Monday, February 18, 2013

Did an exploding meteor kill the mammoths?

(mobile readers please scroll down to read the post)

The recent explosion of a massive meteor over the skies of Russia captured the imagination of viewers worldwide, and sparked concerns about the dangers from other "potentially dangerous near-earth objects" among US lawmakers.  However, it also should bring into focus a story from five years ago, when scientists led by Dr. Richard B. Firestone of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory presented evidence showing that numerous mammoth tusks and a Siberian bison skull and horns all contained pockmarks containing metallic fragments, leading the team to conclude that a meteorite may have exploded over the Arctic, possibly killing the mammoths that have been found there over the years.

The scientists found that some of the tusks contained literally hundreds of these pockmarks, each 2mm to 5mm across, and always on the "skyward" side of the tusks (and skull).  The metal in the tusks is mostly nickel-rich iron, and it is very magnetic (Dr. Firestone used a small but powerful magnet attached to a string to test the presence of metal in some of the "peppered" tusks).  

News reports of the discovery quote Dr. Firestone as saying: ""We think that the micrometeorites came from an air-burst of a meteor 30,000 to 34,000 years ago. We think a wave of meteoric material sprayed the region."  Other reports on the "space shrapnel" in the mammoth tusks can be found here, here, and here.  

Some of those articles note that this new evidence points to a new mechanism that may explain the dead mammoths that have been found over a very wide geological range (some of them frozen and well preserved).  The BBC report says, "Their loss has traditionally been put down to either climate change and/or the efficient hunting technologies adopted by migrating humans."  The University of Alaska at Fairbanks article says that a meteorite might, in addition to raining dangerous shrapnel, have caused wildfires, mass burials, and finally thick debris clouds that could have "eliminated any mammoths that survived the meteor's hit."

However, it should be noted that Dr. Fairbanks is quoted at the end of the BBC article as saying, "Just as in a modern crime scene, it's very difficult to piece all the evidence together and say precisely what was going on; which event led to any particular outcome."  This is an excellent point and one worth repeating whenever investigating a complex set of evidence about an event that cannot be replicated in a laboratory today.  

The crime-scene analogy is one that has been discussed in many previous posts, such as "How history is like a Scooby Doo mystery."  It is noteworthy that in most "crime stories," the authorities tend to have an explanation for the evidence, but then an outsider -- often a marginal figure, such as Sherlock Holmes, or in the case of Scooby Doo, a gang of kids and a dog -- comes in and discovers problems with the first explanation, and proposes a new theory which better explains the evidence.  

Dr. Walt Brown, the originator of the hydroplate theory (which provides a very different way to explain the geological evidence we see all around us on our planet) believes in examining all the possible theories to see how well they can explain the evidence.  In the section of his book which deals with the mystery of the frozen mammoths, Dr. Brown examines no less than ten theories which have been put forward to explain the evidence, including the exploding meteor theory.

The first important point about these "peppered tusks" containing iron-nickel fragments is that eight of the traditional theories have no good explanation for this evidence.  Theories that involve mammoths falling into crevasses, drowning in lakes, hunting extinction by advancing humans, etc. do not have a good reason why the tusks would be peppered with "space shrapnel."  Here is a page from Dr. Brown's online book in which he compares ten competing mammoth theories, including a meteor theory and his own hydroplate theory.  Those ten theories are each summarized here.

A meteor, of course, would explain the "shrapnel" holes in the mammoth tusks, but Dr. Brown points to numerous other pieces of evidence surrounding the mammoths of the far north which the meteor theory has difficulty explaining.  Among these are the mammoth carcasses that have been frozen so quickly that the food in their stomachs has been preserved (along with other features of their bodies, including hair and skin).  As Dr. Brown points out, a meteor impact would not be expected to bring about a sudden cooling -- if anything, it might be expected to introduce intense heat rather than intense cold.  Also, many of the mammoths show evidence of having been suffocated, as this previous post on the hydroplate theory explanation for the preserved mammoths explains.  Further, the fact that this phenomenon has been found in remains from Siberia to Alaska, while not ruling out the possibility of a meteorite as the origin, suggests the possibility that the phenomenon was more widespread than what we might expect from a single space object.

