There was a paper in Science last week that has gotten quite a bit of press. It reports further evidence in support of the idea that the Younger Dryas — a distinct period towards the end of the last ice age when the deglaciation in the Northern Hemisphere was interrupted for a period of about 1300 years — was caused by a barrage of comets hitting North America.
When the first papers on this came out last year, we expressed skepticism. We remain skeptical and our reasons remain unchanged. But we think it is worth saying a bit more on this, because the reporting on this issue has largely ignored just how big an idea this is, and therefore how much more work would need to be done before it could be taken very seriously.
For background, see the good article by Kenneth Chang in the New York Times, which, however, does not address our main concerns with the hypothesis.
The brief history is that in 2007, Firestone and others published an article in PNAS showing evidence of various materials that may be diagnostic of extraterrestrial origin (and hence an impact) in layers of sediment dating to 12.9 thousand years ago, just before the beginning of the Younger Dryas cold event. Now, in a Brevia piece in Science Kennett and others show further evidence: “abundant nanodiamonds in sediments dating to 12.9 ± 0.1 thousand calendar years before the present at multiple locations across North America.”
According to Richard Kerr’s news item that accompanies the article in Science, at least some experts are skeptical that Kennett and others have really found nanodiamonds, or that, even if they have, they are necessarily evidence of an impact. But we don’t claim enough expertise in nanodiamond detection or interpretation to have an opinion on this aspect, so let’s give them the benefit of the doubt. Suppose there really was an impact (or impacts) at the right time in the right place. We’d still be skeptical that this was a trigger for the Younger Dryas.
Among our reasons for skepticism (again, see our earlier post on this) there is a basic statistical problem. The problem is — and this context is missing from most if not all of the articles we’ve seen on this — that explaining the Younger Dryas in terms of an impact leaves all the other rapid climate change events (the so-called “Dansgaard-Oeschger events”) of the last glacial period unexplained.* One would have to either accept the conventional ideas for the causes of these events, or, alternatively, one would have to propose that there was an impact not only before the Younger Dryas, but before each of the earlier events.
We recognize that it isn’t entirely an either/or situation. Indeed, the suggestion appears to be that a cometary barrage causes various kinds of havoc, including the ice sheet collapse that led to ocean circulation change (the most well-evidenced proximal cause of rapid climate change). But the point is that if these events can happen as part of the inherent variability of the ocean-atmosphere-ice-sheet system, then there is no need to invoke the impact hypothesis in the first place. And indeed it would be virtually impossible to show it was other than mere chance that comet impacts occurred at the right time, especially given that it would still be necessary to show that the ice sheet would care about comets, which we also consider unlikely (see the good discussion — particularly Mauri Pelto’s comments — on this over at the Open Mind Blog). On the other hand, if abrupt climate changes don’t happen on their own — if they only happen due to extraterrestrial causes — then one would want to see evidence of impacts for at least a few more of them, not just one. That would be a truly exceptional paradigm-breaking discovery, going against just about everything we think we know about the system.
We emphasize that we are not saying “the Younger Dryas can’t have been caused by a comet, unless all the Dansgaard-Oeschger events were caused by comets”. We’re saying that we see no need to invoke such an hypothesis, so the level of proof required for this extraordinary idea will need to be extraordinarily strong. So far, it doesn’t appear that that is the case.
Think about it. If it turned out that rapid climate change events are caused by comets, it would imply the climate system is far more stable than we thought, that abrupt climate change events are not part of the inherent variability of climate during glacial periods. That would perhaps allay fears that we could be pushing the system towards an abrupt climate change in the future. On the other hand, it would also suggest that cometary impacts are far far more common than we thought. Now that would be news. Perhaps further research by Kennett, Firestone and others will indeed show that to be the case. We’re not, however, holding our breath.
*Not to mention that there is an event similar to the Younger Dryas at the end of at least one other glacial period, “termination III” (see e.g. Carlson et al., 2008).