Mass extinction and mass speciation events are prominently featured in creation vs. evolution debates.1 Evolutionists argue that the mass extinction events were sufficiently tepid and allowed enough life-forms to survive so that they could naturally evolve during the mass speciation events occurring thereafter. Creationists respond by pointing out that the mass extinction events appear to be too catastrophic for the mass speciation events to be explained by naturalistic evolution. They also point out that at least some of the time windows between the mass extinction and mass speciation events are too narrow for naturalistic evolution. Thus, some major points of contention between creationists and evolutionists are over the questions of, Just how catastrophic were the mass extinction events? And how long were the time windows between the mass extinction events and the mass speciation events?
The second greatest—and best researched—of all the known mass extinction events is the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event (CPEE). It occurred 66.043 ± 0.043 million years ago when an asteroid at least 10 kilometers (6 miles) in diameter crashed into Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula.2While geologists have agreed (since 1980) that this asteroid collision was a major factor in the extinction of both the dinosaurs and 75 percent or more of all species on Earth at that time, for more than two decades many geologists have argued that supervolcanic eruptions in the Deccan region of India were an even bigger factor.
The debate over whether the asteroid or supervolcanoes were most responsible for the CPEE was resolved a year ago by the work of two independent research teams. The first team performed precision dating measurements that established that the Deccan supervolcanoes’ eruptions were dramatically accelerated within 0.05 million years of the asteroid collision and that such accelerated eruptions were “consistent with transient effects of impact-induced seismic energy” arising from the asteroid collision.3 The second team performed detailed seismic modeling of the geophysical consequences of a large asteroid colliding with Earth.4 The second team showed that the seismic energy generated by the CPEE asteroid collision was more than sufficient to trigger volcanic eruptions worldwide. This team concluded that the asteroidal impactor would have greatly accelerated (and sustained for at least hundreds of years) the eruption of lava, dust, and gas from the Deccan supervolcanoes.
The second team’s seismic modeling strongly suggested that the ash, dust, and gas generated by both the asteroid collision and the Deccan supervolcanoes should have produced an enduring “winter” that would have killed off all the large-bodied animals on the face of the earth. In such a winter, so much dust, ash, and gas is forced into Earth’s atmosphere that most of the sun’s light is blocked from reaching Earth’s surface. With so little light reaching Earth’s surface, photosynthesis shuts down to such a degree that large-bodied animals (animals with adult body sizes larger than about a pound) would have hardly anything to eat and would starve to death. Many scientists have also pointed out that the gas, dust, and ash likely resulted in all aboveground terrestrial animals dying of pulmonary failure long before they would have starved to death.
While the theoretical evidence for a several-years-long winter resulting from the asteroid collision and the supervolcanoes is strong, until recently there has existed little observational evidence to support such an outcome. Now, for the first time, a team of eight geologists presents such evidence.5 Their evidence, reported in the latest issue of Geology, comes from high-resolution organic paleothermometry that the team performed on three shallow cores in the paleoshelf of New Jersey. These measurements established that severe climatic cooling immediately followed the CPEE impactor. Furthermore, their measurements showed that the “‘impact winter’ occurred superimposed on a long-term cooling trend that followed a warm phase in the latest Cretaceous” period.6 That is, before the asteroid collision, the Deccan supervolcanoes were ejecting so much gas, dust, and ash into the atmosphere that it brought about a global cooling trend. The asteroid collision by itself blasted an enormous amount of gas, dust, and ash into the atmosphere. It also greatly accelerated the eruption of yet more gas, dust, and ash from volcanoes all over the world, including the Deccan supervolcanoes.
The removal of any reasonable doubt about the impact winter associated with the CPEE settles the debate about the severity of the CPEE and what it implies about the mass extinction of Earth’s life at that time. No large-bodied terrestrial animals would have survived. Furthermore, new research establishes that mass speciation followed rapidly after the CPEE. Within just 0.07 million years after the CPEE, a radiation of placental mammals occurred.7 Within 0.9 million years after the CPEE, a complete restoration of the taxonomic richness, and then some, that existed at the height of the Cretaceous occurred.8
Thus, advancing research findings on the CPEE affirm the conclusion that at least some of the mass extinction events were far too catastrophic for the mass speciation events that follow them to be explained by naturalistic evolution. As I explain and document in chapter 12 of Improbable Planet, this conclusion is all the more confirmed in noting that the mass extinction and mass speciation events throughout Earth’s history perfectly compensate for the ongoing brightening of the sun and optimally prepare Earth for the entry of human beings.9