Science Daily reports on radioactivity research that has found evidence that at least one mass extinction event in Earth’s history was caused not by an asteroid crash, but by cosmic rays from an exploding star:
A new study led by University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign astronomy and physics professor Brian Fields explores the possibility that astronomical events were responsible for an extinction event 359 million years ago, at the boundary between the Devonian and Carboniferous periods.
The team concentrated on the Devonian-Carboniferous boundary because those rocks contain hundreds of thousands of generations of plant spores that appear to be sunburnt by ultraviolet light — evidence of a long-lasting ozone-depletion event.
“Earth-based catastrophes such as large-scale volcanism and global warming can destroy the ozone layer, too, but evidence for those is inconclusive for the time interval in question,” Fields said. “Instead, we propose that one or more supernova explosions, about 65 light-years away from Earth, could have been responsible for the protracted loss of ozone.”
“To put this into perspective, one of the closest supernova threats today is from the star Betelgeuse, which is over 600 light-years away and well outside of the kill distance of 25 light-years,” said graduate student and study co-author Adrienne Ertel.
A supernova, on the other hand, delivers a one-two punch, the researchers said. The explosion immediately bathes Earth with damaging UV, X-rays and gamma rays. Later, the blast of supernova debris slams into the solar system, subjecting the planet to long-lived irradiation from cosmic rays accelerated by the supernova. The damage to Earth and its ozone layer can last for up to 100,000 years.
However, fossil evidence indicates a 300,000-year decline in biodiversity leading up to the Devonian-Carboniferous mass extinction, suggesting the possibility of multiple catastrophes, maybe even multiple supernovae explosions. “This is entirely possible,” Miller said. “Massive stars usually occur in clusters with other massive stars, and other supernovae are likely to occur soon after the first explosion.”
The team said the key to proving that a supernova occurred would be to find the radioactive isotopes plutonium-244 and samarium-146 in the rocks and fossils deposited at the time of extinction. “Neither of these isotopes occurs naturally on Earth today, and the only way they can get here is via cosmic explosions,” said undergraduate student and co-author Zhenghai Liu.