INTRODUCTION – EXTINCTIONS
by: Charles O’Dale
An extinction event (also known as a mass extinction or biotic crisis) is a widespread and rapid decrease in the amount of life on earth. Such an event is identified by a sharp change in the diversity and abundance of macroscopic life. It occurs when the rate of extinction increases with respect to the rate of speciation. Because the majority of diversity and biomass on Earth is microbial, and thus difficult to measure, recorded extinction events affect the easily observed, biologically complex component of the biosphere rather than the total diversity.
Over 98% of documented species are now extinct, but extinction occurs at an uneven rate. Based on the fossil record, the background rate of extinctions on Earth is about two to five taxonomic families of marine invertebrates and vertebrates every million years. Marine fossils are mostly used to measure extinction rates because of their superior fossil record and stratigraphic range compared to land organisms.
Since life began on Earth, several major mass extinctions have significantly exceeded the background extinction rate. In the past 540 million years there have been five major events when over 50% of animal species died. Mass extinctions seem to be a Phanerozoic phenomenon, with extinction rates low before large complex organisms arose. Estimates of the number of major mass extinctions in the last 540 million years range from as few as five to more than twenty. These differences stem from the threshold chosen for describing an extinction event as “major”, and the data chosen to measure past diversity.
The Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event, which occurred approximately 66 million years ago (Ma), was a large-scale mass extinction of animal and plant species in a geologically short period of time. It is generally believed that the K-Pg extinction was triggered by a massive comet/asteroid impact and its catastrophic effects on the global environment, including a lingering impact winter that made it impossible for plants and plankton to carry out photosynthesis. Various other impacts might also be associated with extinction events.
Evidence that an impact event may have caused the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event has led to speculation that similar impacts may have been the cause of other extinction events, including the P–Tr extinction, and therefore to a search for evidence of impacts at the times of other extinctions and for large impact craters of the appropriate age. Below I have listed impact structures whose ages coincide with recorded extinctions. Evidence for a related impact, if any, is documented.