October 04, 2009
Microorganisms Bounced Back Quicker At K-T Boundary

At the Cretaceous-Tertiary (K-T) boundary of mass species extinctions the microorganisms bounced back sooner than previously thought.

In 1980, Luis Alvarez and his collaborators stunned the world with their discovery that an asteroid impact 65 million years ago probably killed off the dinosaurs and much of the the world's living organisms. But ever since, there has been an ongoing debate about how long it took for life to return to the devastated planet and for ecosystems to bounce back.

I haven't kept up with the Cretaceous-Tertiary (K-T) boundary extinction debate. But some scientists argue the Chicxulub asterioid impact predates the K-T boundary by a few hundred thousand years. Has that paper stood the test of time? Massive volcanic eruptions are cited as another potential cause of the extinctions. Anyone know what the state of play is in that debate?

Whether or not an asteroid impact caused the K-T extinctions an asteroid impact as big as the Chicxulub impact could wipe out humanity. It strikes me we should pay attention to the past and potential future causes of mass extinctions. I do not want the human race to go extinct. I think we've got to make a conscious effort to avoid extinction. We need to better understand extinction events (including the one we are causing right now in other species) and try to avoid that fate.

Microorganisms can bounce back pretty quickly.

Now, researchers from MIT and their collaborators have found that at least some forms of microscopic marine life the so called "primary producers," or photosynthetic organisms such as algae and cyanobacteria in the ocean recovered within about a century after the mass extinction. Previous research had indicated the process might have taken millions of years.

Well great for algae and cyanobacteria. They were only down for a century before recovering. But what does that tell you about the scope of a really big asteriod impact? Forget about species like us surviving - unless you've got 100 years worth of food stored underground enough for a small community. We need to detect and deflect the next killer asteroid.

Sounds pretty severe.

The analysis clarified the sequence of events after the big impact. Immediately after the impact, certain areas of the ocean were devoid of oxygen and hostile to most algae, but close to the continent, microbial life was inhibited for only a relatively short period: in probably less than 100 years, algal productivity showed the first signs of recovery. In the open ocean, however, this recovery took much longer: previous studies have estimated that the global ocean ecosystem did not return to its former state until 1 to 3 million years following the impact.

Rather than spend money on another trip to the Moon or Mars we ought to take the same money and put it toward defense against space threats. Ditto for other extinction threats. My motto: First, don't die.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2009 October 04 11:05 PM  Dangers Asteroids

Lono said at October 5, 2009 9:57 AM:


I like your new motto!

But you're so very correct - what is the point of civilization if we can't even prioritize at a high level??

Especially since that next one is due any time now...

Heck I haven't seen any preperation at all for the super volcano in yellowstone - which has the very real ability to wipe out half of America - and it is already showing unusual activity at a time when it is believed overdue for another eruption...

Will the Human race always be so reactive instead of proactive? - possibly - until the intelligensia finally come together to take hold of the reigns of power from the primitive Kleptocracies now in place worldwide...

random said at October 5, 2009 11:05 AM:

That's a good motto. My favorite is still "Everything will be fine as long as you keep your pants on."

The problem with focusing on keeping ourselves alive on this planet is that eventually it won't be possible. One way or another earth will eventually become inhospitable to humans. It may be the sun, an asteroid, or our own pollution. We cannot survive indefinitely unless we move beyond our planet and our solar system. There is no way to protect against every danger, so where do you draw the line.

Randall Parker said at October 6, 2009 6:35 PM:


Where to draw the line: Where it makes most economic sense. Asteroids are not remote risks. Tunguska demonstrated that. The cost of defending against them is probably in the tens of billions of dollars. The defenses also have other uses, notably scientific in the case of the asteroid discovery capability.

John Sokol said at October 7, 2009 1:14 PM:

> unless you've got 100 years worth of food stored underground enough for a small community.

