Mars Earth NASAThere’s no shortage of candidates for the cause of the mass extinctions of prehistory. But experts have found flaws in every one.

Asteroid impact at Chicxulub, Yucatan clearly played a role in the Cretaceous-Tertiary (KT) extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs 65,000,000 years ago, though scientists point to the serious disruptions that had begun hundreds of thousands of years before with the basalt flows of the Deccan Traps.1 Giant basalt lava flows that poisoned the atmosphere and oceans played a role in four or perhaps all five major extinctions. But other enormous basalt flows have not caused extinctions, nor did they cause the tsunamis associated with various extinctions.2  Researchers have suggested many other mechanisms, but there’s no consensus at all.

Lurking in the background, however, is a quite plausible cause, one that would have possessed the power to set off the volcanic activity, air pollution, sea level shifts, loss of oxygen in oceans, climate changes, and other phenomena associated with the extinctions.

The Martian Theory

The new candidate is the Martian Theory of Mass Extinctions (MTME). According to MTME, repeated approaches by Mars to Earth at irregular intervals caused tidal movements in already stressed geological formations, setting off widespread volcanic eruptions and activating mantle heating and plumes that led to hundreds of thousands of years of gargantuan lava flows. Mountainous tsunamis and earthquakes added to the destruction.

According to MTME, the orbits of Earth and Mars intersected at their extremities, in particular during the period from 600,000,000 to 65,000,000 years ago. At random intervals, the two planets would have close encounters, triggering the mass extinctions on Earth and parallel massive geological activity on Mars (gigantic volcanoes and the extensive uplifted Tharsis region). It seems plausible that the same gravitational force of Earth that lifted the Tharsis region caused the giant rift of the nearby Valles Marineris, though exactly how is not clear. In other words, MTME would account for several of the outstanding features of the surface of Mars. Roughly speaking, the closer the encounter, the greater the extinction on Earth and the geological activity on Mars, so MTME could account for minor extinctions as well, though these might have had other causes.

The same process of gravitational rifting that created the Valles Marineris may also have carved out the original Grand Canyon, with its smaller size reflecting the less powerful gravitational pull of Mars on the Earth.  The Barrancas del Cobre valleys of northwest Mexico, usually explained as resulting from volcanic activity 30-40,000,000 years ago, might actually have originated at the same time and in the same way.

Occasional interactions may have gone much farther back in time and account for the huge Martian outwash channels (from rapidly melted permafrost and release of water from underground reservoirs) and older volcanoes such as Elysium Mons as well.  Approaches of Earth could account for the evidence of giant tsunamis on Mars about 3.4 billion years ago.3  Tectonic activity and weathering on the Earth would have destroyed much of the evidence of early interactions, but clues on Mars could lead to a reinterpretation of early fossil evidence on Earth that would show hitherto unnoticed evidence of extinctions during the first 2 1/2 billion years of life.  Clustered dramatic fluctuations in climate and radical drops in photosynthesis, for instance, are characteristic of Slushball Earth episodes and of the five main mass extinctions, so they may share a common Martian approach trigger.   Distinct stages in the evolution of Earth systems, including the biological one, could account for the differences between them.

Encounters with Mars provide a plausible major cause of the high number of gaps in the stratigraphic record as well as of some of the overthrusts found worldwide.  In theory, as Mars came closest to the Earth, its gravity would lift and pull stratigraphic layers nearly horizontally across the landscape.4  Repeated approaches of Mars from somewhat different angles would cause the patchquilt effect seen around the world, with a few areas completely spared.  Passages of Mars are also a possible explanation for the plutonic extrusions of the anorthosite belts in both hemispheres, dated roughly 1.6–1.1 billion years ago5, and they may account for earlier extrusions in the greenstone belts.

Cyclical approaches of Mars would explain the perception of one researcher that there could have been “serial extra-terrestrial insults” that kept the extinctions going and cut short attempted recoveries.6 Finally, perhaps after a particularly close encounter, the path of the smaller Mars (roughly 1/9 the mass of Earth) would be altered by the interaction with Earth, and Mars would adopt a somewhat different orbit for tens of millions of years. Then mutual gravitational attraction would gradually bring the two planets together again.

