THE BULLET THEORY: A NEW LINK BETWEEN MASS EXTINCTIONS AND ITS
>From Michael Martin-Smith <email@example.com>
About 2 years ago, I wondered, in my rather amateurish way, whether Impacts
and Volcanism could be tied together as causes of mass extinctions, and,
inspired by "The Day of the Jackal", proposed a linking theory, which I
dubbed the "Bullet Theory". I had a letter published in the UK Journal
"Geology Today" in the summer of that year, and emboldened by this,
submitted an article - see below - to Scientific American, both its US and
Chinese (Ke Xue) versions. The concept was perhaps rightly considered too
speculative at the time - but maybe the time has now come for it to be put
before a learned if eclectic audience? Perhaps it would now interest members
of our Network?
The Bullet Theory - a new link between Mass Extinction Events, and its
implications for Humankind?
by Dr Michael Martin-Smith, BSc MRCGP, FBIS
Jesmond, Salisbury St HULL HU5 3EU, England
The Bullet Theory proposes a link between two widely held explanations for
the demise of the dinosaurs, and, possibly, other Mass Extinction Events.
Briefly, these are the Asteroid Impact theory, and the Volcanism theory.
The asteroid impact theory holds that an asteroid of about 10 kilometres
in diameter hit the Earth at 30 kilometres per second, and, in addition to
creating a massive fireball, worldwide scattering of superheated rock and
mantle, caused secondary firestorms, and Earth waves with 500 kph. winds;
also, by raising cubic kilometres of soot and dust into the stratosphere,
the impact produced, as a secondary effect, global climatic change lasting
for many years, accompanied by acid rain, lowering oceanic pH by at least
one unit . Large animals and marine micro-organisms alike were decimated by
these changes, and , in the case of some 85 % of terrestrial species, mass
extinction occurred - with 99.99% of individuals ( Carlisle, Alvarez, and
This theory is now well buttressed by many lines of evidence
1/ At over 120 sites worldwide, an anomalous layer of Iridium- a metal rare
in the Earth's crust, but common in asteroids and early solar system
material, has been found, at the relevant date of 65 million years ago.
2/ At these sites, Cretaceous life is found right up to the boundary layer
of Iridium, and none in the layers corresponding to thousands of years after
the event. The change in chalk depositing organisms ( Foraminifera) is sharp
and beyond doubt.
3/ In this same Cretaceous/Tertiary layer (or K-T Boundary) a layer of
fossilized soot is found world wide, due to global firestorms.
4/ The discovery of a massive 180 kilometers diameter crater in the Yucatan
Peninsula in Mexico - Chicxulub - dated at 65 million years ago,
demonstrates beyond doubt that this impact took place, produced global
effects, and that it was contemporaneous with the K-T Mass extinction event.
5/ The discovery of 150 significant craters on this planet, and thousands
more on all solid surfaces in the solar system shows that impacts are a
factor in the evolution of Earth and other planets.
6/ The confirmation of at least 10 major extinction events in the past 590
million years attests to the frequency calculated by projected numbers of
impacts based on estimated numbers of near Earth Objects of a range of
sizes. It is only the recycling of the Earth's crust by Plate Tectonics, and
the effects of wind and water, which disguises the fact that we are as much
a shooting gallery as the Moon or Mercury!
7/ The calculated effects of fireball, winds, and global atmospheric changes
are now not a matter for speculation - they have been observed, by 500
million viewers, at Jupiter, where the 21 fragments of Comet Shoemaker-Levy
9 in July 1994 gave us a graphic demonstration.
There is thus no doubt that an extraterrestrial impact of sufficient size
and energy to cause mass extinction hit the Earth 65 million years ago, with
the calculated results - and that it was not unique.
The Volcanism Theory holds that , while the mass extinction occurred at the
time stated earlier, and that others have occurred, the proximate cause was
purely terrestrial - namely surges of widespread volcanism caused by the
movements of the Earth's crust, in the theory known as plate Tectonics. This
theory states that the continental crusts of the Earth's surface float upon
the underlying magma of basalt, and are constantly moving - pushed by the
upwelling of molten lava from sub-oceanic crustal fissures. This material
spreads out and the overlying continents drift apart. Of course, at the
opposite ends of these plates,. material must be re-absorbed, or else the
Earth would simply become bigger over time - a concept which has no
foundation at all!
Plate Tectonics, advanced originally by Alfred Wegener in 1911, received
sound experimental backing in the 1960's, with the voyages of Glomar
Challenger and the direct observations of the sub-oceanic production of new
crust using submersible remotely controlled vehicles such as the Alvin. The
measurement and dating of fossilised magnetic field lines in ocean floor
samples showed that nowhere is the crust more than 200 million years old,
and that the continents are indeed moving in relation to each other.
