Exploring abrupt climate change induced by comets and asteroids during human history

Unfiltered: Surovell – Holliday in PNAS, 2009

Restored from the library fire 1/11/20

To a great degree the Tusk itself was a response to my frustration with Todd Surovell and Vance Holliday’s botched 2009 PNAS journal article, An independent evaluation of the Younger Dryas extraterrestrial impact hypothesis, published three months before this blog began.

Despite my early understanding of the sloppy work of the authors, however, I did not have the data or original research at that time to do much about my frustration. The word had gone out quickly after the publication that the Surovell study was flawed. But appeals to properly follow lab protocols, the root of the matter, are simply not compelling when made by pajama bloggers. You can imagine then my soul-settling reaction following this week’s publication of LeCompte et al.’s, Independent evaluation of conflicting microspherule results from different investigations of the Younger Dryas impact hypothesis.”

At the time of the Surovell-Holliday publication their paper was considered a credible effort to replicate the measurement of the relative abundance of tiny “microspherules,” as separated by Firestone from the magnetic fraction of sediment taken from points along the vertical walls of various well-dated archaeological sites.

 Electron microscopy from LeCompte, Surovell-Holliday’s work was entirely optical 

Two years earlier in 2007 the YDB team authors had shocked the scientific world by publishing evidence that simlar sampling had revealed a dramatic peak of microscopic spheres in the stratigraphy representing the onset of the Younger Dryas, a critical period always worth googling. These peaks and similar peaks in other materials suggested to Firestone that the spherules were the molten and quenched, largely terrestrial ejecta, following a catastrophic cosmic event, in many ways like the K-T event that brought an end to the era of dinosaurs.

It is not surprising that Surovell and Holliday, well published and respected archeologists who built careers studying Paleo-America, stepped up in 2009 to replicate or refute Firestone. What is surprising is the sloppy, unprofessional work which ensued in their names — and the ignorance and rank condescension which characterized their conduct going forward.

Surovell and Holliday did not find any spherules at any of the sites they and Firestone tested. And of the sites they tested independently, only one location yielded any spherules at all. So the study was bloody water to the skeptics and fence sitters circling since the 2007 introduction of the theory. A variety of characters, many with academic reputations at stake, had been cautiously waiting for the first chance to bury the living. Which they proceeded to do.

But, as referenced earlier, it was quickly apparent to the original authors — and thank goodness others — what had happened. Surovell-Holliday had failed in several ways to follow the testing protocol provided by Firestone for follow-up researchers. LeCompte documents six serious “Deficiencies” of the Holliday-Surovell study.

LeCompte emphasizes the importance of following the original protocol (**This is the 2011 protocol**) for “size-sorting” the little bits of material which have been previously separated from the archeological sediment. Size-sorting is a simple to understand but tedious process. The Firestone authors called for passing the grains through a sieve which excludes any grains >150 microns. Surovell-Holliday missed this simple prescription and passed the material through a sieve nearly ten times times more accommodating — a 1 mm mesh. (LeCompte later found the best results using 50 micron mesh).

Page 6, LeCompte, 2012

While there were five other serious deficiencies, size sorting was a fatal flaw. Indeed, LeCompte et al. made the same mistake early on, and also came up empty-handed:


Page 7, LeCompte, 2012

“Surovell’s work was in vain because he didn’t replicate the protocol. We missed it too at first. It seems easy, but unless you follow the protocol rigorously, you will fail to detect these spherules. There are so many factors that can disrupt the process. Where Surovell found no spherules, we found hundreds to thousands,” said Malcolm LeCompte, lead author of the new study, who is professor at Elizabeth City State University. — ‘Big Freeze’ nearly 13,000 years ago caused by comet explosion over Canada, Yahoo News, Sep. 19, 2012

The upshot is that when you sort out the largest of the material the peaks are noted in the finer particles, and the finer the better. Unless you sort down to a properly small size, your sample — and the task of picking through the chaff for the wheat — is greatly burdened by the many thousands of additional non-diagnostic larger particles you have collected.

If you are looking for tennis balls — it wise to remove the basketballs — particularly when there are orders of magnitude more basketballs.

When this and other equally serious shortcomings became apparent shortly after publication, there was some hope among the original authors that respectfully pointing out the deficiencies at a forthcoming meeting of AMQUA in Laramie, Wyoming might bring to light the proper methods and encourage some reappraisal of the results by Holliday and Surovell.

Only if it were so.

I accompanied Drs. Kennett, West and others to Laramie in 2010 with hopes of a fair-minded exchange of information and perhaps collaboration. What I found, frankly, was an atmosphere seething with a petty mix of intellectual cowardice and academic condescension that committed me more deeply to my new blog – and chills me to this day.

