News Notes
Tertiary acid rain survivors

When an asteroid smashed into the Yucatan peninsula near Chicxulub, Mexico, 65 million years ago, the resulting fireball vaporized thousands of gigatons of rock, much with high sulfur content. The blast launched the rocky debris high into the atmosphere, where it produced sulfate aerosols and precipitated acid rain. Geologists partially credit the tremendous impact (called the K-T impact) and its many consequences with the mass extinction that marked the end of the Cretaceous. Yet while many marine and terrestrial species, including the dinosaurs, went extinct, others somehow managed to escape unharmed — including many freshwater organisms that should have been particularly susceptible to acid rain, just as their descendants are today. This paradox has proved problematic for most theories of impact extinction.

Now geochemists Teruyuki Maruoka, of Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., and Christian Koeberl, of the University of Vienna in Austria, have revisited the longstanding question of how some freshwater species could have survived rain with a pH potentially as low as battery acid.

In an article published in the June issue of Geology, Maruoka and Koeberl suggest that the mineral larnite (Ca2SiO4) formed in the vapor plume following the K-T impact and neutralized enough acid to make water safe for freshwater species within hours of the blast.

Larnite is a member of the orthosilicate group, the fastest acid buffers of all the silicates. It forms when carbonate rock becomes metamorphosed by exposure to magma or when crystals precipitate out of a high-temperature melt that has undergone rapid cooling, such as a vapor plume.

According to the authors, shortly after the blast, spherules of larnite would have condensed out of the melt, falling to Earth and sinking to the bottom of water bodies. In shallow freshwater environments such as lakes, ponds and streams, as well as in near-shore marine environments, the larnite would have remained close enough to the surface to buffer acid rain. In the deep ocean, however, larnite would have sunk below the mixing zone and offered little buffering capacity for acid rain near the surface. On land, green plants would have gained no protection from acid rain.

“The new model proposed by Maruoka and Koeberl is thus very interesting,” says Lionel Cavin, a paleontologist at London’s Natural History Museum, “because it can explain one of the weaknesses of the (impact extinction) hypothesis, that is, the absence of strong extinctions in freshwater environments due to acidification.”

Because the impact occurred on siliceous continental crust overlain by a 3-kilometer-thick sequence of carbonates and evaporites, the vapor plume would have been enriched with calcium and sulfur. “The impact penetrated this sequence, and, therefore, the vapor plume also incorporated the materials of the basement rock,” Maruoka says. “The SiO2 [silicate] for the larnite was supplied by the projectile and the basement rock.”

To test their theory, Maruoka and Koeberl considered the speed of acid neutralization in the worst-case scenario for freshwater life — where all of the sulfur liberated by the impact was immediately converted to sulfuric acid and fell back to Earth.

Using data from previous studies of the melt chemistry of the plume they assumed 330 to 650 gigatons of larnite were present as spherules. According to their calculations, this amount would have been more than enough to consume most sulfuric and nitric acid related to the K-T impact and raise the pH of freshwater environments to levels safe for life.

Researchers have not yet found larnite at the Chicxulub impact site. However, they have found it at other impact sites that involved a carbonate-dominated target like Chicxulub.

Sara Pratt
Geotimes contributing writer

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