Notably, the mid Atlantic Ridge is the site of volcanic crust creation, as a
result of which Europe and America are moving apart consistently at several
centimetres per year.
By contrast, the entire Pacific Rim is the site of the opposite phenomenon,
whereby a spreading plate is pushed underneath the neighbouring continental
plate - thus the Pacific plate tucks down into the deep Ocean trenches, and
is enfolded deeper into the Earth's magma. In doing this, pressurized water
is taken in with it, and , together with molten magma, finds its way through
chambers in the overlying continental mass. The result is a ring of active
volcanos all around the Pacific Rim , known popularly as the Arc of Fire.
Thus surface material is continually being recycled over geological time,
and the shapes and relative positions of the continents is in flux.
This mechanism also accounts for earthquakes and tremors as the sideways
slippage and shearing of neighbouring plates.
Geologists point to periods of intense volcanism as possible causes of mass
extinctions. They, too, postulate similar mechanisms- darkening and cooling
of the climate by volcanic dust and ash, acid rain from exhaled carbon and
sulphur dioxides, and violent earthquakes.
They, too, have a candidate for the K-T event - namely the high volcanic
plateau, of Southern India, known as the Deccan Traps. This, too, is dated
at around 65 million years ago, and attests to an intense period of
volcanism over a 1 million years period. Plate tectonics also show that
India has been in movement Northwards and Westwards over the past 70 million
years, as shown by the build up of the Himalayas from subsurface uplift as
India "crashes" into Asia.
Thus both events-- the Impact, and the Deccan Traps volcanic events --
certainly happened at the relevant time. Carlisle points out, however, that
in terms of amounts of basalt outflow per year, our own times are as active
as the time of the Deccan Traps, and that there is not now an ongoing mass
extinction event - unless we ourselves are the cause.
There is also the fact that volcanic eruptions do not spread Iridium
worldwide, since this material has largely sunk into the core by
differentiation at an early stage in the Earth's history.
There is thus emerging something of a conflict of causes backed by two very
different scientific traditions - Geological Uniformitarianism, and
Astronomic neo-Catastrophism. Bound up with these is the classic gradualism
of Darwinian Evolution, versus the Punctuated Equilibrium or Cladism of
Niles Eldridge et al.
We thus have two mechanisms for the K-T Mass extinction event, backed up by
plausible theory and sound observations. Can they both be correct?
A New Synthesis
1/Where were India and Mexico 65 million years ago? If diametrically
opposite, a new scenario emerges.
2/ Apollo descent engines, allowed to fall onto the Moon, caused a gong like
ringing effect detected by seismometer packages for over one hour later. The
Moon has a small core and no plate tectonics.
Could Earth, with a differentiated surface, transmit impact generated waves
globally through its crust and magma? If so they would come to a focus 180
degrees from ground zero. Thus the Chicxulub impactor could have set up a
resonance which would initiate or amplify the Deccan Traps events, by
creating cracks in the crust overlying the molten magma.
3/ It is well observed in ballistics and pathology that a high velocity
modern rifle causes a bigger wound at the opposite side of a head from its
entry point. The famous test run of the assassin's high power light-weight
rifle in the film, "The Day of the Jackal", shows well how the entry energy
can be amplified. A NEO comes in at 30-60 times faster than a high velocity
bullet. There is no suggestion here that an NEO would exit at 180 degrees
from impact, but the shock waves would be focussed and amplified with
catastrophic results at that point.
Co-ordinates of Chicxulub and the centre of the Deccan Traps 65 million
Present Day 65 million years ago
Longitude Latitude Longitude Latitude
Chicxulub 87°W 200 N 84° W 200 N
Deccan Traps 75-80° E 13-200N 95° E 210 S
Thus, to within one degree - quite reasonable, considering the several
degrees covered by the volcanic outflows of the Deccan Traps, these two
phenomena - the crater and the Traps - are exactly antipodal, consistent
with the "bullet" theory.
