Fossilized seashells show signs of ocean acidification before dinosaur-annihilating asteroid

The Lopez de Bertodano Formation, a fossil-rich area on the west side of Seymour Island, Antarctica.
Credit: Northwestern University

New evidence gleaned from Antarctic seashells confirms that Earth was already unstable before the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs.

The study, led by NSF-funded researchers at Northwestern University, is the first to measure the calcium isotope composition of fossilized clam and , which date back to the Cretaceous-Paleogene  66 million years ago. The researchers found that—in the run-up to the —the chemistry of the shells shifted in response to a surge of carbon in the oceans.

This carbon influx was likely due to long-term eruptions from the Deccan Traps, a 200,000-square-mile volcanic province located in modern India. During the years leading up to the asteroid impact, the Deccan Traps spewed massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The concentration of CO2 acidified the oceans, directly affecting the organisms living there.

“The Earth was clearly under stress before the major mass extinction event,” said Andrew Jacobson, a senior author of the paper. “The  coincides with pre-existing carbon cycle instability. But that doesn’t mean we have answers to what actually caused the extinction.”

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