 

Objections

Objection #1.  In keeping with the Moon’s tiny influence on tidal heating of Earth, Mars would not possess the capacity to induce sufficient heating to melt rocks and initiate the lava flows of flood basalts.  But Mars has approximately 9 times the mass of the Moon.  Therefore, at the Moon’s current distance from the Earth of 384,000 km, Mars would exert 9 times the force of the Moon.  At 38,400 km, Mars would exert 9 x 10 = 90 times the force of the Moon.  And at 3,840 km, Mars would exert 90 x 10 = 900 times the force of the Moon.

Objection #2.  Even a force hundreds of times the gravitational force of the Moon would not set off a massive flood basalt flow.  In regard to the Earth’s lithosphere, some geologists favor the explanation of the flood basalts as triggered by heating and melting of rock in a relatively small zone just outside the edge of a craton and not too deep.  The heating and melting then propagate to entrain more rock from beneath the craton to heat up, melt, and flow.7  Also, the amount of gravitational force (=tidal heating) exerted by Mars necessary to bring the initial rock up to the melting point would not be large because the gravitational pull would “seek out” the point of vulnerability where the existing temperature of the rock (increasing with depth) plus the added tidal heating (according to a gravitational pull gradient diminishing with depth) would first surpass the temperature needed to melt sufficient rock.

Alternatively, Mars’ gravitational pull could set off a powerful earthquake that would in turn lead to heating and melting of rock at the point of vulnerability.  Direct heating by tidal friction and indirect heating via a seismic intermediary could also have acted together to trigger melting of rock.

Or an approach of Mars could have triggered a response in the fluid, largely iron outer core that, in turn, would cause a mantle plume that would fuel the eruption of flood basalts.

Objection #3.  The force exerted by Earth on Mars at such close quarters would have melted the entire surface of Mars, assuming that Mars came close enough to melt a part of the Earth’s lithosphere.  This effect, however, would be constricted by tidal locking.  Either the great volcanoes or the Tharsis bulge would lock onto Earth during an encounter, and so the greatest force of Earth’s gravity would focus on that point.  In turn, the surface of the surrounding area of the northern hemisphere of Mars might indeed melt, but the locking would keep the surface of Mars’ southern hemisphere intact.  As Mars rotated upon approaching Earth, whatever part of Mars’ surface would initially come into closest contact with Earth would quickly give way to Mars’ most vulnerable and prominent locking points—the volcanoes and the Tharsis bulge—so that the southern hemisphere would never undergo sustained severe direct gravitational pull.

In other words, during a near miss Mars would have possessed a much greater capacity than the Moon to cause tidal heating on Earth yet would avoid having its entire surface melted by Earth.8

 

Searching for Evidence

How can we test the Martian Theory?