An earlier Permian mass extinction , on an even bigger scale (95% of all
species) at 250 million years ago, is blamed on the Siberian Traps - a
similar even more massive series of volcanic outflows. It would be
instructive, to say the least, to determine where, in Latitude and
Longitude, on the Permian Earth the Siberian Traps were located, and
whether, at the corresponding Permian Antipodes, an impact crater is to be
On Feb 22 2001, it was announced that "buckyballs" filled with gases in an
isotope distribution, compatible with a cometary origin rather than
terrestrial origin, have been found at various sites containing
Permian/Triassic deposits suggesting that the Permian mass extinction was
comtemporaneous with an impact by a comet some 11 kilometres in diameter;
the impact crater, having occurred in the now lost continent of
Gondwanaland, is nowhere to be found. More recently still, Professor Kunio
Kaiho et. al of Tohoku University have published evidence, in Geology,
that a massive impact DID occur at the Permian/Triassic junction.
An interesting case was found on the planet Mercury 2 by the Mariner 10
spacecraft in 1974; the massive 3.85 billion years old impact basin, the
Caloris region was formed by a 150 kms. impactor, leaving a current 1385 kms
diameter basin. At the exact antipode, a large region of jumbled hills and
depressions which has no precise counterpart elsewhere in the solar system
was found; this region, the size of France and Germany combined, is ascribed
to a concentration of shock waves emanating from the Caloris Basin impact.
Mercury, unlike the Earth, has no active volcanism or tectonism within at
least the past 3 billion years, so that a putative result from the
postulated "bullet" effect could be expected to look different; but it is
interesting to note that the idea of an antipodal effect is borne out.
It is clear from the foregoing that at least two - possibly linked -
mechanisms for Mass extinctions operate on this planet, and have done so
throughout the geological time scale. In the worst event - the Permian -
almost 95% of all species were extinguished, and the evolution of Life
undoubtedly took a new turn.
Looking at human civilization, we may, at first sight, see little relevance.
However, our civilization, especially the recent post Renaissance liberal
technical civilization which has so far nourished, educated, and medicated
more people in greater comfort than any of its 30 or more
predecessors, is particularly vulnerable to events of the kind under
discussion. There are, simply, more people to kill and more property to be
destroyed. We are, indeed, hostages to our own success. Indeed, events on a
far smaller scale would suffice to plunge us back to the Stone Age, or
worse, with billions of dead, and trillions of dollars of ruined
infrastructure. For instance, many authorities consider that the threshold
size for an incoming NEO for the wreckage of civilization by global climatic
change is about 1 kilometre, in contrast to the 10 kilometers postulated for
the Cretaceous/Tertiary Boundary Event. The fact that such an object has a
two in three chance of landing in the Ocean gets us not much further, since
a series of tsunamis several hundred metres high racing around the world at
hundreds of kilometres per hour does not inspire cheerful thoughts, either A
similar scale reduction doubtless applies to the volcanic scenario favoured
by many geologists.
We have seen that, in both cases, firestorms and global cooling through dust
and soot deposition into the stratosphere would find many more victims,
since, at best, there is but 3 weeks food supplies in reserve on this planet
at any one time while a "Winter" effect would be expected to last 6-12
months with a single Impact event, and probably far longer in the event of a
volcanic Traps formation event! Following such devastation and
impoverishment, of our species, the emergence of pandemics of new, mutated
viruses, or the release of pre-existing but poorly understood species like
Ebola and Marburg, by dispersal of dust, and a change of animal vectors
following the disruption of the biosphere , would be likely to be something
of a coup de grace. It is widely accepted that the emergence of such viruses
into the light of day from remote jungle sites has much to do with changing
patterns of migration and social change, with accompanying deforestation and
new transport infrastructure.
One can also confidently expect the re-emergence of another old "friend"-rat
borne plagues- since, small mammals would be more likely to survive such a
catastrophe, because of easier shelter, and the abundant presence of carrion
for feeding. They also have rapid breeding cycles. In addition to this, as
we have seen in recent natural disasters, epidemics of typhoid, dysentery
and malaria put in an appearance as well..
The likelihood of a Humanity, already devastated by fires, earthquakes,
cold, and starvation being able to mount much of an response to these new
threats is at best minimal, and lessened by the inevitable breakdown in
order and infrastructure which would accompany the disaster.
In short, without radical measures, taken in good time, the prospects for a
longterm sustainable human civilization, on Earth alone, are essentially,
zero. It is fashionable for many environmentalists to advocate a
sustainable civilization based on less science and technology than we are
used to. Quite apart from such a solution requiring coercion and
restrictions on a global scale far beyond any dreamt of by this century's
crop of totalitarian despots, there is no prospect of success therein.
What is to be Done?
To deal with any threat three things are needed. Prediction, Reconnaissance,
and Effective Countermeasures.
It has been shown that at least three scenarios - asteroid/cometary impacts/
massive volcanic activity in the shape of Traps formation, and global
epidemics of emergent/mutant micro-organisms - will, either individually or
in concert, destroy human civilization, at some unknown date in the future,
or, at worst, even the entire species.
