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“We know that this was among the worst-case scenarios for the lethality on impact, because it put more hazardous debris into the upper atmosphere and scattered it everywhere — the very thing that led to a nuclear winter,” he added.
Such a strike likely unleashed billions of tons of sulfur and other gases into the atmosphere, blocking the sun and leading to a dramatic cooling of the Earth’s climate.
Older studies had found that the asteroid hit at a shallower angle and came from the southeast, Collins said.
“This was based on a different interpretation of the geophysical data, which our work overturns, and observations at the time that suggested that the ejecta from the crater was asymmetric, with more ejecta in North America (to the northwest) than elsewhere,” he explained via email, referring to the material that was forced out as a result of the impact.
“More recent observations have shown that the ejecta distribution is more-or-less symmetric.
“The team of researchers from Imperial College London, the University of Freiburg in Germany and The University of Texas at Austin examined the shape and structure of the crater and rocks extracted by drilling down into the crater, which contained evidence of the extreme forces generated by the impact.
“Despite being buried beneath nearly a kilometer of sedimentary rocks, it is remarkable that geophysical data reveals so much about the crater structure — enough to describe the direction and angle of the impact,” said Auriol Rae, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Freiburg and a coauthor of the study.
This information and other data were used to build a model that simulated how the Chicxulub crater was formed, determining the direction the asteroid came from and the angle. The team considered four different angles — 90, 60, 45 and 30 degrees.The authors said that they regarded 60 degrees as the most likely angle because of the relationship between three points in the crater — its center, a ring of mountain made of heavily fractured rock inside the crater rim and the center of dense, uplifted mantle rocks some 30 kilometers beneath the crater.
At Chicxulub crater, these features are aligned in a southwest-northeast direction, the study said, and the team’s 3D simulations at an angle of 60 degrees reproduced these observations almost exactly.
The authors said that that angle of impact would have produced more climate-changing gases like sulfur and carbon dioxide than either a very shallow or near-vertical impact.