Note: this gets real, guys. Sorry, not sorry.
Here’s a confession: I have anxiety. It’s usually under pretty good control, but in times of high stress in my life, it comes out as eschatological anxiety. Basically, it feels like the world is going to end. It’s a great time. Fortunately (or maybe unfortunately), I’m not the only one who feels this way right now. Between three giant hurricanes, historic flooding in Southeast Asia, an 8.2 magnitude earthquake in Mexico, the ongoing threat of thermonuclear war, half of the Western U.S. being on fire, and literal Nazis on campus, many people share my worries.
My article this week was going to be about how climate change has affected the strength of the hurricanes, but I got too stressed out and couldn’t do it. Journalists more learned than I have already written those stories. Here’s the short version: we aren’t getting any more hurricanes, but the ones we do get are stronger.
The other possible apocalyptic threats are also too terrifying for me to talk about on my light hearted science blog. So what’s a girl to do?
While driving home the other night, the air was smoky. Like, really smoky. I spent a good few seconds staring at the sun because I literally thought it was the moon, it was so pale. Then I realized what I was doing and looked away, but it was really cool looking. Who would have thought that two articles in a row would mention me staring straight into the sun? This isn’t where I thought my life would be 5 years ago.
Anyway. It was pretty spooky. I saw a picture on Facebook that showed all of the wildfires burning on the west coast, and it explained all the smoke. Summary: It’s coming from everywhere, all at once.
While all of this was brewing around in my brain, I couldn’t help but think of a historical event that I don’t spend a lot of time pondering: The Year Without a Summer. In 1816 the largest documented volcano explosion occurred, throwing millions* of cubic miles of debris into the air. It was so large, that the sun was partially blocked from view for three years. Then, it snowed in Europe, in August. Crops didn’t grow, which led to some of the cholera outbreaks I’ve mentioned before; it was an all over bad time for everyone.
What if that happened here? I began to panic. Then I remembered that it was a toasty 96 degrees that day and felt a little better. That made me think about volcanos, which in turn, led me to think about a historical event that I think about so much it’s amazing it didn’t pop into my head first: the dinosaur extinction. Dinos!
When I was a child in the early aughts I was taught that we don’t really know how the dinosaurs died out, there was probably an asteroid? Maybe volcanos? (Note: after doing so much research into how we can’t trust our own memory, I don’t trust mine, so I verified this with a few friends.) Flash forward 15 years to me teaching in France, and I learned that French kids are taught it was 100% vraiment an asteroid. Flash forward again to a few days ago when I decided to research what actually lead to the demise of these “terrible lizards”.
Before the 1980s, there were all kinds of theories. My own personal favorite is the idea that caterpillars came on the scene and ate so many plants that the entire global ecosystem collapsed. Or that aliens killed them all; I like that one too.
Our Earth is a lot like a layered cake in really only one very specific analogy. The surface of the Earth is constantly being covered up and pushed closer to the core, where it eventually melts and becomes magma, which sprays out and becomes another layer. So maybe that analogy didn’t work at all. Scientists can date these layers, which is one easy way to find out how old a fossil is, for example. In the 1980s a team of researchers found a 66 million old layer of iridium, which dates to the exact time when the dinosaurs mysteriously died out. Iridium is interesting because it’s rare, and is generally only found in asteroids.
They took this to conclude that a giant asteroid hit the earth, big enough to spray iridium all over the world, which killed all the dinos. Others said, where’s the crater?
In the 1990s they found a giant crater in the Yucatán Peninsula that dates to, you guessed it, 66 million years ago. Here are some crazy stats: the crater is 120 miles wide, which means the size of the asteroid was six miles across. While that doesn’t seem very large to me in length, it would be as tall as Mount Everest. That’s literally unfathomably large. I cannot fathom it.
While this is pretty good evidence, some experts aren’t convinced. Volcanos were also going crazy between 70 and 65 million years ago, according to lava fields. Volcanos, as previously discussed, are very good at spewing crap into the air and blocking out the sun. Iridium, the smoking gun for the asteroid theory, can also be found deep within the Earth’s crust. Volcanic activity could also bring it to the surface.
Extreme volcanism would have taken place over millions of years, whereas a cataclysmic event would have happened much faster. One would think that the fossil record could tell us which happened, but it is, unfortunately, more like Facebook life events rather than my childhood diary. It’s spotty and leaves out huge chunks of time.
Combine these two big theories with the fact that sea levels were changing and mammals were starting to become competitors, we can tell that the collapse of the Age of Dinosaurs was inevitable. Most paleontologists agree that the asteroid hypothesis is the most likely, but I say why can’t you all get along? It seems like it was probably a combination of all of these factors.
I’d make a great paleontologist.