To incriminate a global catastrophe in the extinction of a wide swath of the biosphere, you need precise dates for two events: the catastrophe—say, an asteroid impact or volcanic eruption—and the mass extinction. At the meeting, geochronologists who measure the passage of time in the steady ticking of radioactive decay presented convincing evidence that massive eruptions at the opening of the Atlantic Ocean 201 million years ago drove the mass extinction that cleared the way for the rise of the dinosaurs.
The dating—by Terrence Blackburn of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C., and colleagues—was impressively precise. For minerals from the end of the Triassic period, 201 million years ago, the researchers reported ages to three decimal places with a 1-sigma error of about 30,000 years, just 0.015% of the ages. That kind of precision takes careful measurements of the amounts of the radioactive element of interest and the product of its decay. That's quite a feat in mineral grains that have been ravaged for hundreds of millions of years by both the environment and their own radioactivity.
Near the end of the Triassic period, millions of cubic kilometers of magma spewed from the crack that split the supercontinent Pangaea in two and started the opening of the Atlantic Ocean. Debris from the eruptions might have chilled the climate or poisoned the environment, triggering the extinction. But previous dating had had the extinction coming before the first volcanic outburst, not at the same time.
So Blackburn and his colleagues used the latest uranium-lead techniques to date volcanic samples from seven sites on the East coast of North America and one site in Morocco. They dated the end-Triassic extinction to 201.562±0.016 million years ago (subject to change in peer review). Adding in dating of sediments surrounding eruption deposits by using astronomical cycles, they could correlate the Moroccan record to the North American record, placing the extinction at the first of three eruption pulses within the small dating errors. And those errors have gotten so small that no one is disputing that the Atlantic opening megaeruptions somehow did in enough critters to unleash the dinosaurs.