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Supernova triggers for end-Devonian extinctions

The Late Devonian was a protracted period of low speciation resulting in biodiversity decline, culminating in extinction events near the Devonian–Carboniferous boundary. Recent evidence indicates that the final extinction event may have coincided with a dramatic drop in stratospheric ozone, possibly due to a global temperature rise. Here we study an alternative possible cause for the postulated ozone drop: a nearby supernova explosion that could inflict damage by accelerating cosmic rays that can deliver ionizing radiation for up to 100 ky. We therefore propose that the end-Devonian extinctions were triggered by supernova explosions at 20pc, somewhat beyond the “kill distance” that would have precipitated a full mass extinction. Such nearby supernovae are likely due to core collapses of massive stars; these are concentrated in the thin Galactic disk where the Sun resides. Detecting either of the long-lived radioisotopes Sm146 or Pu244 in one or more end-Devonian extinction strata would confirm a supernova origin, point to the core-collapse explosion of a massive star, and probe supernova nucleosynthesis. Other possible tests of the supernova hypothesis are discussed.

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Authors: 
Brian D. Fields, Adrian L. Melott, John Ellis, Adrienne F. Ertel, Brian J. Fry, Bruce S. Lieberman, Zhenghai Liu, Jesse A. Miller, and Brian C. Thomas