Gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) produce a flux of radiation detectable across the observable Universe. A GRB within our own galaxy could do considerable damage to the Earth's biosphere; rate estimates suggest that a dangerously near GRB should occur on average two or more times per billion years. At least five times in the history of life, the Earth has experienced mass extinctions that eliminated a large percentage of the biota. Many possible causes have been documented, and GRBs may also have contributed. The late Ordovician mass extinction approximately 440 million years ago may be at least partly the result of a GRB. A special feature of GRBs in terms of terrestrial effects is a nearly impulsive energy input of the order of 10 s. Due to expected severe depletion of the ozone layer, intense solar ultraviolet radiation would result from a nearby GRB, and some of the patterns of extinction and survivorship at this time may be attributable to elevated levels of UV radiation reaching the Earth. In addition, a GRB could trigger the global cooling which occurs at the end of the Ordovician period that follows an interval of relatively warm climate. Intense rapid cooling and glaciation at that time, previously identified as the probable cause of this mass extinction, may have resulted from a GRB.
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