After an asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs, volcanic eruption may have helped life flourish on Earth

An artist's depiction of the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs.
(Image credit: NASA/Don Davis)

A massive meteorite impact and extreme volcanic activity occurred around the same time that Earth's large dinosaurs went extinct. But, did the volcanic activity play a role in the mass extinction, or did it actually help new life to flourish

Sixty-six million years ago, an asteroid smashed into Earth, creating the Chicxulub crater, which is 124 miles (200 kilometers) wide and is now buried underneath the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico. The aftereffects of the impact caused a mass extinction, decimating Earth's dinosaur population. Just around this same time (within less than a million years), about 310,685 miles (500,000 km) of lava erupted from the Deccan Traps, a large, igneous volcanic province, and flowed over most of India and into the ocean. 

Researchers in a new study have taken a closer look at what actually caused the mass extinction event, and whether or not the volcanic activity at the Deccan Traps, which happened to occur at a similar time, could've helped to shape the future of life on our planet. 

Related: Asteroid Impacts Bring Fire and Life (Video)

Asteroids and volcanoes

Scientists continue to debate and study the relationship between these two catastrophic events. Are the impact and volcanic activity actually related to each other? "The short answer is, it looks like an amazing coincidence," Pincelli Hull, an author on this new study, told, referring to the short amount of time between the two events. "But people keep trying to figure out if they're mechanistically linked, at least in part."

According to this new study, there is still no concrete consensus on how (or if) the two events might have been related, and it's possible that the volcanic activity might have also contributed to the mass extinction. It's likely, however, that the asteroid impact was the primary cause of the extinction. 

Turning back the clock

To come to this conclusion, the team focused on outgassing from the volcanic event — the release of gases during a volcanic eruption. They were able to model and analyze the effects that the eruption's carbon dioxide and sulfur emissions had on global temperatures over time. 

When the team members compared the results from their simulations and models with records of global temperatures throughout this time, they found that at least 50% of the outgassing from the Deccan Traps occurred well before the meteorite impact. So, only the asteroid impact happened at the same time as the mass extinction event.

Life after catastrophe

In addition to finding evidence to support the theory that the meteorite impact was the main cause of the mass extinction event, the team also found that volcanic gases from the Deccan traps could've supported the flourishing of different species after the mass extinction. 

By figuring out the timing of this outgassing, the team found evidence to support the theory that "post-event volcanism suggests a role for volcanism in the delayed recovery of biodiversity," the authors said in the study

The authors suggest that the volcanic activity and gases released from the activity would've caused changes in the carbon cycle, which would've allowed the ocean to absorb a lot of carbon dioxide. Being able to see a timeline of global temperatures throughout this time and compare them with their own simulations, they suggest that this could've limited global warming that would've otherwise occurred. 

In limiting more extreme global warming, "Deccan volcanism might have contributed to shaping [the rise of Cenozoic species and communities] during the extinction aftermath," the study authors said in a press statement

It's possible that there could be other explanations for how life on Earth developed following this mass extinction, Hull told She said that it's possible that this volcanic activity was happening and causing these climate effects, but the activity didn't affect diversification of life on land or in the ocean. However, this new study does show how it could've been possible. 

This work was published yesterday (Jan. 16) in the journal Science.

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Chelsea Gohd
Senior Writer

Chelsea “Foxanne” Gohd joined in 2018 and is now a Senior Writer, writing about everything from climate change to planetary science and human spaceflight in both articles and on-camera in videos. With a degree in Public Health and biological sciences, Chelsea has written and worked for institutions including the American Museum of Natural History, Scientific American, Discover Magazine Blog, Astronomy Magazine and Live Science. When not writing, editing or filming something space-y, Chelsea "Foxanne" Gohd is writing music and performing as Foxanne, even launching a song to space in 2021 with Inspiration4. You can follow her on Twitter @chelsea_gohd and @foxannemusic.

  • jay137
    It would seem plausible to me that an asteroid impact would cause volcanic eruptions somewhere on the opposite side of the planet, like Newtons cradle ...
  • Helio
    The following statement in the article by the paper's authors is something I'd like to better understand...

    article said:
    The authors suggest that the volcanic activity and gases released from the activity would've caused changes in the carbon cycle, which would've allowed the ocean to absorb a lot of carbon dioxide.

    Although I can understand that the SO2 and ash from volcanic activity will help cool a planet, how would adding so much more CO2 to the atmosphere improve how water absorbs it?

    It reminds me of the joke that putting warm water in the freezer will freeze faster than cool water. :)
  • Geomartian

    The Singhbhum Impact Structure. The rock is old but I bet the dikes filling in the fractures are much younger. This looks big enough to cause the Deccan Traps and the level of erosion would fit in with an age near the end of the Cretaceous.

    The Deccan Traps (lava fields) were directly emplaced by a high velocity (>100 kilometers per second) asteroid impact punching through and heating the rock to vaporization. (Not the fictional explanation of pressure release melting).

    The massive ballistic and orbital debris falling into the seas do cause a massive increase in biological (single cell) production as seen in the black shales (source rock for oil). Except that the debris also shuts down photosynthesis long enough to kill all large animals other than scavengers and large reptiles (slow metabolisms).

    This story is another example of the institutional denial that asteroids can directly cause Large Igneous Provinces and volcanoes.

    The Deccan Traps may be one of several Large Igneous Provinces that were emplaced at the K/T boundary. There are indications of other impacts in Antarctica and in the Western United States.

    The extinction at the K/T boundary was severe. The Chicxulub impact in the Yucatan was a relatively minor event that in no way caused this much damage.