Did a Huge Volcano in India Help kill off the Dinosaurs? A Fun Journey to Search for the Answer!


DeccanBlog - Ghats

The Scenic “Ghats” in the Deccan Plateau in Maharashtra

In December I got a phone call from a friend, Mark Richards, inviting me to join a small team of researchers on a trip to India. He said we would be looking for clues to the mystery of the extinction of the dinosaurs 66 million years ago.

It was an offer I could not refuse, and, indeed it proved to be an expedition of great adventure and learning – learning about how geologists, paleontologists and other scientists collect data and use modern scientific techniques to piece together interesting aspects of the earth’s history.

A Little Background

What killed the dinosaurs? It is now widely accepted that it was a large extra-terrestrial object (a meteorite or comet) that hit the earth 66 million years ago. The object was as large as a big city and came crashing into the earth at a speed of 30 km per second – so fast that it went through the earth’s atmosphere in a fraction of an instant. It pulverized the rocks constituting the earth’s crust where it hit, and penetrated all the way into the magma, creating fierce supersonic shock waves with the energy equal to millions of times the Hiroshima nuclear bomb. The rocks then rebounded violently throwing ejecta all over the earth. The ejecta included fused rock that had vitrified into glassy spherules called tektites.

The person most responsible for piecing this story together from the geological evidence is Walter Alvarez, Professor of Geology at UC Berkeley. He has written a beautiful book, T-Rex and the Crater of Doom,  which I urge you to read. It is a page turner, an evocatively written scientific thriller, as Alvarez uncovers unmistakable evidence of the meteorite hit and finds its traces in the rocks around the earth. He then goes on to actually find the (then unknown) meteorite crater in the Yucatan peninsula in a triumph of scientific inference and painstaking geological exploration.

My Book Club fellow-member and friend, Mark Richards, now a Provost at the University of Washington, has been a Professor of Geophysics, University of California, Berkeley since 1994. He had induced us to read the book and later he introduced me to Walter Alvarez. I ended up funding a Ph. D. student (a paleontologist called Robert DePalma) who had made a remarkable find in North Dakota. and now has published some paradigm shifting papers. If you are curious about his findings read this  very informative article in the New Yorker.

Does the Meteorite Explain Everything?

However questions still remain about how exactly the dinosaurs met their demise. The precise mechanism by which billions of dinosaurs and other species vanished forever is still not known – it takes a lot for abundant, well-adapted, dominant species inhabiting all of the niches of the earth for over a hundred million years, to go extinct. Paleontologists and evolutionary biologists are still making models to try and explain numerically how this could have happened from the aftermath of the meteorite hit.

One possible scenario has to do with a massive volcano eruption in India. 

The Deccan Traps and our Area of Travel in India

The second largest volcanic eruption in earth’s history occurred in India   – it lasted for a million years, and the lava flow created the entire Deccan plateau plus nine times the volume of the Deccan which is beneath the Arabian Sea. More than 500,000 cubic kilometers of lava was released – a small continent’s worth! By contrast the Mount St. Helens eruption was only about 1 cubic km. The basalts from this flow are called the Deccan Traps. The volcanic eruptions started before the meteorite impact, so were not initiated by it, but they went on for a long time after the impact. Some geologists believe that the meteorite hit was so severe – it caused a global earthquake of magnitude 11, according to a paper by Mark Richards – that it loosened the pathways of lava flow, making them substantially more voluminous and releasing life-destroying noxious gases, such as Sulfur-di-oxide that enveloped the earth for a long time. According to these geologists this was a contributing cause of the mass extinction.

Trip to the Deccan Plateau – January 2020

One such scientist, who was part of the team that I joined last month on the trip to the Deccan Ghats, is Paul Renne, Director of the Geochronology lab in Berkeley – a world class facility with state-of-the-art dating of rocks.

Above is a video of Paul Renne at an outcrop near Polladpur, Maharashtra. Paul has demonstrated that the rocks here are 66 (plus or minus 1) million years old and we are looking at lava deposits from before and after the meteorite hit, 66 million years ago. The “Polladpur” Formation on top (Post K-T boundary) represents a flood of lava, he believes was loosened by the meteorite impact. This released toxic gases in copious quantities causing mass extinction.

Paul uses Argon-Argon dating to very precisely determine the age of the Deccan basalts. He brought along his Ph. D student, Ande. Mark, Paul, Ande and I were also joined by Professor Kanchan Pande, a senior professor and  geologist at IIT Bombay, who acted as our host and directed us to interesting sites and outcroppings straddling the dinosaur extinction geological boundary (known as the K-T boundary).

Paul, Ande and Kanchan drove more than 3500 km in the Deccan ghats and collected upwards of a thousand kg of rock samples for shipment to Paul’s lab and Ar-Ar dating.

