The Younger Dryas impact hypothesis

A requiem

Nicholas Pinter, Andrew C. Scott, Tyrone L. Daulton, Andrew Podoll, Christian Koeberl, Scott R Anderson, Scott E. Ishman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

64 Citations (Scopus)

Abstract

The Younger Dryas (YD) impact hypothesis is a recent theory that suggests that a cometary or meteoritic body or bodies hit and/or exploded over North America 12,900. years ago, causing the YD climate episode, extinction of Pleistocene megafauna, demise of the Clovis archeological culture, and a range of other effects. Since gaining widespread attention in 2007, substantial research has focused on testing the 12 main signatures presented as evidence of a catastrophic extraterrestrial event 12,900. years ago. Here we present a review of the impact hypothesis, including its evolution and current variants, and of efforts to test and corroborate the hypothesis.The physical evidence interpreted as signatures of an impact event can be separated into two groups. The first group consists of evidence that has been largely rejected by the scientific community and is no longer in widespread discussion, including: particle tracks in archeological chert; magnetic nodules in Pleistocene bones; impact origin of the Carolina Bays; and elevated concentrations of radioactivity, iridium, and fullerenes enriched in 3He. The second group consists of evidence that has been active in recent research and discussions: carbon spheres and elongates, magnetic grains and magnetic spherules, byproducts of catastrophic wildfire, and nanodiamonds. Over time, however, these signatures have also seen contrary evidence rather than support. Recent studies have shown that carbon spheres and elongates do not represent extraterrestrial carbon nor impact-induced megafires, but are indistinguishable from fungal sclerotia and arthropod fecal material that are a small but common component of many terrestrial deposits. Magnetic grains and spherules are heterogeneously distributed in sediments, but reported measurements of unique peaks in concentrations at the YD onset have yet to be reproduced. The magnetic grains are certainly just iron-rich detrital grains, whereas reported YD magnetic spherules are consistent with the diffuse, non-catastrophic input of micrometeorite ablation fallout, probably augmented by anthropogenic and other terrestrial spherular grains. Results here also show considerable subjectivity in the reported sampling methods that may explain the purported YD spherule concentration peaks. Fire is a pervasive earth-surface process, and reanalyses of the original YD sites and of coeval records show episodic fire on the landscape through the latest Pleistocene, with no unique fire event at the onset of the YD. Lastly, with YD impact proponents increasingly retreating to nanodiamonds (cubic, hexagonal [lonsdaleite], and the proposed n-diamond) as evidence of impact, those data have been called into question. The presence of lonsdaleite was reported as proof of impact-related shock processes, but the evidence presented was inconsistent with lonsdaleite and consistent instead with polycrystalline aggregates of graphene and graphane mixtures that are ubiquitous in carbon forms isolated from sediments ranging from modern to pre-YD age. Important questions remain regarding the origins and distribution of other diamond forms (e.g., cubic nanodiamonds).In summary, none of the original YD impact signatures have been subsequently corroborated by independent tests. Of the 12 original lines of evidence, seven have so far proven to be non-reproducible. The remaining signatures instead seem to represent either (1) non-catastrophic mechanisms, and/or (2) terrestrial rather than extraterrestrial or impact-related sources. In all of these cases, sparse but ubiquitous materials seem to have been misreported and misinterpreted as singular peaks at the onset of the YD. Throughout the arc of this hypothesis, recognized and expected impact markers were not found, leading to proposed YD impactors and impact processes that were novel, self-contradictory, rapidly changing, and sometimes defying the laws of physics. The YD impact hypothesis provides a cautionary tale for researchers, the scientific community, the press, and the broader public.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)247-264
Number of pages18
JournalEarth-Science Reviews
Volume106
Issue number3-4
DOIs
StatePublished - Jun 2011
Externally publishedYes

Fingerprint

Younger Dryas
spherule
carbon
Pleistocene
diamond
terrestrial deposit
micrometeorite
fullerene
iridium
chert
fallout
wildfire
radioactivity
ablation
arthropod
sediment
bone
physics
extinction

Keywords

  • Carbonaceous spherules
  • Impact cratering
  • Impact markers
  • Magnetic spherules
  • Nanodiamonds
  • Sclerotia
  • Wildfire
  • Younger dryas

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Earth and Planetary Sciences(all)

Cite this

Pinter, N., Scott, A. C., Daulton, T. L., Podoll, A., Koeberl, C., Anderson, S. R., & Ishman, S. E. (2011). The Younger Dryas impact hypothesis: A requiem. Earth-Science Reviews, 106(3-4), 247-264. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.earscirev.2011.02.005

The Younger Dryas impact hypothesis : A requiem. / Pinter, Nicholas; Scott, Andrew C.; Daulton, Tyrone L.; Podoll, Andrew; Koeberl, Christian; Anderson, Scott R; Ishman, Scott E.