  1. Comparing the Bronze Age catastrophes and the mass extinctions could shed light on both.  For instance, there are good reasons to think that during the Bronze Age catastrophes the Earth, under the influence of Venus’ gravity, turned over four times, in approximately 2020, 1628, 1210, and 820 B.C. Giant tsunamis swept far inland in China and elsewhere.  Since Mars exerted a larger gravitational effect during its very close prehistoric encounters, it is likely that the Earth inverted in response, and much more rapidly than the ten-day duration of the Bronze Age inversions, perhaps in a single day, thereby upturning the water column and disrupting circulation patterns.  Each rapid prehistoric inversion would have caused tsunamis that dwarfed those of the Bronze Age and would have greatly contributed to the exceptional devastation of the mass extinctions.  Evidence of such tsunamis has been mistakenly attributed to bolide impacts.9  MTME would also explain the evidence for a tsunami in a southern embayment of Argentina10 better than the Chicxulub impact.  Repeated very close approaches of Mars could have caused several inversions in close proximity,11 while the rapidity and hence the destructiveness of the inversion could have been related to the closeness of approach, which would explain why the largest five mass extinctions differed in extent.
  2. We need to seek much better detail on Martian volcanic activity. For instance, pinning down the initial date of a Martian volcano to the date of a mass extinction would constitute telling evidence, and a sequence of matching dates from Martian stratigraphy would be even more persuasive.  The double extinctions of Late Devonian and Permian eons, for instance, could be matched by a parallel pattern in Martian volcanoes, and other patterns on Mars may fit the contours and idiosyncrasies of the great mass extinctions on Earth.  Meanwhile, Hellas depression at the antipodes of the Tharsis region, while clearly formed by an impact that scattered debris for 4000 km, could conceivably have been deepened, as the most vulnerable part of the antipodes, by the Earth’s gravitational pull on the opposite side of Mars.  This would account for its exceptional depth (8200 meters).
  3. Given the possibility that during some encounters Mars would have come close to the Moon, a search on the Moon also might yield evidence. In particular, the large maria formed by lava flows on the Moon might have in part be caused by early close encounters of the Moon, as well as the Earth, with the Red Planet. The disproportion between their presence on the near side (31.2 % of its surface) and the far side (2.5%) has defied explanation. But a report12 of domes ranging from less than 1 km to more than 6 km, some with steeply sloping sides, in the Compton-Belkovich thorium anomaly on the far side suggests that the gravitational pull of a passing Mars could have uplifted the domes; and it might have caused the lava flows that formed the few maria as well. In other words, pulled by Earth’s gravitational field, Mars tended to pass between Earth and Moon during encounters; but occasionally it presumably passed outside of the Moon.  The finding of major spikes in the past 400 million years in the numbers of lunar spherules, some from pyroclastic eruptions, would also be consistent with approaches by Mars.13  Again, the Bronze Age approaches of Venus to Earth could have affected the surface of the Moon as well.
  4. We can hunt for evidence that Earth pulled matter from Mars during close approaches.  For instance, the extraterrestrial origin of the Buckyballs described in L. Becker et al.14 might have been Mars, and other finds of matter on Earth of Martian origin may be tied to the dates of presumed approaches.
  5. We need to study the questions of celestial mechanics that MTME raises.

Why the MTME?

Why should we think that the Martian Theory of Mass Extinctions is the long-sought solution to the mystery of the mass extinctions?

  1. Close approaches of Mars would have had the requisite power to set off tremendous seismic and volcanic activity, which in turn could entrain the other phenomena associated with extinctions.  Rapid inversions would add worldwide, continent-sweeping tsunamis as a kill mechanism.
  2. The MTME fits the irregular, repeated pattern of the mass extinctions.
  3. The colossal volcanoes and uplifted Tharsis region of Mars are consistent with repeated encounters with Earth, and the time range seems right.
  4. A body of evidence and theory about the approaches of Venus and Mars in the Bronze and Iron Ages parallels what is known about the mass extinctions.
  5. Approaches by Mars would perfectly fulfill the apparent criterion of a powerful perpetrator who committed the crime, then disappeared without leaving a single footprint—and then returned to the scene of the crime to commit another and another and another.15

 


 

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Kenneth J. Dillon is an historian who writes on science, medicine, and history.  See the biosketch at About Us.

