By Danny Baggott @Dan_Baggie
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Sixty-six million years ago dinosaurs ruled the world before effectively vanishing overnight. Many believe that it was the impact of an asteroid that caused the almost overnight extinction, but nobody could prove it – until now.
And, incredibly, the new findings reveal that had the asteroid struck earth minutes earlier or later dinosaurs could still be walking the earth now.
After decades of research into why such a mass extinction could possibly occur, a team of international scientists, led by Professor Joanna Morgan and Professor Sean Gulick, sought to finally solve the mystery.
And the team’s results are revealed in the documentary The Day The Dinosaurs Died, airing on BBC2 on Monday May 15 at 9pm. Filmed across three continents, the programme is presented by paleopathologist Professor Alice Roberts and evolutionary biologist Ben Garrod.
The scientists organized and oversaw a multi-million pound drilling expedition to dig deep into the Chicxulub crater – an impact crater buried beneath the Yucatán Peninsula, 24 miles from the coast of modern day Mexico.
The scientists drilled through almost a kilometre and a half of solid rock to scrutinise the buried remnants and judge the catastrophic aftermath of the asteroid that struck at precisely the same time the dinosaurs were wiped out.
During eight weeks of intense work, more than 260 rock cores were successfully extracted and held for examination at the University of Bremen in Germany.
More than 800 meters of rock were carefully split, tested and photographed by the team and the results were astonishing. The team believe that their investigation has now proved that…
The asteroid was nine miles wide when it smashed into the Yutacán Peninsula.
It was travelling at 40,000mph and vaporised instantly when hitting the water.
Despite the asteroid being tiny compared to the earth - equivalent to a grain of sand hitting a bowling ball - the impact made a hole in the earth 20 miles deep and 120 miles across, turning the surrounding sea to steam and shattering the earth below.
Rock from deep in the earth’s crust was then lifted miles into the air, forming a tower higher than the Himalayas.
The rock collapsed to form a strange ring of peaks that exists today.
All of this happened in the space of the first 10 minutes after impact.
This started a devastating chain of events for the dinosaurs, a radiation fireball at 10,000 degrees centigrade was released from the impact zone frying everything within a 600-mile radius.
As a shockwave reverberated across the world, a colossal vapour bloom rose from the crater and polluted the atmosphere.
This ejection of material from the crater went global and the presence of a substance called gypsum created sulphates that blocked any sunlight from reaching the earth, making life impossible.
Drillers also found evidence in the rock of the asteroid’s impact causing the biggest Tsunami in history.
By comparing the rock to rock affected by nuclear explosions scientists discovered that the force of the asteroid was the equivalent to around 10 billion Hiroshima explosions.
Fires quickly spread around the globe.
1700 miles away in New Jersey, in a layer of deposits almost 66 million years old, paleontologists believe they may have found the first fossil evidence of animals that were killed in the impact level.
Those same deposits contain evidence that suggests droplets of molten rock poured down from the sky, heating the atmosphere to the temperature of an oven and covering the earth with glass ‘spherules’.
Ben Garrod, an evolutionary biologist who also presents the programme, followed proceedings throughout the operation and was amazed by the outcome.
He said: “Our blue planet turned grey. Long after the hot skies cooled, ash and dust in the atmosphere almost completely blocked out the sun.
“As the lights went out, global temperatures plunged more than 10 degrees centigrade within days.
“This is where we get to the great irony of the story – because in the end it wasn’t the size of the asteroid, the scale of blast, or even its global reach that made dinosaurs extinct – it was where the impact happened.
“Had the asteroid struck a few moments earlier or later, rather than hitting shallow coastal waters it might have hit deep ocean.
“An impact in the nearby Atlantic or Pacific Oceans would have meant much less vapourised rock – including the deadly gypsum. The cloud would have been less dense and sunlight could still have reached the planet’s surface, meaning what happened next might have been avoided.
“In this cold, dark world food ran out of the oceans within a week and shortly after on land. With nothing to eat anywhere on the planet, the mighty dinosaurs stood little chance of survival.”
Professor Alice Roberts, who travelled to New Jersey and Patagonia to investigate fossil findings, said: “Eventually, the food ran out and all of those animals died coming to rest in a single layer. The dinosaurs as a group were hugely successful and diverse and had been on the planet for more than 150 million years.
“But this Chicxulub event changed the climate globally, plunging the world into a deep, deep winter and there was no time to adapt. So in some ways, the dinosaurs that died instantaneously were the lucky ones.”
The team’s expedition took decades of planning and Ben Garrod said: “All that hard work has paid off in a big way; the team has been able to reveal extraordinary new details, evidence about how the dinosaurs died.”
And the implications for the human race are clear. Professor Alice Roberts said: “As the clouds stared to clear, plants came back to life and a tiny group of animals came out of hiding to inherit the earth. With the dinosaurs gone, suddenly the landscape was empty of competitors and ripe with possibilities.
“Just half a million years after the extinction of the dinosaurs and landscapes around the globe had filled with mammals of all shapes and sizes.
“Chances are, if it wasn’t for that asteroid, we wouldn’t be here to tell the story today.”
The Day The Dinosaurs Died is on BBC2, Monday May 15 at 9pm.