Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

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October 16, 2012

Sometimes Mother Nature doubles down on death

Not too long ago I rewrote my will. There’s nothing like such a project to remind me of my mortality. But imagine not just your own individual death, but the finality of the death of all the members of your species.

You’ve likely heard of the mass extinction that removed the non-avian (non-bird) dinosaurs from the face of the Earth some 65 million years ago. There have been other periods, too, of enormous “die offs” in Earth's history. And even apart from times of mass extinction, some species are always going belly-up. In short, most species that have ever lived are now extinct. As I like to say, extinction isn’t rare, but as common as dirt.

If we look at the fossils that are just a bit older than the time of the dinosaurs’ extinction and compare them to the fossils that are just a bit younger, we can see just how different life on Earth became. Organisms in the oceans were particularly hard hit during the great transition, as were plants on land. Interestingly, mammals were comparatively unaffected (go team!).

The first part of an important theory for what happened when the dinosaurs disappeared was put forward in 1980. The idea was that a large meteorite slammed into the Earth. Later research work put the location of the impact in the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico. The meteorite that hit the Yucatan, as the theory goes, carried with it an unusual metal, one that can be found in a narrow layer of sediment that occurs at or near the “boundary” between the dinosaurs’ era and our own.

Soot and ash in Earth’s atmosphere was so strongly increased by the impact event that not much sunlight reached the surface of the planet. Plants died as a result. After them, of course, many animals dependent on the plants gave up the ghost as well.

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