Part 1: Vermin of the Sky
ON NEW YEAR’S EVE, 1999, I was on a lounge chair on the Yucatán Peninsula. A loose gang of us, twenty friends from New York, London, and various parts of South America, had rented a beach house that called to mind the shotgun marriage of the Scarface mansion with a Taco Bell. We capped our week there by staying up all night, primed with tequila, for the first dawn of the new millenium. After the conversation died all you could hear was the lap of the waves. At last the stars misted out and the sun eased up over the Caribbean, outlining a roseate spoonbill in golden light.
Our drowsy repose was quite a change from the mood on the peninsula sixty-five million years earlier, when a seven-mile-wide asteroid slammed into the sea just off the coast. The asteroid struck with a force more than a million times greater than the combined destructiveness of all the world’s nuclear weapons. The impact sent up a miles-high plume of molten rock and steam, a column as bright as the sun—to any creature that wasn’t instantly pulverized by the shock and sound waves or swamped by the resultant tsunami, which, the astronomer Philip Plait has calculated, “was hundreds of yards high and moved at six hundred miles an hour.” (The March tsunami in Japan crested at two-and-a-half yards). When the molten rock fell back to earth it started fires all over the globe, and the upflung chlorine and nitric acid made rainfall so burningly acid that—together with the blanket of particles that clogged the atmosp...