Production of sulphate-rich vapour during the Chicxulub impact and implications for ocean acidification
The mass extinction event at the Cretaceous/Palaeogene boundary 65.5 Myr ago has been widely attributed to the Chicxulub impact, but the mechanisms of extinction remain debated. In the oceans, near-surface planktonic foraminifera suffered severe declines, in contrast to the relatively high survival rates of bottom-dwelling benthic foraminifera. 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 extinctions. 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 time. 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.