Younger Dryas impact hypothesis

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The Younger Dryas impact hypothesis, also known as the Clovis comet hypothesis, is one of the competing scientific explanations for the onset of the Younger Dryas cold period after the last glacial period. The hypothesis, which scientists continue to debate, proposes that the climate of that time was cooled by the impact or air burst of one or more comets.[1][2][3]

The general hypothesis states that about 12,900 BP calibrated (10,900 14C uncalibrated) years ago, air burst(s) or impact(s) from a near-Earth object(s) set areas of the North American continent on fire, disrupted climate and caused the Quaternary extinction event in North America. This resulted in the extinction of most of the megafauna, and the rapid demise of the North American Clovis culture.[4] The Younger Dryas ice age lasted for about 1,200 years before the climate warmed again. These events are also seen as part of the Holocene extinction phenomenon.

One or more big explosions may have occurred above or possibly on the Laurentide Ice Sheet in the region of the Great Lakes. Though no major impact crater has been identified, the proponents argue that it would be physically possible for such an air burst to have been similar to but orders of magnitude larger than the Tunguska event of 1908.[5][6] The hypothesis proposed that animal and human life in North America not directly killed by the blast or the resulting wildfires would have suffered due to the disrupted ecologic relationships affecting the continent.

The impact of this postulated event (or series of events) goes beyond the Americas. A number of studies reported evidence of this impact around the world. For example, James Wittke et al. argued for the deposition of impact spherules 12,800 years ago across four continents, including Europe and the Middle East.[7]


The evidence in favour of a meteoric impact initiating the Younger Dryas cooling period includes carbon-rich layers of soil that have been found at some 50 Clovis sites across North America. Dalton and Wittke reported that layers containing anomalous materials (nanodiamonds, metallic microspherules, carbon spherules, magnetic spherules, iridium, charcoal, soot, and fullerenes enriched in helium-3) were discovered at the very bottom of the 'black mats' of organic material that mark the beginning of the Younger Dryas.[8][9] It has been claimed that these anomalous materials cannot be explained by volcanic, anthropogenic, or other natural processes, and were therefore evidence of an impact event.[3]

Prof Richard Firestone performed a similar analysis of seven 'black mat' sites and fifteen Carolina Bay sites, which all showed increased concentrations of carbon spherules, vitreous charcoal, magnetic microspherules, nanodiamonds, iridium, fullerenes and extraterrestrial helium, which are all indicative of an extraterrestrial impact and associated biomass burning at the onset to the Younger Dryas. Although Firestone did acknowledge that previous OSL dating of the Carolina Bays suggested that they predated the Younger Dryas.[10]

Additional data supporting the synchronous nature of the black mats, plus the simultaneous and catastrophic nature of the American Megafauna and Clovis Man extinctions was published the following year by Prof Vance Haynes. Haynes said of the catastrophic events that marked the beginning of the Younger Dryas cooling:

The megafaunal extinction and the Clovis-Folsom transition (extinction) appear to have occurred in less than 100 years, perhaps much less ... This implies that extinction of the Rancholabrean megafauna was geologically instantaneous and essentially catastrophic.[11]

No skeletal remains of horse, camel, mammoth, mastodon, dire wolf, American lion, short-faced bear, sloth, tapir, etc:, or Clovis artifacts have ever been found in situ within the YD age black mat, and no post-Clovis Paleoindian artifacts have ever been found in situ stratigraphically below it.[12]

Despite the almost instantaneous nature of these extinctions, Haynes remained skeptical of the meteoric impact hypothesis as the cause of the Younger Dryas and the megafaunal extinction, but concluded by saying: "However, I reiterate, something major happened at 10,900 B.P. (14C uncalibrated) that we have yet to understand."[13]