This being so, can we predict or further elucidate these threats, mitigate
them, or even with imagination and foresight, turn them to our advantage?
I think we can take it as read that prevention of volcanism, or the outbreak
of mutant micro-organisms, is at present, and for the conceivable future,
beyond our reach, since we do not have access to the magma source of
volcanic activity, nor the DNA of viruses or bacteria in the field. We can
be aware of the risk of epidemics of emerging viruses in our economic and
social activities ; the possibility of disturbing the ecology of possible
vectors in new land usage and settlement can be factored into risk
assessments - but this is a long way short of prevention!
Surprisingly, however, accurate assessment of the risk from Near Earth
Objects is not only eminently possible at reasonable cost, but can actually
yield invaluable economic results for the future.
The Spaceguard Foundation has shown that a network of six dedicated 2 metres
telescopes can be had for $30 millions per year, which would detect 90 % of
potential asteroid impactors over a decade, and nearly 100% of any over 2
kilometres - the biggest of the threats. A 1 kilometre impactor, on present
knowledge, is expected, statistically, every 100,000 years or so, and can be
expected to kill at least 1.5 billion people at a cost of one trillion
dollars. Insurance industry risk assessments now put the risk to any
individual being killed in a global impact event as twice that of being
killed in an aeroplane crash, and 10,000 times that of dying of human
variant BSE (on whose prevention the UK has already spent over £3 ($5)
billion in four years!), Actuarially, the cost of doing NOTHING is
calculated as £123 ($200) millions per year, or £800,000 per life
($1,350,000), every year, for 100,000 years. If my bullet theory with its
volcanic/epidemic "extras" is correct, this figure could easily be
In considering any action against a discovered impactor, detailed in-situ
structural knowledge will be needed. With the emergence of low cost
interplanetary missions, and the advent of private entrepreneurship into the
space arena, an annual mission to one asteroid or comet can be launched and
operated for $50 million dollars.
Thus the essential reconnaisance for preparing an effective response to the
NEO threat - and, very possibly, the volcanic Traps and global pandemic
threats insofar as these can be linked - can be achieved for less than $100
millions per year, and, with advances foreseen in space technology over the
next decade, considerably less.
At the present time, the only immediately apparent countermeasure is a
massive nuclear warhead detonated in, on, or near a detected impactor. There
are problems here. A long lead time is needed for an effective deflection,
since even a 100 megatons bomb ( requiring a Saturn 5 class rocket) could
only alter a 1 kilometre object's velocity by a few centimetres per second.
Given decades of warning, this could suffice in some cases. However, new
long period comets, such as Hale-Bopp and Hyakutake, only give , at best a
few months' warning. The same applies to some classes of asteroids, eg the
Atens, which orbit, for the most part, between Earth's orbit and the Sun .
Further, a nuclear explosion could easily split an impactor into two or
three deadly fragments, "converting a cannon ball into a cluster bomb", as
the saying goes.
Evidence from Asteroid Mathilde, visited by the Eros probe in 1997, suggests
that even a massive detonation will not destroy some asteroids easily or
Future less drastic but safer measures, have been proposed. These include -
1/ Laser vapourization of carefully selected areas on a target's surface, so
as to induce a geyser or plume which would change its path by a rocket
effect; this happens naturally in some comets as they approach the Sun and
lose surface volatiles.
2/ Deflection by planting a huge but very thin mylar film over the
approaching surface, to act as a solar sail
3/ Emplanting a mass driver catapult on an impactor's surface, which would
mine the body, convert the proceeds into pellets, and create a rocket effect
by ejecting these pellets using solar- or nuclear- powered linear
4/ Mining one surface of the asteroid - if comparatively small - into an
aerodynamic shape known as an anhedral or Waverider, so that it would skip
out of the Earth's atmosphere rather than impact.
These methods are not exhaustive, nor panaceas. They would only apply in
some cases, and would do nothing against a major 5-10 kilometres class
"dinosaur killer", whether new comet or asteroid. Irrespective of whether
geologists accept that an impactor killed the dinosaurs, one fact is beyond
dispute- it would certainly kill us!
They have, however, one feature in common; all of them require the presence
of Man, or at any rate his technology, in Space. Lasers , because of the
Earth's atmosphere, would have to be based on the Moon, or an asteroid to
achieve range and collimation, while the other techniques self evidently
predicate local engineering!
