Texas Cave Sediment Upends Meteorite Explanation for Global Cooling

Scientists at Hall's cave.

Archaeological excavations at Hall’s Cave exposed sediments for geochemical analysis that span from circa 20,000 to 6,000 years. (Image: Michael Waters via Texas A&M University)

Researchers say global cooling 13,000 years ago is coincident with major volcanic eruptions. Texas researchers from the University of Houston, Baylor University, and Texas A&M University have discovered evidence for why the Earth cooled dramatically 13,000 years ago, dropping temperatures by about 3°C.

The evidence is buried in a Central Texas cave, where horizons of sediment have preserved unique geochemical signatures from ancient volcanic eruptions — signatures previously mistaken for extraterrestrial impacts, researchers say. The resolution to this case of mistaken identity recently was reported in the journal Science Advances.  Alan Brandon, Ph.D., professor of geosciences at the University of Houston, said:

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After a volcano erupts, the global spread of aerosols reflects incoming solar radiation away from Earth and may lead to global cooling post-eruption for one to five years, depending on the size and timescales of the eruption. The study indicates that the episode of global cooling, scientifically known as the Younger Dryas, was caused by numerous coincident Earth-based processes, not an extraterrestrial impact. Co-author Steven Forman, Ph.D., professor of geosciences at Baylor University, said:

The Earth’s climate may have been at a tipping point at the Younger Dryas, possibly from the ice sheet discharge into the North Atlantic Ocean, enhanced snow cover and powerful volcanic eruptions that may have in combination led to intense Northern Hemisphere cooling, Forman said. Co-author Michael Waters, Ph.D., director of the Center for the First Americans at Texas A&M University, added:

University of Houston scientists Brandon and doctoral candidate Nan Sun, lead author, accomplished the isotopic analysis of sediments collected from Hall’s Cave in the Texas Hill Country. The analysis focused on difficult measurements at the parts per trillion on osmium and levels of highly siderophile elements, which include rare elements like iridium, ruthenium, platinum, palladium, and rhenium.

Global cooling from volcanic eruptions, not meteorite strikes

The researchers determined the elements in the Texas sediments were not present in the correct relative proportions to have been added by a meteor or asteroid that impacted Earth. That meant the global cooling could not have been caused by an extraterrestrial impact. It had to have been something happening on Earth. But what? Sun said:

Kenneth Befus, Ph.D., a volcanologist at Baylor University, added:

Brandon said:

A volcanic cause for the Younger Dryas is a new, exciting idea, he said. Whether a single major eruption of a volcano could drive the global cooling observed, however, is still an open question, the researchers said. Volcanic eruptions cause their most severe cooling near the source, usually in the year of the eruption, with substantially less cooling in the years after the eruption.

The Younger Dryas cooling lasted about 1,200 years, so a sole volcanic eruptive cause is an important initiating factor, but other Earth system changes, such as cooling of the oceans and more snow cover were needed to sustain this colder period, Forman said. This research underscores that extreme climate variability since the last ice age is attributed to unique Earth-bound drivers rather than extraterrestrial mechanisms. Such insights are important guidance for building better models of past and future climate change.

Provided by: Baylor University [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

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