 / 5 (4) Apr 01, 2010
"Ice sheet melt identified as trigger of Big Freeze
March 31, 2010
The main cause of a rapid global cooling period, known as the Big Freeze or Younger Dryas - which occurred nearly 13,000 years ago - has been identified thanks to the help of an academic at the University of Sheffield."
-Is this the same event? Are these guys at odds with each other? Did comets cause the great flood? Does somebody need to make a few phone calls?
fourthrocker
1 / 5 (2) Apr 02, 2010
This article sounds like a nibiru theory. Also, what do the odds have to do with it? You could use that argument to say we have never been hit, odds are the craters were formed by something else.
Shootist
2.3 / 5 (3) Apr 02, 2010
"Ice sheet melt identified as trigger of Big Freeze
March 31, 2010
The main cause of a rapid global cooling period, known as the Big Freeze or Younger Dryas - which occurred nearly 13,000 years ago - has been identified thanks to the help of an academic at the University of Sheffield."
-Is this the same event? Are these guys at odds with each other? Did comets cause the great flood? Does somebody need to make a few phone calls?


At odds with each other? No. The putative comet caused the flood.
mikedraghici
1 / 5 (3) Apr 02, 2010
Cosmic Impact Site That Created Earth’s Axial Tilt and Fault Lines

Abstract: Using Google Earth and browsing the geographic appearance of the Earth’s crust starting from the South Pacific Ocean right above Antarctica and traveling over to Drake’s Passage and into the South Atlantic Ocean there seems to be a visual trace that some sort of cosmic collision occurred in that area. The impact of the object surfed across the ocean and collided with the bottom of South America where it once connected to Antarctica creating Drake’s Passage opening. This impact also may have had the kinetic energy to break the Earth’s crustal plate and create the fault lines in addition to changing Earth’s axial tilt. [Report and Opinion. 2010;2(2):1-2]. (ISSN: 1553-9873).

http://www.scienc..._1_2.pdf

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.