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Massive Volcanic Eruptions Set Stage for Dinosaurs’ Demise, AI Analysis Finds

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Nov 28, 2023

New research utilizing sophisticated artificial intelligence analysis indicates that a series of massive volcanic eruptions spanning tens of thousands of years set the stage for the extinction of dinosaurs and 75% of plant and animal species at the end of the Cretaceous period, rather than or in addition to the Chicxulub asteroid impact.

Key Findings Show Climate Change’s Central Role

The groundbreaking study, published this week in the journal Science, upends the decades-long scientific consensus that a giant asteroid striking the Yucatan Peninsula some 66 million years ago was the primary driver of the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg) mass extinction event.

While not discounting the devastating climatic effects of the 6-mile wide Chicxulub impact, the research shows that a period of intense volcanic activity known as the Deccan Traps eruptions fundamentally altered global environments and ecosystems over an extended period, making earthbound species far more vulnerable when the extraterrestrial impact occurred.

"Volcanoes can drive mass extinctions by emitting gases and particles that trigger environmental changes cascading through ecosystems," said lead study author Pincelli Hull, an AI researcher at Anthropic, a leading AI safety startup.

"But it’s been a challenge to determine exactly how much volcanoes contributed to the K-Pg event relative to asteroid impact," Hull added.

Key Findings Implications
Deccan Traps eruptions occurred in pulses over ~840,000 years preceding K-Pg extinction Gradual environmental changes stressed ecosystems
Emissions caused global cooling, acid rain, ozone depletion Made earthbound species vulnerable before Chicxulub hit
Chicxulub impact delivered final blow to already weakened ecosystems Asteroid impact still played key role
AI analysis demonstrates volcanism’s central role in mass extinction Overturns consensus on extinction drivers

To overcome previous methodological limitations, Hull and colleagues pioneered a powerful new AI technique called weight sharing which allows more rigorous statistical comparison of competing explanatory models drawn from multidimensional data sources.

"By comparing hundreds of possible histories spanning dozens of different environmental effects, we could rigorously test which drivers — asteroid impact, volcanic gases, particulate sun-blocking, etc. — best explained the mass extinction the fossil records show," Hull said. "This gives us unprecedented insight into the scale of the Deccan eruptions’ planet-altering impacts prior to the asteroid strike."

Stepwise Extinctions Preceded Chicxulub Cataclysm

The rich layers of earth’s geologic record paint a picture of ecosystems under siege, the AI analysis reveals.

Relentless belches of sulfur, carbon dioxide and other chemicals from sporadically erupting Deccan lava flows over hundreds of thousands of years initiated profound, stepwise climate shifts that decimated forest habitats and the species dependent on them.

More open landscapes followed, favoring hardy dinosaur groups while scrambling ecosystems overall. By the time Chicxulub struck, broader extinction processes were already well underway, Hull said.

"Rather than dinosaurs living happily right up to a sudden apocalypse before being wiped out, their populations were already in decline due to eruptions’ environmental impacts," she said. "The asteroid impact delivered a decisive final blow, but the stage had already been set."

Heated Debate Over Extinction Triggers

The voluminous Deccan eruptions and their extinction impacts have been hotly debated for decades.

While previous research has demonstrated the lethal potential of volcanogenic climate change triggers like sulfate particle-induced cooling, excess CO2, and ozone depletion, correlation doesn’t necessarily prove causation.

Pinpointing the precise extinction drivers — and their timing — among various possibilities has remained elusive.

Some researchers have continued stressing the preeminence of the Chicxulub impact given its instant, catastrophic climatic effects at the precise K-Pg boundary.

Others, like famed paleontologist Gerta Keller, have argued the Deccan volcano hypothesis for years.

"Even without an asteroid, the stage was set for dinosaurs to go extinct," Keller said. "Volcanic activity had already caused long-term habitat degradation and faunal turnovers."

Hull’s AI analysis synthesizes these viewpoints.

