Drilling Project Studies Dinosaurs' Extinction

Artist's impression of a meteor impact

By MarEx 2016-03-04 22:52:31

This month, an unusual drilling project will commence in the Gulf of Mexico. Rather than drilling for oil, scientists will be drilling into the Chicxulub crater, the buried remnant of the asteroid impact 66 million years ago that is thought to have caused dinosaurs, and many other forms of life, to become extinct. 

The international team of scientists, including researchers from the University of Texas, hope to determine how plant and animal life recovered from the impact. “You can assume that at ground zero of this impact we are dealing with a sterile ocean, and over time life renewed itself. We might learn something for the future,” Research Professor Sean Gulick of University of Texas Institute for Geophysics told CNN.

The team also hopes to determine if the 180-kilometer-wide (125 miles) crater could have become home to new microbial life. Density readings of the rocks indicate that they probably are heavily broken and porous, features that may have served as protected microenvironments for exotic life that could have thrived in the hot, chemically enriched environment of the crater site after impact.

The $10 million project is sponsored by the International Ocean Discovery Program and the International Continental Scientific Drilling Program. 

The offshore operations will commence at the end of the month at a point about 30 kilometers (19 miles) offshore from the Mexican port of Progreso. Drilling will be conducted in water 17 meters (60 feet) and will target a limestone layer 500 meters (1,600 feet) below the sea floor. 

Dinosaurs lived on Earth for 135 million years until 65 million years ago. Around that time, a nine-mile-wide asteroid hit the Earth, triggering a series of apocalyptic events that killed most large animals and plants and wiped out the dinosaurs and large marine reptiles. The event set the stage for mammals, and eventually humans, to diversify and increase in number. 

Scientists believe it may have been a billion times stronger than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The asteroid displaced 48,000 cubic miles of sediment, enough material to fill nearly 17 Lake Superiors. The impact caused earthquakes and tsunamis and covered the Earth in a thick blanket of dust that is thought to have killed off many terrestrial and marine plant species, thus destroying ecosystem processes and ultimately causing around 75 percent of all life forms to die out.

Currently, NASA has a team of scientists searching for potentially deadly asteroids. More than 12,000 objects have been discovered, and about 1,500 might cross Earth's path and are potentially hazardous, according to Jason Kessler, NASA's director of the Grand Challenge who spoke to CNN in June 2015.

A visualization of the immediate and long-term environmental effects of the impact event which marked the end of the Cretaceous period produced by Radek Michalik and David Dolak in collaboration with the Science Institute at Chicago's Columbia College.