Impact That Killed the Dinosaurs Triggered ‘Mega-Earthquake’ That Lasted Weeks to Months

Asteroid impact with Earth.

An artist's impression of what an asteroid colliding with Earth might look like. Sixty-six million years ago an event like this, although on a much smaller scale, caused 75 percent of all animals to die out. (Image: Don Davis via NASA Image and Video Library)

Sixty-six million years ago, a 10-kilometer asteroid hit Earth, triggering the extinction of the dinosaurs. New evidence suggests that the Chicxulub impact also triggered a mega-earthquake that shook the planet for weeks to months after the collision. The amount of energy released in this mega-earthquake is estimated at 1023 joules, which is about 50,000 times more energy than in the magnitude 9.1 Sumatra earthquake in 2004.

Mega-earthquake from asteroid hit

Hermann Bermúdez presented evidence of this mega-earthquake at the GSA Connects meeting in Denver. Earlier this year, with support from a GSA Graduate Student Research Grant, Bermúdez visited outcrops of the infamous Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg) mass extinction event boundary in Texas, Alabama, and Mississippi to collect data, supplementing his previous work in Colombia and Mexico documenting evidence of the catastrophic impact.

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The deformed spherule-rich layer at Gorgonilla Island (Colombia) showed that seismic activity from the mega-earthquake persisted for weeks to months after the impact.
The deformed spherule-rich layer at Gorgonilla Island (Colombia) showed that seismic activity from the mega-earthquake persisted for weeks to months after the impact. (Image: via Hermann Bermúdez)

In 2014, while fieldwork on Colombia’s Gorgonilla Island, Bermúdez found spherule deposits — layers of sediment filled with tiny glass beads (as large as 1.1 mm) and shards — known as “tektites” and “microtektites” that were ejected into the atmosphere during an asteroid impact. These glass beads formed when the heat and pressure of the impact melted and scattered the crust of the Earth, ejecting small, melted blobs into the atmosphere, then falling back to the surface as glass under the influence of gravity.

Spherule deposits on Gorgonilla Island. (Image: Hermann Bermúdez)

The rocks exposed on the coast of Gorgonilla Island tell a story from the bottom of the ocean — roughly 2 km down. About 3,000 km southwest of the impact site, sand, mud, and small ocean creatures accumulated on the ocean floor when the asteroid hit. Layers of soil and sandstone as far as 10-15 meters below the sea floor experienced soft-sediment deformation preserved in the outcrops today, which Bermúdez attributes to the shaking from the impact. Faults and deformation due to shaking continue up through the spherule-rich layer that was deposited post-impact, indicating that the shaking must have continued for the weeks and months it took for these finer-grained deposits to reach the ocean floor. Just above those spherule deposits, preserved fern spores signal the first recovery of plant life after the impact. Bermúdez explains:

“The section I discovered on Gorgonilla Island is a fantastic place to study the K-Pg boundary because it is one of the best-preserved, and it was located deep in the ocean, so it was not affected by tsunamis.”

Evidence of deformation from the mega-earthquake is also preserved in Mexico and the United States. At the El Papalote exposure in Mexico, Bermúdez observed evidence of liquefaction—when strong shaking causes water-saturated sediments to flow like a liquid. In Mississippi, Alabama, and Texas, Bermúdez documented faults and cracks associated with the mega-quake. He also records tsunami deposits at several outcrops, left by an enormous wave that was part of the cascading catastrophes resulting from the asteroid collision.

Provided by the Geological Society of America [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

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