Sciency Words: The K-T Event

May 20, 2016

Sciency Words MATH

Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words. Each week, we take a closer look at an interesting science or science-related term to help us all expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s term is:

THE K-T EVENT

You already know this story. It was 65 million years ago. There were dinosaurs, there was an asteroid…

It’s easily the most famous asteroid impact in Earth’s history, and it’s called the K-T Event, or sometimes the K-Pg Event.

In geology shorthand, the letters stand for:

  • K: the Cretaceous period, which is spelled with a K in German. This was the last period of geological history in which dinosaurs roamed the Earth.
  • T: the Tertiary period, which immediately followed the Cretaceous. According to the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS), we’re not supposed to use this name anymore, but people still do. It’s sort of like how some people keep calling Pluto a planet, no matter what the International Astronomy Union (IAU) says.
  • Pg: the Paleogene period, which is the period immediately following the Cretaceous according to the ICS’s new list of geological periods. Please note, the Tertiary and Paleogene are not really interchangeable terms. They have the same starting point, but different end points.

Geologists and paleontologists puzzled for decades over a layer of clay separating Cretaceous and Tertiary (or Paleogene) rock. They called it the K-T boundary. There were several competing hypotheses about what might have caused this boundary and how it related to the mass extinction event that killed off the dinosaurs.

Then in 1980, a paper came out entitled “Extraterrestrial Cause for the Cretaceous-Tertiary Extinction.” This paper reported the discovery that the K-T boundary contained abnormally high levels of the element iridium.

Platinum group metals like iridium are extremely rare on Earth (except in the planet’s core) but common in asteroids. So whenever you find lots of iridium in Earth’s crust, you can justifiably assume an asteroid put it there.

The most likely scenario is that a large asteroid, about 10 km in diameter, smashed into Earth, flinging dust and debris high into Earth’s atmosphere. Enough to block out the sun worldwide for several years. This global dust cloud would have included plenty of material from the asteroid itself, which would have been partially vaporized by the heat of the impact.

A major problem with the original 1980 paper was that, at the time, no known impact crater of the appropriate age was sufficiently large. But of course, that was back in 1980. The crater has since been found in the Yucatan Peninsula, and now just about everybody knows the story of the K-T Event (even if they don’t know it’s called that).

P.S.: The K-T Event is not to be confused with the Katie Event. You know, that time your BFF Katie had waaaaay too much to drink and threw a temper tantrum of apocalyptic proportions.

Addendum: While there does seem to be general, widespread consensus that the K-T asteroid impact either caused the extinction of the dinosaurs or contributed significantly to their demise, there is not universal agreement. As Planetary Defense Commander notes in the comments, there are other possibilities worth considering.