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Did Giant Space Clouds Cause Mass Extinctions?

It's possible, according to a computer model prepared by researcher Alex Pavlov at the University of Colorado, Boulder. The model shows that "dramatic climate change" may occur when interstellar dust accumulates in the Earth's atmosphere due to the passage of the solar system through a dense cloud of interstellar dust.

Moderately dense space clouds could even reduce the amount of sunlight reaching the planet. These space clouds are so immense that it could take the solar system as long as 500,000 years to pass thorugh one.

We're passing through a mild one right now, according to a 2003 study. Pavlov said the work, supported by NASA, might be testable. Geologists could look for higher amounts of uranium-235 in soil layers corresponding to the time of known glaciations. Uranium-235 can't be produced naturally in the solar system.

Similar space clouds have menaced Earth in novels like "Exit Earth" by Martin Caidin and in the short story "Transience" by Arthur C. Clarke.

Update 10-Apr-2022: The earliest reference to this idea that I know about is the poison space cloud in The Poison Belt, a 1913 novella by Arthur Conan Doyle:

"You will conceive a bunch of grapes," said he, "which are covered by some infinitesimal but noxious bacillus. The gardener passes it through a disinfecting medium. It may be that he desires his grapes to be cleaner. It may be that he needs space to breed some fresh bacillus less noxious than the last. He dips it into the poison and they are gone. Our Gardener is, in my opinion, about to dip the solar system, and the human bacillus will in an instant be sterilized out of existence."

End update.

Read more at Huge Space Clouds May have Caused Mass Extinctions and NASA Study Suggests Giant Space Clouds Iced Earth. Thanks to Winchell Chung for the idea for this story.

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 3/14/2005)

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