Sixty-five million years ago, an asteroid taller than the sky itself fell to Earth upon what is now a sleepy fishing village called Chicxulub on the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico.
The impact was the biggest explosion in the last quarter billion years; so enormous it exterminated the dinosaurs and seven-tenths of all life. This epic blast has many spectacular aspects. First came an air shock that ripped a hole in the atmosphere. Next was a Richter 14 earthquake (six million times stronger than the recent Japanese quake), followed by mega-tsunamis as high as the oceans are deep. Eight billion, billion tons of rock were pulverised, vaporised then tossed into orbit. The world burned, darkness fell, and the sun did not rise again for six months. It was a very bad day to be a dinosaur.
The crater lies hidden, buried four hundred metres down. The twists and turns of the ten-year search for its location is one of the great scientific detective stories of our time. The crater has sparked enduring controversy over its role in the death of the dinosaurs. Critics say the Chicxulub impact occurred long before the mass extinction, that the real killer was a larger impact in the Indian Ocean. Or that poison gas spewed from continent-wide volcanic ruptures is to blame. Even that two or more asteroids carried out the hit.
The trail of evidence leads from Italy via India to a newly discovered dinosaur haven near Antarctica.
If this happened before, could it happen again but this time to us? The answer is yes.
Ground Zero, Mexico. The crater lies buried deep beneath the Yucatán.
No dinosaur fossil has been found above the impact zone.
First came a worldfire then an endless winter, next a Strangelove Ocean, an Icehouse Effect and, finally, a runaway Greenhouse Effect.
The Death of the Dinosaurs
An epic documentary that opens with the greatest explosion on Earth in the last quarter billion years, a detonation so great it did not happen in seconds: it took six and half minutes just to form its crater.
Starting in a world inhabited by dinosaurs, we countdown to the impact of an asteroid as tall as the sky and show its catastrophic aftermath unfolding step-by-step and in full forensic detail.
Using supercomputer modelling of the blast to create stunning cinematic images, we see the atmosphere ruptured apart, a Richter 14 earthquake (six million times the strength of last year’s Japanese quake) followed by mega-tsunamis as high as the oceans are deep.
Eight billion, billion tons of rock were flung into orbit, the fallout set the ancient world ablaze, an icehouse effect froze the planet, then came a Strangelove Ocean so acidic it dissolved the shells of sea creatures, and perhaps the final killer blow, a millennia-long runaway greenhouse effect.
A blast thirty thousand times greater than the world's combined nuclear arsenals.
A wall of molten rock swept across the Earth's surface, killing all in its path.
Mega impact waves scoured the shoreline, but some doubt their exitence.
The Hunt for the Smoking Cannon
Next, we tell the greatest scientific detective story of our time.
For sixty-five million years the impact’s crater lay hidden beneath the Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico. Dozens of wild theories for the extinction of the dinosaurs were suggested: from constipation to killer viruses. No-one suspected the existence of the impact until a thin, strange layer of clay was discovered in the Apennine Mountains of Italy in 1979. It marked the precise boundary of the dinosaurs’ disappearance and what made it unusual was that it is vastly enriched in a rare element called iridium.
There is only one source of iridium found in such concentrations: extraterrestrial meteorites.
Soon an identical clay layer was found in Spain, Denmark, New Zealand, the Rocky Mountains, the Pacific Ocean and dozens more locations. The maths was not hard to do: to spread so much iridium around the world, an asteroid at least seven miles wide must have struck Earth, and an impact that size had to be the reason for the mass extinction. The hunt for the crater, for Ground Zero, was on.
The search led from Europe to North America and finally to the discovery of mega-tsunami beds in Haiti and Cuba. Finally, almost accidentally, the one hundred and fifteen mile-wide crater was found, buried deep beneath the Yucatán.
The film revisits these locations to tell the twists and turns of an investigation that sucked an irascible Nobel physicist, astronomers and nuclear chemists into the pursuit of the killer.
The crater is180km wide. Half of it lies beneath the Caribbean.
The fallout has been found in more than 200 locations. This is from the Caucasus.
The glomar Challenger found fallout debris deep in the North Pacific seafloor
The noose tightened as more and more spectacular deposits were found.
A Bad Day to be a Dinosaur
What links an encounter with the twenty-tentacled nautilus in the Pacific to wildlife grazing on the Serengeti, or flash blasting ornamental plants in a Yorkshire fire-fighter training facility to a hypersonic cannon at NASA?
These are just some of the visual sequences that will illustrate what happened to the dinosaurs and seven out of ten living creatures when the asteroid struck.
We use them to answer questions like: if the dinosaurs died all at once, why aren’t there piles of bones at the extinction boundary? Why did ocean-going shellfish five feet wide die out, whilst their own ancestor survived or crocodiles endure the mass extinction but not dinosaurs?
Using million-frame per second cameras we use NASA’s cannon to recreate the Caribbean-wide effects of the blast and use modern-day tsunamis to show why we can be certain that we are looking at the remains of the impact mega-wave.
We visit a possible dinosaur sanctuary close to Antarctica where a last few remnants may have clung on before succumbing.
Filming modern-day forest fires, we look for evidence that explain the severity the impact worldfire.