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Notes:
1. According to the authors of a study of global lithium isotope distribution around 65 million years ago, neither the Chicxulub impact nor the Deccan Traps had the capacity to account for the extreme, worldwide weathering of rocks and denudation of land surfaces. Sambuddha Misra and Philip N. Froelich, “Lithium Isotope History of Cenozoic Seawater: Changes in Silicate Weathering and Reverse Weathering,” Science 335, 17 February 2012, 818-23.  The boundary is also termed the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg).
2. Du, YuanSheng et al.  Devonian Frasnian-Famennian transitional event deposits of Guangxi, South China and their possible tsunami origin.  Science in China Series D:  Earth Sciences, Nov. 2008, 51/11:1570-1580
3. Rodriguez, J. A. P. et al.  Tsunami waves extensively resurfaced the shorelines of an early Martian ocean.  Nature Sci. Rep. 6, 25106; doi: 10.1038/srep25106 (2016)
4. See the description (with no reference to Mars) in William R. Corliss.  Inner Earth:  A Search for Anomalies.  Glen Arm MD:  Sourcebook Project, 1991, pp. 58-92
5. Ibid., pp. 127-8; Lewis D. Ashwaal.  Anorthosites.  Berlin:  Springer, 2013, pp. 81, 217
6. Roger Buick in Peter D. Ward. Under a Green Sky. New York: HarperCollins, 2007, p. 79
7. In response to the objection that the gravitational pull of Mars would not have reached far enough into the Earth to entrain tidal heating that would melt massive amounts of rock, see pp. 636-7 of Irina M. Artemieva.  The Lithosphere:  An Interdisciplinary Approach Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2011.  She suggests that, in the origin of flood basalts, the deep plume mechanism doesn’t fit as well as “edge-driven secondary convection” that affects much shallower rock.  She synthesizes a model proposed by Scott D. King and Don L. Anderson.  “An alternative mechanism of flood basalt formation.”  Earth and Planetary Science Letters 136 (1995) 269-79 and a 1988 article by Yu. A. Zorin and B.M. Vladimirov.  “The Thermal Regime of the Lithosphere of the Siberian Platform and the Problem of the Origin of the Traps.”  Izvestiia Akademii Nauk SSR.  Seriya Geologicheskaya 8, 1988, 130-32 (in Russian) that argues that the Siberian Traps contain high-iron eclogites from partial melting of the lower lithosphere (and thus not from a deep mantle source).
8. Cf William James Burroughs.  Climate Change:  A Multidisciplinary Approach.  2nd ed.  New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2007, p. 175:  “The direct influence of tides could influence the release of tectonic energy in the form of volcanism.  Since there is evidence that major volcanic eruptions have triggered periods of climate cooling, this would enable small extraterrestrial effects to be amplified to produce more significant climatic fluctuations.”
9. D.J. McLaren.  Time, life, and boundaries.  Journal of Paleontology 44 (1970),  pp. 801-15, cited in A. Hallam and P.B. Wignall.  Mass Extinctions and Their Aftermath.  New York:  Oxford University Press, 1997, p. 85
10. Roberto A. Scasso et al.  A tsunami deposit at the Cretaceous/Paleogene boundary in the Neuquén Basin of Argentina.  Cretaceous Research 26 (2005), 283-297
11. See, for instance, Eduardo A.M. Koutsoukos.  An extraterrestrial impact in the early Danian:  a secondary K/T boundary event?  Terra Nova 10, 1998:68-73
12. Bradley L. Jolliff et al. “Non-mare silicic volcanism on the lunar farside at Compton-Belkovich.” Nature Geoscience online, 24 July 2011, www.nature.com/ngeo/journal/vapo/ncurrent/full/ngeo1212.html
13. Richard A. Muller.  “Measurement of the lunar impact record for the past 3.5 b.y. and implications for the Nemesis theory.”  In:  Christian Koeberl and Kenneth G. MacLeod, eds.  Catastrophic Events and Mass Extinctions:  Impacts and Beyond.  Boulder CO:  Geological Society of America, 2002, pp. 659-65
14. L. Becker et al.  Impact Event at the Permian-Triassic Boundary:  Evidence from Extraterrestrial Noble Gases in Fullerenes, Science 291 (2001), pp. 1530-33, cited in Peter Ward and Joe Kirschvink.  A New History of Life.  New York:  Bloomsbury Press, 2015, pp. 216-7
15. See also Richard A. Day. “A Roche-Limit Encounter Explains Martian Features,” Society for Scientific Exploration paper, 2000, delivered as a presentation at an SSE conference in Toronto.  I am searching for the complete paper and for its author, and would appreciate any suggestions.  Here is the abstract:

Mars has surface features that are not seen on inner planets or moons. These are hemispheric asymmetries, idiosyncratic surface fracturing, localized vulcanism, altitude differences, chains of pits, and the nature of dry river-like channels. Other features include extensive loss of an early atmosphere and liquid water. There is interest in the lower-altitude northern region, with its surface formed after the period of heavy bombardment, as a possible ocean basin. The evidence for this is very sparse: no river deltas, no river networks, little debris at the ends of the catastrophic flow channels. The surface is consistent with the stripping anticipated by a Roche-limit encounter. The low-density Martian moons appear to be unconsolidated material of higher density; they appear to be from low-gravity aggregation of that part of the Martian debris that went into orbit as a short-lived ring. A Roche-limit encounter is invoked as a reasonable hypothesis to explain these features. Earth, Mars’ nearest planetary neighbor, may have provided that encounter. The Roche limit is 2.9 Earth radii.

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