IIT Bombay Sam[ples

At IIT Bombay: Ande, Paul Renne, Kanchan Pande and Mark Richards with bags of rock samples for shipment to the US.

Mark and I joined them for more than 1500 km driven over 6 days. I got to witness the process by which interesting rock candidates are identified and also to help in chiseling out samples!

It was a fun trip. The ghats are very beautiful – they make a rugged landscape of weathered plateau and deep sinuous river valleys. It was a pleasure to traverse this landscape and to sample some of the small towns, with their great food and welcoming local hotels.

Here are some pictures including our visit to the Sula winery in Nashik, 200 km north of Mumbai.









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16 Responses to Did a Huge Volcano in India Help kill off the Dinosaurs? A Fun Journey to Search for the Answer!

  1. Arun Jain says:

    What a great experience and very cool you were part of it Ashok. The video clip with Paul Renne had me wanting to hear more from him about the K-Boundary and understand better what he was pointing to. Perhaps you could add a map showing the paths traversed?

  2. Sue Zeni says:

    Thank you, ASHOK, for the stimulating, FUN post. In these dreary days of shelter in place, it is great to be reminded that there are fascinating mysteries out there for us to explore, in lovely exotic parts of the world. Let’s hope we can get back to pursuing adventures soon.

  3. Romita says:

    So fascinating, thanks for sharing Ashok Uncle!

  4. ayecapitalist says:

    Thank you, Romita! Good to hear from you. Is life good and healthy? A. U.

    • Raju Reddy says:

      Wow what fun things you have been up to, my friend. This is truly fascinating. I knew you are a man of diverse interests though never knew there was a Indiana Jones in you 😀

  5. Dev Vaish says:

    Thanks, brother Ashok, for sharing this fabulous paper – informing about the most significant event in the History of Life on Earth. Your expedition of great adventure and learning has generated an intense curiosity in me. I am now stirred up to read all the related articles.

    A sudden, random encounter with space junk or the large extra-terrestrial object (a meteorite or comet) that hit the earth 66 million years ago, had drastically altered the evolution of Life on Earth.
    An impact so large that it triggered the mass extinction through volcanic eruptions, super tsunami waves and the world-wide earthquake (possibly a thousand times stronger than the biggest earthquake ever experienced in human history).

    Your visit to the Deccan plateau, WoW. The lava flow created the entire Deccan plateau plus nine times the volume of the Deccan which is beneath the Arabian Sea.

    Although most dinosaur species thrived a million years before the impact, atleast one was alive at the time of the impact. May have been born in the Cretaceous age and died in the Paleocenespecies age.

    I see your article as a contributing factor in piecing together, the works of Paleontology – which is maddening work …. its progress typically measured in millimetres.
    Yet, it is absolutely fascinating!!

  6. Kiran says:

    Loved reading your blog, thanks for sharing. What an exciting trip, it made fascinating reading.

  7. Parvati Dev says:

    Ashok, that must have been a fun and mind-extending trip! You have some really great travels. I also read The New Yorker article about De Palma. Fascinating! What is his current academic standing? It often takes a while for controversial theories to become accepted (“paradigm shifts”). Think about how long it took for scientists to accept Wegener’s hypothesis of plate tectonics, and now it is our current accepted dogma.

    Keep on traveling, Ashok! This pandemic will also end.

    • ayecapitalist says:

      DePalma is finishing up his Ph. D. at FAU. Yes there are some controversies I understand. A lot of his stuff he hasn’t published and so talks about only in private. The research community are waiting t see the stuff and judge some of the claims.

  8. Shankar Bhattacharya says:

    Fascinating trip report, Ashok. Thanks for sharing.
    A few years ago, Kimi and I visited The Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller about 70 miles from Calgary Alberta. The museum has one of the largest display of Dinosaurs. I am not not sure if you have visited the Museum. If not, you may want to visit the Museum and the workshop attached to it. Similar to your learning from the Deccan Ghats, the Museum provides fascinating hypotheses with hundreds of exhibits on the extinction of Dinosaurs in the North America.
    Wonderful trip report!

    • ayecapitalist says:

      The Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller seems quite fascinating. Will visit next time I go to Calgary. I am always amazed at the wealth of deductions people can make from the rocks and fossils. Thanks, Shankar

  9. It’s been awhile. Glad to see you are still out and about and doing interesting research. I was interested in geology and then paleontology as a young adult. Back in the day I did a number of field trips to the Mazon Creek region in Southern Illinois, which had been exposed via massive strip mining operations. Those were the days when you could just show up and they’d let you spend all day in the strip mine pits. Also spent a lot of time collecting geodes in the Keokuk region near the Missiissippi River. I love rocks, folds, faults and compression. Your post is just super fantastic thanks so much.

  10. Akhil Kumar says:

    Thanks for this marvelous piece, Ashok. Truly fantastic and insightful. Great to see you are into more exciting adventures and as sharp as ever!

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