And we join teams hunting in Hell Creek, Montana for the final remains of T.Rex.
Radio-tagging the ancient nautilus. How did it survive when its descendants died?
NASA's hypersonic cannon, the Vertical Gun Range, Ames Lab.
The cannon simulates asteroid impacts.
The last days of Tyrannosaurus Rex.
Did the Killer Work Alone?
Yet critics fight back. They claim the Chicxulub impact occurred long before the mass extinction, that the real killer was a larger impact: the suspected Shiva crater in the Indian Ocean, or that a continent-wide volcanic rupture in India is to blame. Even that two or more asteroids carried out the hit. We look at their evidence, some of it strong, most of it weak.
The film visits the Deccan Traps of India where for millions of years before the impact, floods of lava covered half the sub-continent piling up in kilometre thick flows. Could the sulphur gases from these vast fissures have killed the dinosaurs?
We examine the latest evidence on Shiva the Destroyer. Is it really a crater? Is there another buried crater in the North Sea between England and Holland?
And we ask how certain we can be that the impact struck at the time of the dinosaurs’ death?
Could a worldfire trigger the collapse of the dinosaurs' foodchain?
The Deccan of India is built of lava flows stacked kilometres high.
Floods of lava erupted from thousand kilometre long fissures.
Could it Happen Again?
The earth has endured many impacts; this was not the greatest. The evidence is quickly eroded away by our weather but, every year, new major craters are discovered.
Washington DC, the seat of the world’s greatest power, sits on a buried impact crater fifty miles wide. Where do they come from, what is out there, and what are the odds of another impact similar to that which killed the dinosaurs?
Using the Nullabor Fireball Camera Network in Australia, we film meteorites daily falling to earth and track asteroid near misses with NASA’s Pan-Starrs telescope.
It turns out that we can expect an impact equal to the dinosaur extinction every hundred million years. Smaller, but still devastating, impacts occur every twenty-six million years. The countdown clock is ticking:
T-minus one millennium to the next mass extinction...
T-minus one century...
The Hubble Space Telescope detected this large asteroid in 2010.
The Fireball Camera Network scans the skies
A documentary on the big screen? The Hard Sell
Creative vision for the project
In 1998, I made, Crater of Death, the first film about this story for the BBC’s science flagship Horizon. Since then that film has sold globally into more than twenty-five territories and continues to do so with three more sales last year.
It is rare for science documentaries to have lifespans this long and, although I can take no credit for this, I suspect the film’s enduring success is because it is a tale with the power to thrill and amaze audiences around the world.
Yet, despite its popularity, I was, and still am, frustrated with the film. It was too rushed and too short. It simply did not do justice to the subject. More than half a dozen TV films have since been made about the Chicxulub impact, but neither my documentary nor any of those others have delivered the visual sequences needed to convey the true scale of the catastrophe. Nonetheless, the audience demand seems insatiable.
I want to bring this story to the big screen because it is the only medium on which the magnitude of this story can be properly appreciated. The aim is not to preach but to astound. I want to give this tale the in-depth, exciting and cinematic storytelling it deserves but has never had.
What makes it compelling and distinctive in the current marketplace
No one has ever shot a documentary movie on this subject. The story is as fresh as when I first made the BBC film, and, because of new discoveries, it has an even stronger narrative. Falling CGI costs and improved digital production techniques now mean the demanding visuals can be delivered on costs equal to a low budget feature-film.
The story contains contributions from every continent, helping create interest in the global market. It delivers spectacular wildlife and action sequences, both ancient and modern. Above all, it has dinosaurs.
I could find no published analysis of global documentary box office, so I did my own. From a breakdown of the top 100 grossing documentary feature films (listed on IMDb and cross-checked against Box Office Mojo’s figures), but excluding concert movies, reality shows and specialist formats like IMAX, I discovered that natural history (this film) and political documentaries dominate the genre’s worldwide box office (the latter reflects the impact of the Michael Moore phenomenon). They outperform all other factual sub-genres.
In addition, I can show indications that, as long as the subject matter has mass appeal, documentaries deliver box office returns far in excess of their costs.
Evidence there is a worldwide audience is testified to by my original film’s enduring popularity (plus all those other documentaries), and by the enormous numbers of books about dinosaurs annually published. Amazon.co.uk list sixty-one new dinosaur books published in 2011 (Amazon.com has a similar number and almost half are different books). They range from children’s primers to academic studies. This is no surprise considering that, as children, so may of us were enthralled by dinosaurs and kept that fascination, no matter how mild, into adulthood.
The demand is out there and this film aims directly at that audience. It is pitched at the same level as Horizon and PBS Nova’s general audience: adults, teenagers and children down to UK Year 8/US Seventh Grade. My previous films for them have delivered audiences of between 2.5m-3.5m. That’s not just because I know how to shape and deliver stories at that level, but also because experience has shown this is the best strategy to reach the widest possible audience without compromising the science. It won’t be dumbed down; it doesn’t need to be.
The profile of an extraterrestrial mass murderer.
A ninety minute feature length documentary film.
Director: Martin Belderson
An asteroid impact is the prime suspect in the extinction of the dinosaurs and seven-tenths of life on the planet, but new questions are now being asked. How precisely did it do the deed? Did the killer work alone? And could it kill again?