Volcanoes or Asteroid? AI Ends Debate Over Dinosaur Extinction Event

Dinosaur Extinction Volcano Asteroid

Dartmouth scientists used an innovative computer model to suggest that volcanic activity, rather than an asteroid impact, was the primary cause of the mass extinction that ended the age of the dinosaurs. This groundbreaking approach opens new avenues for investigating other geological events.

Free-thinking computers reverse-engineered the fossil record to identify the causes of a cataclysm.

To address the long-standing debate about whether a massive asteroid impact or volcanic activity caused the extinction of dinosaurs and numerous other species 66 million years ago, a team at Dartmouth College took an innovative approach — they removed scientists from the debate and let the computers decide.

The researchers report in the journal Science a new modeling method powered by interconnected processors that can work through reams of geological and climate data without human input. They tasked nearly 130 processors with analyzing the fossil record in reverse to pinpoint the events and conditions that led to the Cretaceous–Paleogene (K–Pg) extinction event that cleared the way for the ascendance of mammals, including the primates that would lead to early humans.

A New Perspective on Historical Events

“Part of our motivation was to evaluate this question without a predetermined hypothesis or bias,” said Alex Cox, first author of the study and a graduate student in Dartmouth’s Department of Earth Sciences. “Most models move in a forward direction. We adapted a carbon-cycle model to run the other way, using the effect to find the cause through statistics, giving it only the bare minimum of prior information as it worked toward a particular outcome.

“In the end, it doesn’t matter what we think or what we previously thought — the model shows us how we got to what we see in the geological record,” he said.

The model crunched more than 300,000 possible scenarios of carbon dioxide emissions, sulfur dioxide output, and biological productivity in the 1 million years before and after the K–Pg extinction. Through a type of machine learning known as Markov Chain Monte Carlo — which is not unlike how a smartphone predicts what you’ll type next — the processors worked together independently to compare, revise, and recalculate their conclusions until they reached a scenario that matches the outcome preserved in the fossil record.

Uncovering the Extinction’s Causes

Geochemical and organic remnants in the fossil record capture clearly the catastrophic conditions during the K–Pg extinction, so named for the geological periods on either side of the millennia-long cataclysm. Animals and plants worldwide suffered massive die-offs as food webs collapsed under an unstable atmosphere that — laden with sun-blotting sulfur, airborne minerals, and heat-trapping carbon dioxide — swung wildly from frigid to scorching conditions.

While the effect is clear, the cause of the extinction is unresolved. Early theories attributing the event to volcanic eruptions have been eclipsed by the discovery of an impact crater in Mexico known as Chicxulub that was caused by a miles-wide asteroid now thought to be primarily responsible for the extinction event. The theories have begun to converge, however, as fossil evidence suggests a one-two punch unlike anything in Earth’s history: The asteroid may have slammed into a planet already reeling from the massive, extremely violent eruptions of volcanoes in western India’s Deccan Traps.

But scientists still do not know — nor agree on — the extent to which each event contributed to the mass extinction. So, Cox and his adviser Brenhin Keller, a Dartmouth assistant professor of earth sciences and study co-author, decided to “see what you would get if you let the code decide.”

Modeling Results and Volcanic Impact

Their model suggested that the outpouring of climate-altering gases from the Deccan Traps alone could have been sufficient to trigger the global extinction. The Traps had been erupting for roughly 300,000 years before the Chicxulub asteroid. During their nearly 1 million years of eruptions, the Deccan Traps are estimated to have pumped up to 10.4 trillion tons of carbon dioxide and 9.3 trillion tons of sulfur into the atmosphere.

“We’ve known historically that volcanoes can cause massive extinctions, but this is the first independent estimation of volatile emissions taken from the evidence of their environmental effects,” said Keller, who published a paper last year linking four of Earth’s five mass extinctions to volcanism.

“Our model worked through the data independently and without human bias to determine the amount of carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide required to produce the climate and carbon cycle disruptions we see in the geologic record. These amounts turned out to be consistent with what we expect to see in emissions from the Deccan Traps,” said Keller, who has worked extensively to examine the link between Deccan volcanism and the K–Pg extinction.