More recent research has reported that at Lake Cuitzeo in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato, evidence supporting a modified version of the Younger Dryas impact hypothesis – involving a much smaller, non-cometary impactor – was found in lake bed cores dating to 12,900 BP. The evidence again included nanodiamonds (including the hexagonal form called lonsdaleite), carbon spherules, and magnetic spherules. Multiple hypotheses were examined to account for these observations, though none were believed to be terrestrial. Lonsdaleite occurs naturally in asteroids and cosmic dust and as a result of extraterrestrial impacts on Earth. The analysis of the study has not been confirmed or repeated by other researchers.[14]

A 100-fold spike in the concentration of platinum has also been found in Greenland ice cores, dated to 12,890 BP with 5 year accuracy. The source of the platinum has not yet been identified, but the researchers ruled out either earth's mantle or stony meteorites (chondrites). The researchers said the source could be from an iron-rich impactor that probably would have left a crater of "few kilometers" in diameter, but none has so far been identified.[15][16]

Consequences of hypothetical impact[edit]

It is conjectured that this impact event brought about the extinction of many North American Pleistocene megafauna. These animals included camels, mammoths, the giant short-faced bear and numerous other species that the proponents suggest died at this time.[17] The proposed markers for the impact event are claimed to appear at the end of the Clovis culture.[18] However, some large animals survived that time period.[19]

History of the hypothesis[edit]

Forest destroyed by the prototypical Tunguska airburst event

The genesis of the Younger Dryas impact hypothesis (or early Holocene impact hypothesis as it was sometimes called) goes back to the 1930s. The first to highlight this possibility Melton, Schriever, MacCarthy and Prouty in the 1930s; they were followed by Wells, Boyce and Houry in the 1950s; Eyton and Parkhurst in the 1970s; and then Howard, West, Firestone and Kennett in the 2000s.

In his work on the Lehner Mammoth-Kill Site near Hereford, Arizona, Emil Haury found Clovis point artifacts buried by a distinctive black clay layer, which was named 'Lehner swamp soil'. This black soil was associated with a subhumid climate and ponding.[20] Prof Vance Haynes subsequently studied this phenomenon and renamed this strata the 'black mat'. Over 60 geoarchaeological sites bridging the Pleistocene-Holocene transition (the last deglaciation) exhibit this 'black mat', which is a black organic-rich layer containing mollic paleosols, aquolls, and diatomites. This layer typically overlies strata within which the last remnants of the terminal Pleistocene megafauna are recorded, and it has been accurately dated to 12.9 ky ago. (Haynes quotes 10.9 kyr ago, uncalibrated.)[13]

The full description and extension of this hypothesis was published in a 2006 book entitled The Cycle of Cosmic Catastrophes by Firestone et al.[1] In the following year, a paper by the same authors suggested that the onset of Younger Dryas cooling, the extinction of the megafauna, and the appearance of a black mat, strongly suggested that these events were directly related.[10] Additional data supporting the synchronous nature of the black mats, plus the simultaneous and catastrophic nature of the American Megafauna and Clovis Man extinctions was published the following year by Prof Vance Haynes (not to be confused with Prof. Gary Haynes). Haynes demonstrated that the catastrophic events that marked the beginning of the Younger Dryas cooling were almost instantaneous. However, Haynes remained skeptical of the meteoric impact hypothesis as the cause of the Younger Dryas and the megafaunal extinction, but concluded by saying: "However, I reiterate, something major happened at 10,900 B.P. (14C uncalibrated) that we have yet to understand."[13]

In 2009 further Transmission electron microscopy evidence purported to show nanodiamonds from a layer assumed to correspond to the geologic moment of the event was published in the journal Science.[21] Also, in the same issue, D.J. Kennett reported that the nano-diamonds were evidence for bolide impacts from a rare swarm of carbonaceous chondrites or comets at the start of Younger Dryas, resulting from multiple airbursts and surface impacts. This resulted in substantial loss of plant life, megafauna, and other animals.[4] This study has been strenuously disputed by mainstream scientists for a variety of technical and professional reasons. Scientific skepticism increased with the revelation of documentation demonstrating misconduct and past criminal conduct (conviction for fraud and misrepresentation of credentials) by the researcher who prepared samples for the proponents of the hypothesis.[22] However, those charges were later dismissed and expunged by the court.[23][24]

