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Ancient supernova may have triggered eco-catastrophe

ulted with his wife, Matilde Caelles, an immunologist at the National Institutes of Health who had done her masters thesis on microscopic algae, to learn if the paleontological record included an extinction that had unusual characteristics suggestive of a potential link to a supernova.

Such an extinction would have had especially pronounced effects on the plankton and the marine organisms, Bentez explains.

Caelles pointed out that evidence existed for a widespread extinction of plankton and other marine organisms about 2 million years ago, and noted that scientists are still debating the possible causes of the event.

Based on the minimal distance we expected for a supernova in the Scorpius-Centaurus association at that time, I then did some calculations to explore the potential effects on Earth, says Bentez.

He found that cosmic ray emissions from a supernova could have had a potentially devastating effect on the Earths ozone layer, an upper layer of the atmosphere that absorbs harmful ultraviolet emissions from the sun and other sources.

This would have produced a significant reduction in phytoplankton abundance and biomass, with devastating effects on other marine populations, such as bivalves, Bentez says.

Bentez emphasizes that the theory, while provocative, is consistent with the paleontological evidence, and also with the pattern of movement of the Scorpius-Centaurus group, which would have been at its closest to Earth at that time.

He concedes, though, that more evidence will be needed to firmly establish the theory. In particular, more detailed searches for supernova-produced isotopes in the geological record would show whether there was a tight temporal correspondence between the supernova explosion and the extinction event. Isotope searches could also offer crucial information about the physical processes involved in supernova explosions.

People study supernovae using telescopes and sup
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Contact: Michael Purdy
mcp@jhu.edu
410-516-7160
Johns Hopkins University
8-Jan-2002


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