Asteroid Impact and Modern Context

The model did reveal a steep drop in the accumulation of organic carbon in the deep ocean around the time of the Chicxulub impact, which likely resulted from the asteroid causing the demise of numerous animal and plant species. The record contains traces of a decrease in temperature around the same time that would have been caused by the large amount of sulfur — a short-term cooling agent — the mammoth meteorite would have ejected into the air when it collided with the sulfur-rich surface on that area of the planet.

The asteroid impact also would have likely emitted both carbon and sulfur dioxide. However, the model found that there was no spike in the emissions of either gas at that time, suggesting that the asteroid’s contribution to the extinction did not hinge on gas emissions.

Conclusion: Methodological Innovation and Future Applications

In modern context, Cox said, the burning of fossil fuels from 2000 to 2023 has pumped about 16 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere per year. This is 100 times greater than the highest annual emission rate scientists project from the Deccan Traps. While alarming on its own, it would still take a few thousand years for current carbon dioxide emissions to match the total amount that spewed forth from the ancient volcanoes, Cox said.

“Most heartening is that the results we achieved are broadly physically plausible, which is impressive given that the model could have technically run completely wild without stronger prior constraints,” he said.

Interconnecting the processors shortened the time it took the model to analyze such a massive data set from months or years to hours, Cox said. His and Keller’s method can be used to invert other earth systems models — such as those for the climate or carbon cycle — to evaluate geological events for which the outcomes are well known but not the factors that led there. 

“This type of parallel inversion hasn’t been done in earth sciences models before. Our method can be scaled up to include thousands of processors, which gives us a much broader solution space to explore, and it’s quite resistant to human bias,” Cox said.

“So far, people in our field have been more fascinated by the novelty of the method than the conclusion we reached,” he laughed. “Any earth system for which we know the effect but not the cause is ripe for inversion. The better we know the output, the better we’re able to characterize the input that caused it.”

Reference: “A Bayesian inversion for emissions and export productivity across the end-Cretaceous boundary” by Alexander A. Cox and C. Brenhin Keller, 28 September 2023, Science.
DOI: 10.1126/science.adh3875

14 Comments on "Volcanoes or Asteroid? AI Ends Debate Over Dinosaur Extinction Event"

  1. A little assistance from AI like this might go a long way in helping run the country.

  2. Sounds to me like both had a hand in the extinction event, if we are looking for a book that tells us the answer it hasn’t been written, humans are writing the answers down if we all agree.

