THE apocalyptic meteorite that wiped out the dinosaurs instantly ignited forest fires thousands of kilometers from its impact zone, scientists have discovered.
The roughly six-mile-wide object struck the Yucatan peninsula in what is now Mexico at the end of the Cretaceous Period 66million years ago.
Its devastating impact brought the reign of the dinosaurs to an abrupt end by triggering their sudden mass extinction.
It also killed off almost three-quarters of the plant and animal species then living on Earth, scientists say.
Debate has surrounded the circumstances behind the devastating wildfires known to have been caused by the strike.
Until now, there had been several theories as to how and when they started, and the extent of their impact.
By analyzing rocks dating at the time of the strike, a team of scientists from the UK, Mexico and Brazil has discovered that some of the fires broke out within minutes, at most, of the impact.
Areas impacted by the glazes stretch up to 2,500km (1,553 miles) or more from where Earth was hit.
In a newly published study, the team said wildfires that broke out in coastal areas were short-lived, as the backwash from the mega-tsunami caused by the impact swept charred trees offshore.
And by studying the fossilized tree bark, they discovered that fires had already begun by the time the trees were washed away soon after the initial impact.
They concluded that this was either due to a fireball of epic magnitude, or by the heat from droplets of melted rock falling back through the atmosphere in the immediate aftermath of impact.
Professor Ben Kneller, from the University of Aberdeen’s School of Geosciences, is among the co-authors of the latest study.
He said: “Until now, it has not been clear whether the fires were caused as a direct result of the impact or subsequently, as vegetation killed by the post-impact darkness caused by the debris thrown up into the atmosphere was set ablaze by things such as lightning strikes.
“We were able to apply a unique combination of chemical, isotopic, palaeontological, palaeobotanical, chemical and spectroscopic techniques, along with geological mapping, firstly to confirm that the rocks we analyzed date precisely from the impact.
“We then analyzed fossilized bark still attached to the tree trunks to determine the extent of the burning, finding that the bark was already charred as the trees were washed away by the impact-related tsunami.
“This shows that the fires must have begun within minutes, at most, of impact.
“Ultimately our research confirms how and when these devastating fires were begun and paints a vivid and quite terrifying picture of what happened in the immediate aftermath of the meteorite strike.”
The study was supported by Shell Brazil under the Brazilian Government’s Science without Borders programme, and published in the journal Scientific Reports.
It involved scientists from the Autonomous University of Mexico, Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, University of Leeds and University of Manchester.
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