Mass extinction causes debated



A highly charged atmosphere and a tacit agreement to disagree marked the first Union session at the 1985 AGU Fall Meeting,“Where Are We Now on Iridium, Anomalies, Extinctions, Impacts, Volcanism, and Periodicity?” The session brought together a remarkably large and varied group of participants who are studying topics related to mass extinctions. “The important thing is bringing all these people together, sharing … how they think,” said J. John Sepkoski, Jr., of the University of Chicago, who presented one of the session's invited papers.

The controversies under discussion included the nature of the catastrophic events that may have occurred 65 million years ago to precipitate mass extinctions between the Cretaceous and Tertiary periods and whether mass extinctions have occurred at regular intervals (and if so, what those intervals are). Both the group advocating extraterrestrial impacts and that advocating episodes of unusual terrestrial volcanism seemed to agree that both kinds of catastrophes would have brought on highly acidic precipitation that could have threatened many life forms. In fact, one paleontologist called for closer examination of patterns of survival during periods of mass extinctions in order to gain clues about the nature of the events that may have brought on the extinctions. “The survivors … set limits on what could have occurred,” said William A. Clemens of the University of California, Berkeley.