An Earthbound Humanity has no options, or at best only the nuclear, option
in the face of this threat; with access to Space, other presently fanciful
options have a chance of development
We have thus arrived at a point where a truly radical conclusion can be
drawn; the survival of human civilization can ONLY be assured by the use of
space exploration, development, and settlement. Just as our marine
ancestors, for obscure reasons, embarked on the settlement of dry land, so,
too, our civilization must embark on the colonization of space. Since this
will take a very long time, and the timing of a fatal impact is not known,
the only insurance policy which makes sense is investment in Space
technology while our culture is still up to the job.
It has been shown (O'Neill, Space Studies Institute, and others) that, if
the formidable problems of building a spacefaring civilization using solar
energy and the self same NEOs and Moon we have been discussing can be
solved, humanity can be supported in greater wealth and profusion than can
be accomplished on Earth.
It has been proposed by anthropologists that the Agricultural Revolution was
not some great act of visionary progress, but a measure of desperation
caused by the extinction, by humans, of the Ice Age fauna which our
ancestors hunted. Be that as it may, agriculture enabled the growth of
population, and that diversity of skills which we call urbanization and
civilization. Indeed, the citizens of Ur reached capabilities which would
have been qualitatively beyond the imaginations of the hunters of the
Lascaux Caves! Just so, our marine ancestors could not conceivably have
developed fire, architecture, astronomy or flight had they not undertaken
the risky task of settling a hostile dry world.
It is thus at least probable that the evolutionary task of becoming
creatures of the Universe, freed from the hazards of one planet, will alter
us in ways beyond the imagination of our contemporary bean-counting culture!
It will cost lives and treasure, and be enormously difficult - but the prize
is nothing less than a Universe open to trillions.
The threat from NEO impacts, then, is unique above all other hazards facing
civilization- it is inevitable, fatal, predictable and avoidable - true;
but, much more than these things, it can be turned to our profit and the
enhancement of Mind and Life. It shows clearly the true role of Mindful
humanity in a Cosmos often deemed to be purposeless - the dispersal and
development of Life and Mind on the largest possible canvas.
This Idea of Evolutionary Cosmic Destiny, is revolutionary in its
implications and evolutionary in its scope - but is it ethical in today's
We have seen that, nuclear weapons apart, we are powerless against the NEO
threat without space development, and, since we are to do this, we can turn
it to our benefit. It can be accomplished without threat to any known life
forms in this solar system. Neither the Moon, Mars or asteroids and comets
have been shown to carry any lifeforms higher than a microbe- and these are
pretty doubtful by now.
The alternative, as we have seen, is the inevitable destruction of
civilization, perhaps humanity, with incalculable misery for all concerned.
To do nothing in the face of a possible alternative is itself a choice and a
decision - and amounts to suicide - since deliberately not to prevent a
preventable disaster, or to mitigate it, is an act of suicide. Moreover,
since billions of people are at risk, possibly the whole Race, we are
talking of something which has no name - Genocide is the deliberate murder
of a whole people; beyond that is the murder of a whole species, for which a
term more pejorative than genocide has yet to be coined!
To commit, by inaction, the descendants of a whole species to extermination
is an act of destruction which cannot be defended. The excuse, that it is
Nature's way, leaves out the fact that human intelligence, science, and
technology are of themselves natural outgrowths, and are
Nature's way of extending and developing Life and Mind . It is possible,
going beyond strict science for a moment, to see the development of Mind as
Nature's - some would say Providence's - response to the threat of repeated
mass extinction events. Such a view restores a sense of purpose to a
Humanity bereft of meaning these past two centuries and more, and paves the
way to a more fulfilling future in the new Millennium. We thus have to
regard opposition to space exploration, development, and colonization as a
kind of vicarious suicide leading on to genocide and worse.
The last century has seen an ideological conflict between Left and Right
which at times has brought us to the brink of annihilation. The coming
century will see, increasingly vividly, a no less important ideological
struggle, between Up and Down.
The lives of countless billions depends on the victory of the "Ups"!
1David Brez Carlisle- Dinosaurs, Diamonds, and Things from Outer Space
2 Faith Vilas, The Planet Mercury, The New Solar System, Beatty, Collins and
Chaikin, 4th Edition
Dr Michael Martin-Smith, BSc, MRCGP, FBIS, Jesmond, Salisbury St, HULL HU5
President of Space Age Associates,
Spaceguard -UK http://dspace.dial.pipex.com/home/terrace/fr77/
Author, of the book "Man Medicine and Space", available by Print on Demand
from www.iuniverse.com or Barnes and Noble booksellers at www.bn.com
CCCMENU CCC for 2003