Are Impact Craters and Extinction Episodes Periodic? Implications for Planetary Science and Astrobiology

Michael R. Rampino, Andreas Prokoph

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


A review of the results of published spectral analyses of the ages of terrestrial impact craters (58 analyses) and biotic extinction events (35 analyses) reveals that about 60% of the crater trials support a statistically significant cycle averaging ∼29.7 million years (My), and about 67% of the trials of extinction episodes found a significant cycle averaging ∼26.5 My. Cross-wavelet transform analysis of the records of craters and extinctions over the past 260 My shows a mutual ∼26 My cycle and a common phase, suggesting a connection. About 50% of the best-dated impact craters seem to occur in approximately nine pairs or clusters in the past 260 My, apparently carrying the signal of an ∼26- to 30-My cycle. It has been suggested that periodic modulation of impacts and extinctions might be related to periodic comet storms that follow the solar system's oscillations in and out of the galactic mid-plane. Problems arise, however, with regard to the compatibility of such periodic pulses of comet flux with the makeup of the steady-state Near Earth Object (NEO) population, the estimated long-term NEO cratering rates on the terrestrial planets, and the predicted small contribution of Oort Cloud-derived comets to the terrestrial cratering record. Asteroid storms may be possible, but at present there are no accepted mechanisms for creating an ∼30-My period in asteroid breakup events and impacts. Astrobiological implications arise if extra-solar habitable planets suffer similar cyclical or episodic catastrophic bombardment episodes affecting long-term biotic evolution on those planets. Other planetary systems might commonly have comet reservoirs, but they are less likely to contain an asteroid belt in the proper orbital position. Further, frequent impacts of ∼1-km diameter comets and asteroids could affect the establishment and longevity of technological civilizations, including our own.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1097-1108
Number of pages12
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 1 2020


  • 26-million-year cycles
  • Extraterrestrial impacts
  • Mass extinctions

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Space and Planetary Science


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