Meteorite impacts leave behind time-capsules of ecosystems

Glass beads that form inside hot meteors as they fall to Earth capture particles from the atmosphere, creating a kind of permanent record of historic climates.

Meteorite impacts can be very destructive. One that fell in Mexico around 66m years ago created a 180km crater and caused the extinction of dinosaurs while spewing debris and molten rock into the air. Now, in what is a fascinating tale of serendipity, researchers have found that these events don’t entirely destroy all traces of life at the site of impact. Molten rocks can capture and preserve organic matter as they cool down to form glass beads.

When a meteor enters Earth’s atmosphere, the air around the meteor gets very quickly compressed causing it to heat up, scorching everything in its path. Most of the time that is where the story ends, as the meteor burns up in the sky as a “shooting star”. But sometimes it is big enough to reach all the way to the surface and transfer its remaining energy to the ground.

This energy is dissipated, as mild earthquakes, sound shockwaves – but mostly as heat. The heat energy can be so great that it melts rocks on the surface and hurls them up in the atmosphere. Anything that comes in contact with this molten rock would presumably get burnt, leaving nothing but rocky material that cools down in the atmosphere, forming glass beads and tektites (gravel-sized natural glass). This is what City University of New York researcher Kieren Howard assumed, but he was able to show that his assumptions were wrong.

For his PhD, Howard was studying the glass beads and tektites found near the Darwin crater in Tasmania. The 1.2km wide crater was created by a meteorite impact about 800,000 years ago.

The natural glass formed during cooling is (as implied by the term glass) not crystalline. Instead of a regular arrangement of atoms, the atoms inside it are randomly arranged. Howard’s analysis, however, kept showing the presence of crystals. At first, he dismissed this as a problem with the machine or with his method of analysis. But when it kept showing up, as a good scientist, he thought he should ask an expert to look at his data.

“This is unusual,” says Chris Jeynes, a physicist at the University of Surrey. “If there were indeed crystals, then it was the result of uneven cooling, which can occur when something gets trapped inside these glass beads.”

Jeynes used proton-beam analysis, a method to peer inside the glass to reveal its elemental make-up. Inside he found carbon. “Howard had no idea what his samples were, and he was very surprised when I told him,” Jeynes says.

The natural glass formed should contain only silicon, titanium, oxygen and other metallic elements in trace amounts. Detection of carbon meant that there was some organic matter inside. The only hypothesis was that, somehow during the formation of these glass beads, they captured organic matter that was floating in the atmosphere. That organic matter might have already been in the air, but it might also include material thrown up by the impact.

Howard then went to another expert to break open these glass beads and reveal what the carbon-rich matter was. It turned out that it included were cellulose, lignin and other biopolymers. This meant that somehow this matter, which originated from plants, had survived the temperature of more than 500°C, which is what the molten rock would have reached before cooling into a glass bead. Usually these temperatures will break down the organic matter, but clearly it didn’t in this case.

Mark Sephton, a geochemist at Imperial College London, was surprised and pleased: “What the results show is that these glass beads can capture an aliquot of the atmosphere of the planet at impact. It is like a time capsule of that ecosystem.” These results are published in Nature Geoscience.

The implications are enormous. It shows that other meteorite impacts, like the one that wiped out the dinosaurs, could have created such time capsules too. Sephton is now working on finding glass beads from other impact sites to reveal information about Earth’s ancient atmosphere.

This method of analysis means that we could also go looking for similar beads on other planets, like Mars, where meteorite impacts are common. They could also reveal vital information about the past atmosphere of those planets. Maybe they captured organic matter – if it ever existed there.

“We would not know any of this if it wasn’t for Howard,” Jeynes says, adding that Howard’s persistence to find out what “the wrong results” led the researchers to a phenomenon that nobody knew existed.

This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Conversation

Meteor Crater in Arizona. (Photo: Angle Schatz/Flickr)
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Buying into broadband’s bigger picture

Reliable internet access must be viewed as a basic necessity, writes Russell Haworth, CEO of Nominet.

 

As we hurtle towards a connected future, in which the internet will underpin most aspects of our daily lives, connectivity will become a necessity and not a luxury. As a society, we need to consider the wider benefits of enabling internet connections for all and ensure no corner of the county is left out of the digital loop.

Currently, despite government incentive schemes and universal service obligations, the rollout of broadband is left largely to the market, which relies on fixed and wireless network operators justifying deployment based on their own business models. The commercial justification for broadband deployment relies on there being sufficient demand and enough people to pay for a broadband subscription. Put flippantly, are there enough people willing to pay for Netflix, or Amazon? However, rather than depending on the broad appeal of consumer services we need to think more holistically about the provision of internet services. If road building decisions followed the same approach, it would equate to only building a road if everyone living in the area bought yearly gym membership for the leisure centre at the end of the new tarmac. The business case is narrow, and overlooks the far-reaching and ultimately more impactful benefits that are available.

Internet is infrastructure as much as roads are, and could easily prove attractive to a wider range of companies investing in digital technology who stand to gain from internet-enabled communities. Health services are one of the most compelling business cases for internet connectivity, especially in remote, rural communities that are often in the “final five per cent” or suffering with below average internet speeds. Super-fast broadband, defined as 30 Mbps, is now available to 89 per cent of UK homes, but only 59 per cent of rural dwellings can access these speeds.

We mustn’t assume this is a minority; rural areas make up 85 per cent of English land and almost ten million people (almost a fifth of the population) live in rural communities. This figure is rising, and ageing ‒ on average, 23.5 per cent of the rural population is over 65 compared to 16.3 per cent in urban areas ‒ and this presents complicated healthcare challenges for a NHS already struggling to meet demand. It goes without saying that accessibility is an issue: only 80 per cent of rural residents live within 4km of a GP’s surgery compared to 98 per cent of the urban population.

While the NHS may not have the resources to build more surgeries and hospitals, robust broadband connections in these areas would enable them to roll out telehealth options and empower their patients with healthcare monitoring apps and diagnostic tools. This would lower demand on face-to-face services and could improve the health of people in remote areas; a compelling business case for broadband.

We can’t afford to rely on “one business case to rule them all” when it comes to internet connectivity – the needs run far beyond Netflix and Spotify, and the long-term, economic and social benefits are vast. It’s time to shift our thinking, considering internet connectivity as essential infrastructure and invest in it accordingly, especially when it comes to the needs of the remote, rural areas of the country.

Russell Haworth joined Nominet as CEO in 2015. He leads the organisation as it develops its core registry business, explores the potential of new technologies in the global internet sector, and delivers on its commitment to ensuring the internet is a force for good.

This article was taken from a New Statesman roundtable supplement "The Internet as Infrastructure: Why rural connectivity is crucial to the UK’s success"

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