The disputing scientists claim that the study's conclusions could not be repeated, that further research suggests that no nanodiamonds were found,[25] and that the supposed carbon spherules were, in fact, either fungus or insect feces and included modern contaminants.[26][27] A re-evaluation published by the original proponents in June 2013 of spherules from 18 sites worldwide is seen by them as supporting their hypothesis.[9] In 2014, Kinzie, and an international collaboration of scientists published in The Journal of Geology research arguing that they had found what they interpreted to be "a thin layer over three continents, particularly in North America and Western Europe, that contain a rich assemblage of nanodiamonds, the production of which can be explained only by cosmic impact," [28][29]


Researchers have criticized the conclusions of various studies for incorrect age-dating of the sediments,[30] contamination by modern carbon, and inconsistent hypothesis that made it difficult to predict the type and size of bolide,[31] lack of proper identification of lonsdaleite,[32] confusing an extraterrestrial impact with other causes such as fire,[33] and for inconsistent use of the carbon spherule "proxy".[34] Naturally occurring lonsdaleite has also been identified in non-bolide diamond placer deposits in the Sakha Republic.[35]

One study of Paleoindian demography found no evidence of a population decline among the Paleoindians at 12,900 ± 100 BP, which was inconsistent with predictions of an impact event.[36] They suggested that the hypothesis would probably need to be revised.[37][38] But this claim was contradicted by Professor Vance Haynes' analysis of the Black Mats that mark the Younger Dryas (YD). Professor Haynes stated that the Black Mat stratum marked an unambiguous transition from Clovis Man to Paleoindian, indicating that there had been a profound change at this time. (Note: this paper uses uncorrected carbon dates.):

No skeletal remains of horse, camel, mammoth, mastodon, dire wolf, American lion, short-faced bear, sloth, tapir, etc:, or Clovis artifacts have ever been found in situ within the YD age black mat, and no post-Clovis Paleoindian artifacts have ever been found in situ stratigraphically below it.[39]

There is also no evidence of continent-wide wildfires at any time during terminal Pleistocene deglaciation,[40] along with evidence that most larger wildfires had a human origin,[40] which calls into question the origin of the "black mat."[41] Iridium, magnetic minerals, microspherules, carbon, and nanodiamonds are all subject to differing interpretations as to their nature and origin, and may be explained in many cases by purely terrestrial or non-catastrophic factors.[42]

Timing of the megafaunal extinctions[edit]

If it is assumed that the hypothesis supposes that all effects of the putative impact on Earth's biota would have been brief, all extinctions caused by the impact should have occurred simultaneously. However, there is much evidence that the megafaunal extinctions that occurred across northern Eurasia, North America and South America at the end of the Pleistocene were not synchronous. The extinctions in South America appear to have occurred at least 400 years after the extinctions in North America.[38]:1–20[43][44] The extinction of woolly mammoths in Siberia also appears to have occurred later than in North America.[17] A greater disparity in extinction timings is apparent in island megafaunal extinctions that lagged nearby continental extinctions by thousands of years; examples include the survival of woolly mammoths on Wrangel Island, Russia, until 3700 BP,[17][43][45] and the survival of ground sloths in the Antilles,[46] the Caribbean, until 4700 cal BP.[17] The Australian megafaunal extinctions occurred approximately 30,000 years earlier than the hypothetical Younger Dryas event.[47]

The megafaunal extinction pattern observed in North America poses a problem for the bolide impact scenario, since it raises the question why large mammals should be preferentially exterminated over small mammals or other vertebrates.[48] Additionally, some extant megafaunal species such as bison and Brown bear seem to have been little affected by the extinction event, while the environmental devastation caused by a bolide impact would not be expected to discriminate.[17] Also, it appears that there was collapse in North American megafaunal population from 14,800 to 13,700 BP, well before the date of the hypothetical extraterrestrial impact,[49] possibly from anthropogenic activities, including hunting.[18]

Possible misidentification of particles[edit]