Dr. Holliday could barely contain himself during Allen West’s respectful and guileless presentation of the deficiencies, hurrrumphed his way through the talk, and refused to engage in a sincere Q & A afterwards. It was as if Holliday were channeling fabled charmer Aleš Hrdlicka in a final tour of the American West. His cynicism was largely reflected by the crowd, whose cliquish nature — including furtive huddles and giggles in the halls — was more in keeping with Mean Girls than Socratic dialogue.

Surovell’s reaction was most disappointing when recalled today after three years. As with all conferences there was plenty of opportunity to gauge reaction during the inevitable sidebars and auditorium chatter. West’s critique had clearly affected Todd. I will not commit my memory to his exact words here, but I will never forget his physical bearing and his message afterwards. Todd hung his head, groaned deeply, and said he simply did not have the time to do the work again correctly, tedious as it is.

Naif that the Tusk is, I thought Todd meant he had no time available right now — and that he would get to it in time. I understand now, three years later, after 26 citations of the flawed article, and thousands of repetitions of it’s intellectually destructive message, that Todd meant he would never have time to correct his mistake. Not in the next issue of PNAS, not at the next meeting of AMQUA — he meant never.

That keeps me writing.

Counter-criticism aside, outsiders are walking away from the mammoth-killer impact in increasing numbers. “I spent 16 months in the lab and found very little evidence to support their hypothesis,” says Surovell. “I have other things to worry about.”  — Nature, August 30, 2010

Download the PDF file .

Download the PDF file .

27 Responses

  1. A large part of the problem we deal with today in the study of impact science, and the YDB in particular, is one of confusing the mutual inter-assumptive reasoning of the “consensus” view with actual data driven science.

    Simply put, when questions are asked regarding impact science, and impact geomorphology, the generic answer that begins with “Most geologists agree that ______”, belongs in the very same category as “Most high priests, and scribes agree that the world is a flat disk carried through the universe on the back of a giant turtle while the sun, moon, and stars dance merrily across the heavens above.”

    It wasn’t that long ago that most geologists agreed that Barringer Crater in Arizona was volcanogenic, and poo pooed the very idea that large impact events have happened in the geologically recent past. It also wasn’t that long ago that “most geologists agreed” that the andesite found in the Pemex drill cores at Chicxulub was conclusive evidence of volcanism, not impact. The consensus held was that only volcanism could melt the rocks of the Earth, and produce andesite. But when planar fractures that could only have been produced by the shock of impact were detected in quartz grains of those cores, it was proven conclusively that the material is in fact, impact melt, and that Chicxulub is a giant crater.

    Our impact science is suffering from a collective manifestation of the Dunning Kruger effect. The consensus will be loath to admit it. But in fact, we simply have no idea how much we really don’t know at all. And while the actual data gets ignored, or denigrated because it refutes the assumptions of the consensus, the mutual inter-assumptive confabulations of the same consensus view gets elevated to the status of unquestioned dogma.

  2. Hi George –

    What’s that, a little frustrated and depressed?

    Russia has just announced a trove of impact diamonds. I don’t know what that will do to your diamond formation patent.

    Me, I have trouble enough with various vicious loons.

  3. Dennis,

    . . “most geologists agreed” that the andesite found in the Pemex drill cores at Chicxulub was conclusive evidence of volcanism, not impact. The consensus held was that only volcanism could melt the rocks of the Earth, and produce andesite.

    Actually, there is impact volcanism, or there should be, but it’s still waiting for being accepted by orthodoxy.

    Prof Stephen Sparks, Bristol U, has a wonderful explanation of explosive volcanism by sudden release of volatiles dissolved in Earth’s mantle but he doesn’t work in impact theory.

    His theory would go into effect by the impact in Oceanic (thin) lithosphere excavating an initial cavity reaching the mantle and allowing volatiles to go out of solution.

    Steve Sparks presented his theory on BBC Horizon years ago applied to the Yellowstone hotspot,explaining the resurgent caldera eruptions, but he usually works on Montserrat Island Soufriere Hills volcanoes, in hundreds of papers that you can find on his website.

  4. Hi George –

    I guess you just haven’t attended enough conferences then. Denial is a strange mechanism, and about the only joy you it brings is watching it at work.

    I myself slipped into first person “Gonzo style” reporting years ago.

    I suppose when the next instance of organized denial hits, you’ll be down again. The professionals may end up thinking that you’re bi-polar.

    Oh well, Just keep in mind that the Earth will be in Comet 93P’s debris stream in 2022.

  5. Hi Hermann –

    Here’s a thought: Perhaps the professional geologists are studying impact in great depth, but just not talking about it much, as the results of their studies have commercial use.

    Consider the Russian diamonds. They mention that they knew about them in the 1970’s, but did nothing for years because of the commercial situation.

    The same thing likely holds for oil and gas deposits, and some mineral deposits as well.

  6. E.P. – When you were still a reporter I worked in the United States Senate for one of America’s most controversial politicians in a cynical hothouse of intrigue, drama and betrayal. Do not worry, I have my big boy pants on.