  3. Apparently AI hasn’t figured out that an asteroid impact can trigger volcanos.

  4. Now it knows how to exterminate us.

  5. dr mehrdad kesiri | November 28, 2023 at 3:30 am | Reply

    The earth will not be destroyed, more than hundreds of stars and planets tried to commit suicide and attacked the sun to destroy the earth, but due to the impact of meteorites that hit the earth due to the disintegration of the stars, but the stars andplanets from The galactic arm could not destroy life on Earth.destroy them when the humans took refuge underground on the earth, God told me pointing to the map of the Americas that the head of the tribe that the map of the country is on the face of an old man from Brazil, a red-skinned oldman with a distinct face, God said to him Panama is the face of an old man, and I understood that the map of the country of Panama is the foot of a bird.I explained that the bird can be seen well on the map of the American continent.Why did that bird fly away when its foot is marked with Panama?What does the word foot mean in Farsi and what does Panama mean?In Farsi, pa means existing foot, and in Farsi Panama, it means visible foot, and the foot of that bird in the face of that old man in the continent of South America or Panama means to follow the foot.of the bird, and you’ll connect to that red-skinned old man on map two.The Americas is both a visible bird and an old man that represents humans on Earth a hundred million years ago.Due to the disintegration of the core of the said planet and star when it collided with the sun, the elements inside them fell three thousand meters to the earth’s surface like meteorites, and the scene of the bird and the old man tells of this sad story, the skinned old man’s blush that the president And it represents the earth in America, under the soil of Brazil, what is the meaning of under the soil, the name of the country of Brazil, exactly in Farsi it means under the soil of theold man who drew them.Images with the shape of two continents America, which is the largest continent in the world and the only continent in the world that is connected from north to south or rather its extension to the south, the two continents of America gave us a message.that the fate of us earthlings is due to the collision of stars and planets from the arm.The galaxy reached the sun and collided with the sun and disintegrated and the dust and rock of two stars and planets settled on the earth.Up to about 3000 m and 3000 m.It has to do with hitting the sun.How can we find out how many thousands of meters of soil is sitting on the ground?A hundred million years ago, that old man could not take a bird that rose from Central America and went underground to the sky and space.And there he is buried under the ground.It doesn’t take long for archaeologists to go three thousand meters underground and pull it out.A hundred million year old man, how does America extract oil from two thousand meters underground on the coast of the ocean, while that oil belongs to the bodies of fishes and whales and whales have been digging underground for several months.The cities of the Americas until they reach a city that was built by man a hundred million years ago, before three thousand meters of soil was poured on top of that city.Lord, the earth will be attacked by meteorites again and the life of this planet will be renewed, that is why the word “planet” is renewed in Farsi.00989332197646 dr kesiri iran tehran tim3 pm

  6. The less science, the greater the volume.

  7. This was so poorly written for a supposed science site.

  8. dr mehrdad kesiri | November 28, 2023 at 10:41 pm | Reply

    Hello to all those who are interested in astronomy and Gitaology.Unfortunately, most of the translations I do from Persian to Latin and send to you dear ones, the text and spelling of the sentences vary when I send the text to you in Latin.I know that half of the topic What I am sending you is not understandable and you may not be able to understand the meaning of the text that I sent, but I will not be disappointed and I will try my best to correct the composition, spellingand dictation of the sentences translated by Google.In order to get familiar with Google’s smart translation method, to know why the text that I sent is not translated as well as it should be.Anyway, I apologize to the readers of this website.They give them the job of translating the comments that I send to you.I will give those companies to translate my articles.It takes me a lot of time and I have to pay a lot of money, and this work is not cheap for me, that is, it is expensive.Translation of articles in Iran is very expensive.Thank you.The administrators of this scientific and technical website are updated every day by Dr. Kesiri Kathiri from Tehran at 9:50 am on Wednesday, December 8, 2583. Cyrus the Great’s empire of Iran, the history of Iran was changed by the barbaric Arabs,no country has the history of Iran’s empire, the countries of the world God, who is the superior force and artificial intelligence, was created by humans on earth and he acts like a matrix.God is the largest complex human structure on earth.Go look at the map of Iraq.It is exactly the head of a camel that is drinking water from the Persian Gulf.Sorry.The turning of that camel’s head is connected to the country of Egypt and the body of the camel is visible in the north of the African continent.Later, I will talk about this issue, may God protect you.thank you

    • donald trump caused this extinction, since his followers believe he is a god. and he will cause the next extinction 🦣🦤

  9. Horrible article. So many letters, nothing said. You should sack the person responsible.

  10. Dr Kesiri,
    You should write comics for The NY Times….you are a doctor of B.S. Lol

  11. AI only works with what is put in , let’s see what AI would say if you added the plausibility of a created world with no definitive evidence that life came through evolution or that dinosaurs actually died from an asteroid or volcanoes with more than enough evidence of a world wide flood

  12. This is pretty cool. It certainly gives us a great way to analyze lots of possibilities with the available data. The article should comment that the results also depend upon the correctness of the models the analysis is run against. I’m not able to judge this in this area of expertise, but it is a point that applies to any kind of analysis of this sort.

    To the God, fan boys, as there is no scientific evidence for a gods hand in this, that scenario does not lend itself to scientific analysis.

  13. Hmm funny, neither, they didnt mention world wide flood. Way to get an incorrect answer lol.

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