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Colliding asteroids may have caused an ancient ice age

A gigantic collision between two asteroids may have triggered a global ice age that hit Earth about 466 million years ago.

The cosmic crash – which took place between Mars and Jupiter and destroyed an asteroid about 150 miles (150 km) wide – created a thick flood of dust that spread across the inner solar system. This huge reservoir of debris then continuously rained down on our planet as our orbit crossed it over a period of about 2 million years, slowly changing the earth's overall climate.

According to the new study, published today Science Advances the timing of the suspected global dust storm is quite good with a particularly chilly period in earth history, when a dropped temperature drop is believed to have triggered an explosion of new species. In fact, "the timing seems perfect," says lead author Birger Schmitz of Lund University in a press release.

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To conduct the study, researchers searched for traces of extraterrestrial dust in 466 million years old stones. By revealing promising samples and then treating the rocks with stone-eating acid, the researchers just sat with the space dust.

"We studied extraterrestrial substances – meteorites and micrometeorites – in the Earth's sedimentary reference, which means rocks that were once the seabed," Heck said. "And then we extracted the extraterrestrial question to find out what it was and where it came from." Specifically, the researchers found that much of the dust came from the catastrophic destruction of the L-chondrite parent body (LCPB), the largest known division of any asteroid in the last three billion years.

After analyzing the dust samples to confirm their origin, the researchers then sought to understand what impact such a large amount of atmospheric dust would have had on ancient soil climates.

According to the study, when the dust collected in the earth's atmosphere, it filtered out sunlight that was streaming to the surface. This would have led to a longer period of cooling for our planet – as previous research has already confirmed happened during the middle of the Ordovician period. Scientists have shown that during this time the sea level of the earth dropped dramatically, indicating that much of the planet's water was instead locked up as ice. But as the temperature below the center of the Ordovician gradually dropped, the researchers say, the dust-induced cooling still gave life a lot of time to adjust.

"In the global cooling we studied, we talk about time scales of millions of years," Heck said. "It is very different from the climate change caused by the meteorite 65 million years ago that killed the dinosaurs, and it differs from the global warming today – this global cooling was a mild nudge. It was less stressful."

While this may lead to the conclusion that putting something like asteroid dust – or a similar terrestrial substitute – into the Earth's atmosphere can be a great way to combat our current battle with global warming, the authors warn of the danger of taking it way. "If something goes wrong," Heck said, "things can get worse than before."

But that does not mean that we should not discuss all possible alternatives.

"We are experiencing global warming, it is undeniable," says Heck. "And we need to think about how we can prevent or minimize catastrophic consequences. Every reasonable idea should be explored."

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