In: Earth-Science Reviews, Vol. 106, No. 3-4, 06.2011, p. 247-264.

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Pinter, N, Scott, AC, Daulton, TL, Podoll, A, Koeberl, C, Anderson, SR & Ishman, SE 2011, 'The Younger Dryas impact hypothesis: A requiem', Earth-Science Reviews, vol. 106, no. 3-4, pp. 247-264. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.earscirev.2011.02.005
Pinter N, Scott AC, Daulton TL, Podoll A, Koeberl C, Anderson SR et al. The Younger Dryas impact hypothesis: A requiem. Earth-Science Reviews. 2011 Jun;106(3-4):247-264. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.earscirev.2011.02.005
Pinter, Nicholas ; Scott, Andrew C. ; Daulton, Tyrone L. ; Podoll, Andrew ; Koeberl, Christian ; Anderson, Scott R ; Ishman, Scott E. / The Younger Dryas impact hypothesis : A requiem. In: Earth-Science Reviews. 2011 ; Vol. 106, No. 3-4. pp. 247-264.
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N2 - The Younger Dryas (YD) impact hypothesis is a recent theory that suggests that a cometary or meteoritic body or bodies hit and/or exploded over North America 12,900. years ago, causing the YD climate episode, extinction of Pleistocene megafauna, demise of the Clovis archeological culture, and a range of other effects. Since gaining widespread attention in 2007, substantial research has focused on testing the 12 main signatures presented as evidence of a catastrophic extraterrestrial event 12,900. years ago. Here we present a review of the impact hypothesis, including its evolution and current variants, and of efforts to test and corroborate the hypothesis.The physical evidence interpreted as signatures of an impact event can be separated into two groups. The first group consists of evidence that has been largely rejected by the scientific community and is no longer in widespread discussion, including: particle tracks in archeological chert; magnetic nodules in Pleistocene bones; impact origin of the Carolina Bays; and elevated concentrations of radioactivity, iridium, and fullerenes enriched in 3He. The second group consists of evidence that has been active in recent research and discussions: carbon spheres and elongates, magnetic grains and magnetic spherules, byproducts of catastrophic wildfire, and nanodiamonds. Over time, however, these signatures have also seen contrary evidence rather than support. Recent studies have shown that carbon spheres and elongates do not represent extraterrestrial carbon nor impact-induced megafires, but are indistinguishable from fungal sclerotia and arthropod fecal material that are a small but common component of many terrestrial deposits. Magnetic grains and spherules are heterogeneously distributed in sediments, but reported measurements of unique peaks in concentrations at the YD onset have yet to be reproduced. The magnetic grains are certainly just iron-rich detrital grains, whereas reported YD magnetic spherules are consistent with the diffuse, non-catastrophic input of micrometeorite ablation fallout, probably augmented by anthropogenic and other terrestrial spherular grains. Results here also show considerable subjectivity in the reported sampling methods that may explain the purported YD spherule concentration peaks. Fire is a pervasive earth-surface process, and reanalyses of the original YD sites and of coeval records show episodic fire on the landscape through the latest Pleistocene, with no unique fire event at the onset of the YD. Lastly, with YD impact proponents increasingly retreating to nanodiamonds (cubic, hexagonal [lonsdaleite], and the proposed n-diamond) as evidence of impact, those data have been called into question. The presence of lonsdaleite was reported as proof of impact-related shock processes, but the evidence presented was inconsistent with lonsdaleite and consistent instead with polycrystalline aggregates of graphene and graphane mixtures that are ubiquitous in carbon forms isolated from sediments ranging from modern to pre-YD age. Important questions remain regarding the origins and distribution of other diamond forms (e.g., cubic nanodiamonds).In summary, none of the original YD impact signatures have been subsequently corroborated by independent tests. Of the 12 original lines of evidence, seven have so far proven to be non-reproducible. The remaining signatures instead seem to represent either (1) non-catastrophic mechanisms, and/or (2) terrestrial rather than extraterrestrial or impact-related sources. In all of these cases, sparse but ubiquitous materials seem to have been misreported and misinterpreted as singular peaks at the onset of the YD. Throughout the arc of this hypothesis, recognized and expected impact markers were not found, leading to proposed YD impactors and impact processes that were novel, self-contradictory, rapidly changing, and sometimes defying the laws of physics. The YD impact hypothesis provides a cautionary tale for researchers, the scientific community, the press, and the broader public.

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