What do you mean we have plenty of food, Soylent Green!
How long could 7 Billion people survive eating each other till there's no one left?

But in all reality, after such an event there will be a massive die off of humans in the immediate confusion and panic of the first few weeks. The remaining survivors should have plenty fossil fuels for a while, the last concern will be global warming or the environmental impact when the very survival of our race is on the line. I suspect any group plugged in to a large coal or oil supply would live quite nicely for the next 100 years, "City of Ember" style.

Worst case, Even if whatever disaster was so bad that there is no sun light for a several years, any community over an oil reserve should do well. Underground green houses in mine shafts, or above ground with with artificial lighting can start provide steady food after 6 months. So it's really a matter of having enough food for the first initial 6 to 9 months till you can get your community situated. Coal and oil reserves for the survivors should work long enough till the planet adequately recovers.

Randall Parker said at October 7, 2009 8:28 PM:


You make an excellent point. It is more valuable to possess the capacity to produce food than to store food. However, I think an attempt to build up green houses post-apocalypse would be very problematic. On the one hand, if most people are dead it would be possible to basically scavenge for supplies. On the other hand, a lot of those supplies would be spread around and hard to find. This would especially be the case if temperatures were tens of degrees below 0 Celsius.

Consider what you need:

- Electric generators (and parts).
- Fuel for the electric generators.
- Many many light fixtures.
- Lights that emit the right frequencies for crops.
- Insulated buildings if you are above ground.
- Heater that will burn coal or oil.
- A handy coal mine that has water pumped out if you are below ground.
- Seeds, fertilizer, and other agricultural supplies.
- Water. So probably a pump and a well. Or, better yet, ability to drill a well.

I think the oil supplies will be hard to acquire because, again, it'll be cold and dark. Oil pumps can work in the Arctic because they are built for it. But an oil pump in warmer climes won't have the right infrastructure built up around it to deal with the cold.

Of course, you could use an abandoned shopping center or perhaps an office building or school. My guess is oil/coal and generators and heat furnaces would be most problematic.

Kudzu Bob said at October 7, 2009 10:57 PM:

"Even if whatever disaster was so bad that there is no sun light for a several years, any community over an oil reserve should do well."

Good luck holding onto all those stockpiled goodies while ninety nine point nine nine nine percent of humanity starves. Things could get, well, a little ugly. In addition to the items that Randall mentions, I would suggest having, say, several million rounds of ammo on hand. Of course, you'd also need a sizable army as well, which in turn would probably require more food than a few greehouses could produce.

Read the haunting post-apocalyptic novel, "The Road," by Cormac McCarthy, for a much more realistic analysis of such a scenario than John's. It takes place roughly eight years after an unnamed catastrophe that is almost certainly a nuclear winter. The sun has yet to reappear. All photosynthesis has ceased.

In McCarthy's tale, houses and apartment buildings sit abandoned because the few survivors know that those are the very first places where the cannibals, who by this time outnumber the "good guys," look for prey. Instead, the wretched handful of people who remain alive huddle shivering in ditches or under dead trees at night, and keep moving by day. To stay in one place is to become a target.

In one chapter, the father and son--who haven't eaten in days and are so weak with hunger that they have nearly given up hope--stumble across a forgotten bomb shelter filled with enough supplies to keep them warm and well-fed for months. This miraculous find saves their lives; but soon they have to move on, taking with them only such canned goods as they can load into a single shopping cart, since they could not possibly defend their treasure against other desperate survivors

In a world of universal famine, there would be no settled communities, not anywhere.

Randall Parker said at October 9, 2009 12:00 AM:

Kudzu Bob,

8 years after a catastrophe that caused widespread hunger would be long enough for a big die-off.

No settled communities: I disagree. Settled communities are the norm that people will gravitate toward. There's no greater chance of survival from moving around than from staying point. Some will organize defenses and use guns to repel outsiders.

Apartment buildings after a collapse make sense because a group can better defend each other when clustered together.

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