There is also the evidence of unusual "type 3 rock ice" as well as unusual geological features known as yedomas and loess found in the areas that mammoths are found.  This evidence is beyond the scope of this particular post to discuss, but Dr. Brown covers it extensively in his chapter on the mammoth question, and the interested reader is invited to study it there and then pursue other resources discussing these fascinating pieces of evidence.  Perhaps future blog posts can discuss this topic more fully.  However, suffice it to say that there is no reason that a meteor would be expected to produce any of these features, and the meteor theory of mammoth extinction does not explain why mammoth remains are often found in conjunction with type 3 ice, yedomas, and loess.  The hydroplate theory, however, does.

Of the ten theories for the mystery of the mammoths, only the hydroplate theory and the meteor theory have a good explanation for the "peppered" tusks.  The hydroplate theory, however, does not propose that these tiny projectiles originated from a meteor.  Instead, it argues that the projectiles were part of the violent events surrounding the start of a cataclysmic global flood, and that this event also explains all the other evidence associated with the mammoth mystery.  

Indeed, the hydroplate theory argues that meteors themselves, including the ones that fall to earth today, originated at the same time, when the "fountains of the great deep" launched material from earth high into the stratosphere, and some of it out of the orbit of the earth and into space.  Some previous posts on this subject include this one, this one, and this one.

Dr. Brown's theory proposes that the events surrounding the violent eruption of floodwaters produced intense rain and also a gigantic hail storm composed of cold, muddy ice crystals:
On that terrible day, the rupture of the earth’s crust passed between what is now Siberia and Alaska in minutes. Jetting water from the fountains of the great deep first fell as rain. During the next few hours, some of the accelerating and expanding subterranean water that went above the atmosphere (where the effective temperature is several hundred degrees below zero Fahrenheit) froze and fell as hail.119 Some animals were suddenly buried, suffocated, frozen, and compressed by tons of cold, muddy ice crystals from the gigantic “hail storm.” Dirt in this ice prevented it from floating as the flood waters submerged these regions after days and weeks. Blankets of this muddy ice, hundreds of feet thick, insulated and preserved many animals during the flood phase. As the topmost layers of ice melted, the dirt in that ice remained and settled—blanketing and further insulating the deeper ice and buried animals.
Months later, after mountains were suddenly pushed up, the earth’s balance shifted, the earth slowly “rolled” 34°–57°, so Siberia and Alaska moved from temperate latitudes (similar to north-central United States today) to their present positions. [For details, see Endnote 66 on page 141.] As the flood waters drained off the continents, whatever icy graves existed in warmer climates melted, and buried animals decayed. However, many animals, buried in what are now permafrost regions, were preserved. 
There is extensive evidence for this "Big Roll" that shifted the remains of these unfortunate mammoths up to their present latitudes -- previous posts discussing this evidence include this one and this one.

Dr. Brown continues:
The jetting fountains of the great deep produced extreme winds. Dirt filled the atmosphere for a few hours before rain, ice, and falling dirt landed. This explains why Dima’s entire digestive and respiratory tract contained silt, clay, and small particles of gravel, and why high-velocity dirt particles peppered animals and even left “shrapnel,” on one side of hard mammoth tusks. [See Figure 143 on page 254.]
Some might object that the nickel-rich iron in the mammoth tusks is hardly "ordinary" dirt -- rather, it is consistent with the composition of asteroids and meteorites.   However, there is good reason to suspect that these "shrapnel" particles did in fact originate on earth.  First, they are magnetic, as all the articles quoted above clearly indicate.  The earth has a powerful magnetic field, unlike most other objects in our solar system, including asteroids.  Also, the presence of iron and nickel is difficult to explain originating in space.  Such metals can (and are) produced deep in the earth's crust, in conditions of great heat, but not in the cold reaches of space or in small bodies located in space that do not have a lot of their own heat (as earth does).  All these things actually argue that meteors and meteorites (as well as asteroids and comets) originally came from earth -- and this also argues that the fragments in these mammoth tusks could have had the same origin.

The amazing discovery of the "shrapnel" holes in the mammoth tusks is a very important piece of evidence to help unravel the "crime scene," as Dr. Firestone calls it, and he and his team are to be commended for their diligence in locating these tusks and for their analysis of their discovery.  It seems that this new evidence argues against many of the conventional explanations that have previously been offered to explain the mystery of the mammoths.  It also seems that these "peppered" tusks may constitute yet another powerful piece of evidence arguing for the hydroplate theory of Dr. Walt Brown.