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Production of sulphate-rich vapour during the Chicxulub impact and implications for ocean acidification

Nature Geoscience volume 7, pages 279282 (2014) | Download Citation


The mass extinction event at the Cretaceous/Palaeogene boundary 65.5 Myr ago has been widely attributed to the Chicxulub impact1,2, but the mechanisms of extinction remain debated1,3,4,5,6. In the oceans, near-surface planktonic foraminifera suffered severe declines, in contrast to the relatively high survival rates of bottom-dwelling benthic foraminifera7. The vapour produced by an impact into Chicxulub’s target rocks, which include sulphate-rich anhydrite, could have led to global acid rain, which can explain the pattern of oceanic extinctions4,5. However, it has been suggested that most of the sulphur in the target rocks would have been released as sulphur dioxide and would have stayed in the stratosphere for a long time6. Here we show, from impact experiments into anhydrite at velocities exceeding 10 km s−1, that sulphur trioxide dominates over sulphur dioxide in the resulting vapour cloud. Our experiments suggest that the Chicxulub impact released a huge quantity of sulphur trioxide into the atmosphere, where it would have rapidly combined with water vapour to form sulphuric acid aerosol particles. We also find, using a theoretical model of aerosol coagulation following the Chicxulub impact, that larger silicate particles ejected during the impact efficiently scavenge sulphuric acid aerosol particles and deliver the sulphuric acid to the surface within a few days. The rapid surface deposition of sulphuric acid would cause severe ocean acidification and account for preferential extinction of planktonic over benthic foraminifera.

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The authors thank the GXII technical crew for their support. This research was supported in part by the Japanese Ministry of Education, Science, Sports and Culture (MEXT) and by a joint research project of the Institute of Laser Engineering, Osaka University. This study has been supported by Grant-in-Aid 2424407 and 25120006. The authors also thank late G. Igarashi for discussions during the early phase of this study.

Author information


  1. Planetary Exploration Research Center, Chiba Institute of Technology, Chiba 275-0016, Japan

    • Sohsuke Ohno
    • , Kosuke Kurosawa
    • , Takafumi Matsui
    •  & Seiji Sugita
  2. University of Occupational and Environmental Health, Kitakyushu 807-8555, Japan

    • Toshihiko Kadono
  3. Department of Complexity Science and Engineering, University of Tokyo, Kashiwa 277-8561, Japan

    • Taiga Hamura
    •  & Seiji Sugita
  4. Department of Earth and Space Science, Graduate School of Science, Osaka University, Osaka 560-0043, Japan

    • Tatsuhiro Sakaiya
  5. Institute of Laser Engineering, Osaka University, Osaka 565-0871, Japan

    • Keisuke Shigemori
    • , Yoichiro Hironaka
    • , Takayoshi Sano
    •  & Takeshi Watari
  6. Institut national de la recherche scientifique—Énergie Matériaux Télécommunications, Varennes J3X 1S2, Canada

    • Kazuto Otani


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S.O., T.K., T.M. and S.S. conceived the study and wrote the paper. S.O., T.K., K.K., T.H., T. Sakaiya, K.S., Y.H., T. Sano, T.W., K.O. and S.S. carried out the experimental work using the GXII and analysed the results. S.O. and S.S. created the sweeping out model and carried out the calculations.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Sohsuke Ohno.

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