  7. George, you simply have enough money that others indulge your “strange” hobby.

    And of course, you’re standing on the sholders of giants.

    In closaing here, its going to take political action spanning wide ranging viewpoints to handle this problem.

    I need to mention that I am in need of an old Mac running iWorks right now. iBooks await.

  8. That’s okay, George, you earned it.

    Have I mentioned to you what some other 1%’s are doing?

    Contributing to the B612 Foundation.

    If I had of had any snese, I would have set up my own foundation for impact research. Oh well.

  9. “If I had of had any snese, I would have set up my own foundation for impact research. Oh well.”

    Is it too late?

    Goodness knows we could use a few impact research foundations to go around just now.

    Mr. Harris

  10. From “Tusk’s own astronomers” the full story and analysis of impact frequencies, both recent and last 250 M yrs:

    Bill Napier and David Asher
    The Tunguska impact event and beyond,
    A&G, Feb. 2009, Vol. 50, 1.18-26

    Download PDF from

    Yes, subdirectories are accessible,

    and all the years 1998-2012.

    Although three years old it’s up to date, including

    Lake Cheko,

    YDB (Firestone et all, 2007),

    simulations of “forward momentum of fireball”,

    comet statistics & disintegration,


  11. Having spent most of my career overseas and mostly in Frankaphone countries, I am used to local folks pronouncing acronyms as if they were words. I know this off subject, but does anybody else have trouble trying to tell anyone about the Publication of the National Academy of Science?

  12. Has GDACS ever shown an interest in planet Earth being subjected to potential ET interference ? Like, the next noxious comet’s gaseous coma bringing another plague?

    GDACS stands for global disaster alert and communication system. Look here:

  13. I tried posting something on this a while back but the spam filter at my post – too many bare links.

    Anders Carlon’s review paper may be found here.

    Anders E. Carlson and Peter U. Clark, Ice-sheet sources of sea-level rise and freshwater discharge during the last deglaciation: Reviews of Geophysics (2012)

    The abstract is here.

    I hope this gets through. Not much more I can say about it. To me, if the proxies are demonstrated to be genuine, then it’s Nipigon for all hell to break loose, Corossol for a relatively minor but detectable hypersonic impact. Pending more definitive dating and analysis of the Willmette Bed, I’m leaning toward Corossol but only if the proxies are real.

  14. I don’t think those folks are drawing the distinction between comets, or asteroids Barry. I get the impression that from their point of view, if it’s a hypervelocity bolide it’s an asteroid, period.

  15. After some consideration, I’m pretty sure now that the Dunning-Kruger effect rules all of human history and human development, not just modern development of adults in contemporary society. It reaches all the way down to the formation of the Ego and weather an individual becomes an introvert or an extravert. It speaks to the experimental and curious nature of Homo Sapiens trying new things before knowing any better, even as a primitive species long ago.

    Dunning-Kruger speaks to the brashness of youth as well as the tendency of age-acquired wisdom to make a person more conservative or risk-averse over time. It is no doubt involved with sharing of technology such as the Clovis tool set, once the unsuccessful and very hungry young hunter finally admits to himself/herself that flint napping is best learned from a qualified instructor if one is to stay fed and alive. (now I’ve said “Clovis” so I’m no longer completely off-topic for this forum)

    It is probably responsible, as Dennis so astutly points out, for an untold number of cases where “the actual data gets ignored, or denigrated because it refutes the assumptions of the consensus, the mutual inter-assumptive confabulations of the same consensus view gets elevated to the status of unquestioned dogma.” Uniformitarian Geologic theory is just one of thousands of examples. This brings to mind many related concepts including the “H-index” of scientific productivity and impact of a researcher (www.harzing.com/pop_hindex.htm) among others, including the concept of “comfort zone” and a correlational “ignorance zone”. Fascinating.

    If you tell every practicing Geologist today that cosmic impact is a Geologic process, what percentage of them will believe you? If you preface that statement with “I’m not a Geologist, but even I know that….”, will that change the percentage of Geologists that believe you?

    Dunning-Kruger is really a remarkably all encompassing concept. It literally applies to everything Human-related. If Humans are involved, so is the Dunning-Kruger effect. It even makes me want to read more Psychology, which I used to keep my distance from just like Geochemistry!


  16. Dennis… you are absolutely right! And I think there is a picture of one impact, no notice or short notice, and the massive response of resources. I really don’t think there is any comprehension of a rapid fire sequence of whatever magnitude strafing the planet across multiple latitudes or longitudes. As for massive interruption of HF communication due to the disruption of the ionosphere or satellite communication by cometary debris… either never considered or if so, not discussed.

  17. Wait,

    Does GeoSpace actually matter?

    What are you saying!?!

    …sounds serious…

    But I always thought a bolide was a bolide was a bolide. Don’t they all make bolide ignimbrite? What IS the real story, and who can tell it to us?

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