Science Interviews


Mon, 30th Nov 2015

Volcanoes didn't do-in the dinosaurs

Dr Anja Schmidt, Leeds University

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Over the past 40 years, the exact cause of the death of the dinosaurs has been Dinosaurhotly debated. Some favour the theory that a massive meteor hit the Earth and changed the climate, while others argue that a sequence of huge volcanic eruptions also contributed to the mass extinction. Research this week from Leeds University has poured cold water on the latter theory, suggesting that the impacts of these volcanoes would have been relatively small. Georgia Mills spoke to lead researcher Anja Schmidt to find out how they investigated a mystery 60 million years old...

Anja - Iím running climate models and, what I did is, I gathered all the information we have about this volcanism that happened 65-66 million years ago. So we needed to know, how long were these eruptions, how much volcanic gases were emitted and then once we had all this information, we put that in a very sophisticated computer model, and then we could simulate what these omissions would do to the environment, but also to climate.

Georgia - And what did you find out when you ran these simulations?

Anja - Some researchers, previously, actually suggested that, because of these volcanic eruptions, temperatures on earth would drop really drastically and they call this a so called ďvolcanic winterĒ.  Just imagine, really, really cold surface temperatures.  But what we find actually when running this climate model with all the information we gathered, we find that temperatures didnít drop that drastically.  So the situation wasnít as grim as previously suggested by some scientists.  So with our work, we actually find that because there is a drop in temperature, but it would probably be okay for most animals and plants, so they would have been able to cope with these temperature changes.

Georgia - Why would a volcano erupting cause a drop in temperature in the first place?

Anja - So, volcanos emit a lot of gases, and one of the most prominent gases is sulphur dioxide and, once sulphur dioxide is in the atmosphere, it actually gets chemically converted to form very, very small particles Ė you canít see them with your bare eye.  But these particles, they basically  reduce the amount of energy that comes down to the surface from the Sun.  So less energy reaches the surface and, therefore, you end up with the cooling of the Earthís surface. Weíre really sure that depending on how long this eruption lasted.  So if they lasted, for example, a decade we find that the surface temperatures returned back to normal very quickly, within a couple of decades. So, as quickly as 50 years, for example, and thatís just a normal process.  Basically thereís a big kick to the Earthís system because of these volcanic emissions and these particles in the atmosphere, so they reduce the energy but, all of these particles eventually fall out of the atmosphere, and the Earthís temperatures can basically return back to normal.

Georgia - Is it just the cooling temperatures that volcanos could have impacted?

Anja - No.  Actually some scientists actually thought about the fact that, following a volcanic eruption, the atmosphere gets very, very acidic and you get what we call ďacid rain.Ē  Acidic rain can actually damage vegetation, so we also assess this in our model, and what we actually find is rather surprising.  We find that in some parts of the world, vegetation would indeed have died off because of the acid rain but, this effect, we donít see it on a global scale.  So we canít explain a global scale mass extinction with acid rain due to volcanism.

Georgia - In your paper you mentioned that this simulation would be accurate provided that climate feedback systems, so the way the climate worked in the past, was the same as it is today.  Do we have any reason to suspect that it was the same?

Anja - We donít know for sure because we are really talking about many million years ago.  So we had to make this assumption, that was the best assumption we could make at the time, but it could well be that the climate feedbacks would actually be very different in ancient times, but we still donít know. So thatís another area of research, to understand climate feedbacks.  So how does the climate react to a volcanic forcing, as we call it, so if the system is kicked by a big volcanic eruption Ė how does it react?

Georgia - Why should we care what killed the dinosaurs that happened 60 million years ago?  Itís probably not going to happen again.  Why research this?

Anja - So, I think one thing is dinosaurs are really, really fascinating.  Young and old are fascinated by creatures that are not around anymore.  They were really, really powerful; they also looked a bit weird didnít they with their head gear, some had really nice colours and even feathers, and I think itís fascinating and they were so powerful and we still donít understand what actually killed them.  So thatís one reason to study that, and in terms of volcanic eruptions, I think itís very important to understand what volcanic eruptions can do to climate and the environment because, for sure, there may be another eruption in our lifetime.  Completely different than the eruption I was talking about in my study, but you may also know that now people are talking about ways to mitigate global warming, and one of these is called geoengineering.  So people propose to put in tiny particles into the atmosphere; very similar to what we have after a volcanic eruption.  So my work can also help to understand the consequences of doing this kind of geoengineering.



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