The extinction of the dinosaurs and around three-quarters of all living species was almost certainly caused by a large asteroid impact 66 million years ago. Seismic data acquired across the impact site in Mexico have provided spectacular images of the approximately 200-kilometre-wide Chicxulub impact structure. In this Review, we show how studying the impact site at Chicxulub has advanced our understanding of formation of large craters and the environmental and palaeontological consequences of this impact. The Chicxulub crater’s asymmetric shape and size suggest an oblique impact and an impact energy of about 1023 joules, information that is important for quantifying the climatic effects of the impact. Several thousand gigatonnes of asteroidal and target material were ejected at velocities exceeding 5 kilometres per second, forming a fast-moving cloud that transported dust, soot and sulfate aerosols around the Earth within hours. These impact ejecta and soot from global wildfires blocked sunlight and caused global cooling, thus explaining the severity and abruptness of the mass extinction. However, it remains uncertain whether this impact winter lasted for many months or for more than a decade. Further combined palaeontological and proxy studies of expanded Cretaceous–Palaeogene transitions should further constrain the climatic response and the precise cause and selectivity of the extinction.
The Chicxulub impact ended the Mesozoic era and was almost certainly the principal cause of the Cretaceous–Palaeogene (K–Pg) mass extinction.
Seismic images of the approximately 200-km-wide Chicxulub impact structure reveal that it has the same morphology as the largest impact basins on other solid planetary bodies, such as the Lise Meitner and Klenova craters on Venus.
Rocks from the impact site and asteroid were ejected within an impact plume and ejecta curtain. Ejection velocity is a function of shock pressure, with the most-shocked rocks leaving the impact site at >11 km s–1 (escape velocity).
The high-velocity ejecta interacted with the Earth’s atmosphere to form a fast-moving cloud that carried dust, soot, sulfate aerosols and other ejecta around the Earth within 4–5 hours of impact.
Ejecta within the cloud, along with soot from wildfires, caused the Earth to become dark and cold for about a decade, and induced longer-term (decadal to millennial) temperature changes and chemical changes in the ocean.
This extended impact winter explains the abruptness and severity of the mass extinction, as well as its selective impact on different organisms.
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The authors thank S. Gulick and the rest of the Expedition 364 scientists for their invaluable contributions and thoughtful discussions. Expedition 364 was jointly funded by the European Consortium for Ocean Research Drilling (ECORD) and ICDP, with contributions and logistical support from the Yucatán State Government and Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM). J.V.M. was funded by NERC grant NE/P005217/1. T.J.B. was funded by NSF-OCE 1736951. J.B. was funded through the VeWA consortium (“Past Warm Periods as Natural Analogues of our High-CO2 Climate Future”) by the LOEWE programme of the Hessen Ministry of Higher Education, Research and the Arts, Germany.
The authors declare no competing interests.
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- Cretaceous–Palaeogene (K–Pg) boundary
The boundary between the Mesozoic and Cenozoic eras, that marks the transition from the Cretaceous (K) period to the Palaeogene (Pg) period.
- Peak ring
A circular feature within an impact basin composed of a ring of hills.
- Impact structure
An impact crater that is covered, eroded or altered in some way.
- Transient crater
The maximum size of the shock-induced bowl-shape cavity formed after collision. We note that the transient crater is rather a virtual construct, because the excavation flow ceased along the crater wall at different times. Collapse first occurs at the deepest point of the cavity and last near the pre-impact surface.
- Ejecta curtain
Ejecta leaving the growing crater in the shape of a gradually expanding inverted cone.
- Impact crater
The depression in the ground formed by a meteorite impact.
- Impact melt rock
Solidified melt formed by high-pressure melting of rocks during an impact.
Rocks created or modified by one or more impacts of a meteorite.
- Suevitic impact breccia (or suevite)
A polymict impact breccia containing shocked and unshocked lithic and mineral clasts, and particles of impact melt rock.
- Impact plume
Cloud of gas and fine debris that rapidly expands away from the impact site at high velocity.
- Pα zone
Interval defined by the total range of the planktonic foraminifer Parvulorugoglobigerina eugubina.
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Morgan, J.V., Bralower, T.J., Brugger, J. et al. The Chicxulub impact and its environmental consequences. Nat Rev Earth Environ 3, 338–354 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43017-022-00283-y
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