If you’re plugged into science news outlets, you’ve likely seen stories about a very large crater that has been detected underneath Hiawatha Glacier in northwest Greenland (e.g., at Science News). Here’s the link to the peer-reviewed article in Science Advances, by Kurt Kjær and colleagues. This paper is being touted by some outlets as likely vindication for the “Younger Dryas Impact Hypothesis”, made famous by Firestone et al. (2007). This may sound exciting to science consumers, but for many climate scientists, this is cause for groans, not exhilaration. After seeing the headlines, a few questions that might arise are: 1) How much does Kjær et al. (2018) support Firestone et al. (2007)? 2) Wait, what was Firestone et al. (2007) all about? Actually, the first question might be: 3) What the heck is the Younger Dryas, anyway?
Let’s take these in opposite order:
Question 3: What’s the Younger Dryas? It’s the last gasp of the Pleistocene glacial Epoch. Warming and retreat of the ice sheets didn’t always occur gradually. Over the course of several thousand years (about 20,000 to 11,700 years ago), the ice retreated in fits and starts. Often, the warming was abrupt, and often the warming was actually reversed for many years or decades as Earth’s atmosphere and ocean constantly adjusted to the shifting ice cover and long-term warming trend. The Younger Dryas is the last big cold snap before the relative warmth and stability of the Holocene. It was long — from 12,900 to 11,700 years ago. The transition both into and out of the Younger Dryas was was also abrupt — like decades or shorter. (Alley 2000)
Question 2: In 2007, Firestone et al. proposed that a comet exploded over North America, leading to myriad devastations: Widespread wildfires across North America, collapse of the Clovis culture, the extinction of North American megafauna (e.g., woolly mammoths), and the abrupt onset of the Younger Dryas. Firestone et al. proposed a comet in part because there was no impact crater in North America and in part because the geochemical evidence they presented was “more consistent with an impactor that was carbon-rich, nickel–iron-poor”.
What followed was a contentious tear-down of the Firestone hypothesis. I have 40 papers saved on my computer about this stuff, and it got nasty. Not only were the conclusions disputed, but also the results. Some scientists presented contrary evidence using similar methods (Paquay et al. 2009; Daulton et al. 2010). Others questioned the validity of evidence presented by Firestone et al. (Buchanan et al. 2008; Tian et al. 2011). Some scientists even tried to replicate the results at the same study sites but couldn’t ( Surovell et al. 2009; Haynes et al. 2010). By 2011, Pinter et al. published a paper called “The Younger Dryas impact hypothesis: A requiem”, declaring it dead. Of the original 12 lines of evidence provided by Firestone et al., 7 proved unreproducible, and the others were given alternate explanations, such as non-catastrophic mechanisms (e.g., an uptick in wildfires can be explained by drought) and/or terrestrial origins (e.g., magnetic grains occur many river sediments).
Question 1: So along comes this new paper that says there is an impact crater in North America. That’s big news, right? Yeah, it’s cool. But are Firestone et al. are vindicated? Absolutely not — at least not yet. Here’s a few problems that jump out to me about making the leap in logic from “there’s an impact crater in Greenland in the Pleistocene” to the conclusion that this impact caused the Younger Dryas:
- The timing. The authors of the new paper state that the impact probably occurred during the Pleistocene. That’s about 2,576,000 years of Earth history, and the Younger Dryas is dated down to decades. Looking deeper at the paper, it seems most likely that the impact was in the later part of the Pleistocene, so it is absolutely possible that it hit at 12,900 years ago. However, even if we give error bars of ± 100 years on the Younger Dryas onset and say the impact had to be during the last 100,000 years of the Pleistocene (the last 3.8%), there’s still a 99.8% chance that the impact did not overlap with the Younger Dryas onset. So it’s too soon; we need to date this crater.
- Even if an impact occurred at 12,900 years ago, it doesn’t change the state of the evidence regarding mammoths or humans. As summarized in several of the above papers, there’s no consensus of evidence for a catastrophe at the Younger Dryas for either.
- We still need an explanation for getting out of the Younger Dryas at 11,700 years ago. And we still need an explanation for the various other abrupt climate shifts apparent in the Greenland ice cores. So the terrestrial mechanisms that caused other events (ice sheet and ocean dynamics) could still cause the Younger Dryas even if an asteroid could, too.
- The authors of this new paper are very clear that their geochemistry matches an iron meteorite. Firestone et al. were very clear that their geochemistry matched an iron-poor impactor like a comet.
To their credit, Kjær et al. are appropriately cautious in voicing implications. They never mention the Firestone hypothesis; they are conservative in their dating; and they do not speculate about broader implications beyond “this impact very likely had significant environmental consequences in the Northern Hemisphere and possibly globally”. (It does seem to be one of the top 25 largest in the world.) Now, if it turns out we later find this impact was at 12,900 years ago, that will get me excited.
p.s. If you’re wondering, yes, there’s also an Older Dryas period. It’s similarly cold but much shorter and happened around 14,000 years ago. Both periods are named after the Dryas genus, which is abundant in Scandinavian lake samples dating to these periods.