Scientists have asserted that the carbon spherules originated as fungal structures and/or insect fecal pellets, and contained modern contaminants[26][27] and that the claimed nanodiamonds are actually misidentified graphene and graphene/graphane oxide aggregates.[25][50] An analysis of a similar Younger Dryas boundary layer in Belgium yielded carbon crystalline structures such as nanodiamonds, but the authors concluded that also did not show unique evidence for a bolide impact.[51] Researchers have also not found any extraterrestrial platinum group metals in the boundary layer. The presence of such metals would be consistent with the hypothesized impact event.[52] Further independent analysis was unable to confirm prior claims of magnetic particles and microspherules, concluding that there was no evidence for a Younger Dryas impact event.[53] The results of Surveil were disputed by LeCompte et al. (PNAS, 2012) who found Surveil et al. did not follow the correct protocol by failing to size-sort the magnetic grains and then verifying them with an electron microscope. LeCompte et al. found elevated abundances of magnetic spherules in the Younger Dryas dated layer, consistent with the Firestone et al. results, at two sites tested by Both Firestone and Surveil, where Surveil had found none: Black Water Draw, NM and Topper, SC. In the same paper, LeCompte also reported abundant spherules at another site, Paw Paw Cove in Maryland where Survey again found none. Andronikov et al. 2016, tested for elevated YDB spherule abundance and replicated the Firestone results, at Black Water Draw: 2016 Swedish Society for Anthropology and Geography 1 DOI:10.1111/geoa.12122

They state:

"The presence of a high number of the hollow magnetic microspherules can be used for identification of the LYDB. Although some scientists failed to find any microspherules at all along the LYDB in the BWD-1 site (Surovell et al. 2009), others reported strongly elevated concentrations of themagnetic microspherules here (Firestone et al. 2007; LeCompte et al. 2012). Our observations confirm those made by Firestone et al. (2007) and LeCompte et al. (2012)."

Other research has shown no support for the impact hypothesis. One group examined carbon-14 dates for charcoal particles that showed wildfires occurred well after the proposed impact date, and the glass-like carbon was produced by wildfires and no lonsdaleite was found.[54]

Research published in 2012 has shown that the so-called "black mats" are easily explained by typical earth processes in wetland environments.[55] The study of black mats, that are common in prehistorical wetland deposits which represent shallow marshlands, that were from 6000 to 40,000 years ago in the southwestern USA and Atacama Desert in Chile, showed elevated concentrations of iridium and magnetic sediments, magnetic spherules and titanomagnetite grains. It was suggested that because these markers are found within or at the base of black mats, irrespective of age or location, suggests that these markers arise from processes common to wetland systems, and probably not as a result of catastrophic bolide impacts.[55]

A 2013 study found a spike in platinum in Greenland ice. The authors of that study conclude that such a small impact of an iron meteorite is "unlikely to result in an airburst or trigger wide wildfires proposed by the YDB (Younger Dryas Boundary) impact hypothesis."[16]

Recent debates[edit]

Recently new studies were published in the matter of the YDB impact hypothesis, criticizing the methodology and pointing to inconsistencies regarding the chronological data.[56][57][58] This new research, which analyzed sediments claimed, by the hypothesis proponents, to be deposits resulting from a bolide impact were, in fact, dated from much later or much earlier time periods than the proposed date of the cosmic impact. The researchers examined 29 sites that are commonly referenced to support the impact theory to determine if they can be geologically dated to around 13,000 years ago. Crucially, only three of the sites actually date from that time. According to the researchers, the Younger Dryas impact event evidence "fails the critical chronological test of an isochronous event at the Younger Dryas onset, which, coupled with the many published concerns about the extraterrestrial origin of the purported impact markers, renders the Younger Dryas impact hypothesis unsupported. There is no reason or compelling evidence to accept the claim that a cosmic impact occurred about 12,800 years ago and caused the Younger Dryas."[56] These same studies were addressed and replied by Kennett and his colleagues, still advocating the validity of the YDB impact hypothesis.[59]

See also[edit]


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