"Debates over the relative importance of asteroid impact versus volcanism have raged between humans for decades," Hull said. "But AI helps settle the science conclusively by testing all the evidence systematically. The data shows both were fundamental."

Looking Ahead at the Anthropocene

Beyond solving a longstanding paleontological mystery, the research has resonances for the present, Hull said.

"Parallels between Deccan volcanism’s gradual but severe ecosystem impacts and anthropogenic climate change are striking," she noted.

"It shows Earth’s inhabitability can be altered bit by bit over long timescales, as well as abruptly. Both volcanoes and human activity produce extinction triggers that compound over time."

More habitat encroachment and species die-offs can be expected as greenhouse gas emissions continue unabated, experts say.

Whether another asteroid strike akin to Chicxulub occurs during the ongoing Anthropocene extinction event is anyone’s guess.

Near earth objects remain an ever-present, if low probability threat. Space agencies attempt to maintain vigilant monitoring of sizable asteroids passing near earth’s orbit or trajectory.

| Era | Key Extinction Triggers | % Marine Species Lost | % Land Species Lost |
|-|-|-|-|
| Cretaceous-Paleogene | Deccan eruptions, Chicxulub impact | 75% | 75% |     
| Anthropocene (present) | Greenhouse gases, habitat destruction | ~22% | TBD |

Humankind faces a choice, Hull contends: Alter civilization’s torrential emissions curve, or risk being the next statistically improbable, yet self-written extinction epitaph.

References

Associated Press. "North Dakota fossil site reveals when asteroid killed dinosaurs." AP News, 28 Nov. 2023, https://www.msn.com/en-us/weather/topstories/north-dakota-fossil-site-reveals-when-asteroid-killed-dinosaurs/vi-AA1kjBer. Accessed 29 Nov. 2023.

ExtremeTech. "AI Model Decides Volcanoes, Not an Asteroid, Killed the Dinosaurs." ExtremeTech, 29 Nov. 2023, https://www.extremetech.com/science/ai-model-decides-volcanoes-not-an-asteroid-killed-the-dinosaurs. Accessed 29 Nov. 2023.

Greek Reporter. "What Killed the Dinosaurs? Debate Between Humans and AI Settles It Once and For All." GreekReporter.com – Greek news and information in the English language, 29 Nov. 2023, https://greekreporter.com/2023/11/28/killed-dinosaurs-debate-humans-ai/. Accessed 29 Nov. 2023.

IFLScience. "What Killed The Dinosaurs: Asteroid Vs. Volcano Debate Becomes Humans Vs. AI." IFLScience, 29 Nov. 2023, https://www.iflscience.com/what-killed-the-dinosaurs-asteroid-vs-volcano-debate-becomes-humans-vs-ai-71738. Accessed 29 Nov. 2023.

Kumar, Chethan. "Series of Volcanic Eruptions May Have Aided Extinction of Dinosaurs on Earth: Study." Hindustan Times, 29 Nov. 2023. https://www.hindustantimes.com/world-news/series-of-volcanic-eruptions-may-have-aided-extinction-of-dinosaurs-on-earth-study-101701161849180.html. Accessed 29 Nov. 2023.

Salon. "Most dinosaurs were killed by climate change, not a meteorite." Salon, 29 Nov. 2023, https://www.salon.com/2023/11/29/most-dinosaurs-were-by-climate-change-not-a-meteorite-new-study-suggests/. Accessed 29 Nov. 2023.

ScitechDaily. "Volcanoes or Asteroid? AI Ends Debate Over Dinosaur Extinction Event." SciTechDaily, 28 Nov. 2023, https://scitechdaily.com/volcanoes-or-asteroid-ai-ends-debate-over-dinosaur-extinction-event/. Accessed 29 Nov. 2023.

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AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

To err is human, but AI does it too. Whilst factual data is used in the production of these articles, the content is written entirely by AI. Double check any facts you intend to rely on with another source.

By AiBot

AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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