Clues to one of Earth’s oldest craters revealed

The Sudbury Basin located in Ontario, Canada is one of the largest known impact craters on Earth, as well as one of the oldest due to its formation more than 1.8 billion years ago. Researchers who took samples from the site and subjected them to a detailed geochemical analysis say that a comet may have hit the area to create the crater.

“Our analysis revealed a chondritic platinum group element signature within the crater’s fallback deposits; however, the distribution of these elements within the impact structure and other constraints suggest that the impactor was a comet. Thus, it seems that a comet with a chondritic refractory component may have created the world-famous Sudbury basin,” said Joe Petrus, lead author of the Terra Nova paper.

Prehistoric climate change due to cosmic crash in Canada

An artist's rendition of mastodons, camels and a ground sloth before the environmental changes of the Younger Dryas led to their extinction. -  Barry Roal Carlsen, University of Wisconsin
An artist’s rendition of mastodons, camels and a ground sloth before the environmental changes of the Younger Dryas led to their extinction. – Barry Roal Carlsen, University of Wisconsin

For the first time, a dramatic global climate shift has been linked to the impact in Quebec of an asteroid or comet, Dartmouth researchers and their colleagues report in a new study. The cataclysmic event wiped out many of the planet’s large mammals and may have prompted humans to start gathering and growing some of their food rather than solely hunting big game.

The findings appear next week in the online Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. A preprint of the article is available to journalists starting Wednesday, Aug. 28, at http://www.eurekalert.org/account.php.

The impact occurred about 12,900 years ago, at the beginning of the Younger Dryas period, and marks an abrupt global change to a colder, dryer climate with far-reaching effects on both animals and humans. In North America, the big animals all vanished, including mastodons, camels, giant ground sloths and saber-toothed cats. Their human hunters, known to archaeologists as the Clovis people, set aside their heavy-duty spears and turned to a hunter-gatherer subsistence diet of roots, berries and smaller game.

“The Younger Dryas cooling impacted human history in a profound manner,” says Dartmouth Professor Mukul Sharma, a co-author of the study. “Environmental stresses may also have caused Natufians in the Near East to settle down for the first time and pursue agriculture.”

It is not disputed that these powerful environmental changes occurred, but there has long been controversy over their cause. The classic view of the Younger Dryas cooling interlude has been that an ice dam in the North American ice sheet ruptured, releasing a massive quantity of freshwater into the Atlantic Ocean. The sudden influx is thought to have shut down the ocean currents that move tropical water northward, resulting in the cold, dry climate of the Younger Dryas.

But Sharma and his co-authors have discovered conclusive evidence linking an extraterrestrial impact with this environmental transformation. The report focuses on spherules, or droplets of solidified molten rock expelled by the impact of a comet or meteor. The spherules in question were recovered from Younger Dryas boundary layers at sites in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, the layers having been deposited at the beginning of the period. The geochemistry and mineralogy profiles of the spherules are identical to rock found in southern Quebec, where Sharma and his colleagues argue the impact took place.

“We have for the first time narrowed down the region where a Younger Dryas impact did take place,” says Sharma, “even though we have not yet found its crater.” There is a known impact crater in Quebec – the 4-kilometer wide Corossal crater — but based on the team’s mineralogical and geochemical studies, it is not the impact source for the material found in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

People have written about many impacts in different parts of the world based on the presence of spherules. “It may well have taken multiple concurrent impacts to bring about the extensive environmental changes of the Younger Dryas,” says Sharma. “However, to date no impact craters have been found and our research will help track one of them down.”

Study provides new evidence ancient asteroid caused global firestorm on Earth

A new CU-Boulder study shows that an asteroid believed to have smacked Earth some 66 million years ago likely caused a global firestorm that led to extensive plant and animal extinctions. -  Illustration courtesy NASA/JPL
A new CU-Boulder study shows that an asteroid believed to have smacked Earth some 66 million years ago likely caused a global firestorm that led to extensive plant and animal extinctions. – Illustration courtesy NASA/JPL

A new look at conditions after a Manhattan-sized asteroid slammed into a region of Mexico in the dinosaur days indicates the event could have triggered a global firestorm that would have burned every twig, bush and tree on Earth and led to the extinction of 80 percent of all Earth’s species, says a new University of Colorado Boulder study.

Led by Douglas Robertson of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, or CIRES, the team used models that show the collision would have vaporized huge amounts of rock that were then blown high above Earth’s atmosphere. The re-entering ejected material would have heated the upper atmosphere enough to glow red for several hours at roughly 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit — about the temperature of an oven broiler element — killing every living thing not sheltered underground or underwater.

The CU-led team developed an alternate explanation for the fact that there is little charcoal found at the Cretaceous-Paleogene, or K-Pg, boundary some 66 million years ago when the asteroid struck Earth and the cataclysmic fires are believed to have occurred. The CU researchers found that similar studies had corrected their data for changing sedimentation rates. When the charcoal data were corrected for the same changing sedimentation rates they show an excess of charcoal, not a deficiency, Robertson said.

“Our data show the conditions back then are consistent with widespread fires across the planet,” said Robertson, a research scientist at CIRES, which is a joint institute of CU-Boulder and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “Those conditions resulted in 100 percent extinction rates for about 80 percent of all life on Earth.”

A paper on the subject was published online this week in the Journal of Geophysical Research-Biogeosciences, a publication of the American Geophysical Union. Co-authors on the study include CIRES Interim Director William Lewis, CU Professor Brian Toon of the atmospheric and oceanic sciences department and the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics and Peter Sheehan of the Milwaukee Public Museum in Wisconsin.

Geological evidence indicates the asteroid collided with Earth about 66 million years ago and carved the Chicxulub crater in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula that is more than 110 miles in diameter. In 2010, experts from 33 institutions worldwide issued a report that concluded the impact at Chicxulub triggered mass extinctions, including dinosaurs, at the K-Pg boundary.

The conditions leading to the global firestorm were set up by the vaporization of rock following the impact, which condensed into sand-grain-sized spheres as they rose above the atmosphere. As the ejected material re-entered Earth’s atmosphere, it dumped enough heat in the upper atmosphere to trigger an infrared “heat pulse” so hot it caused the sky to glow red for several hours, even though part of the radiation was blocked from Earth by the falling material, he said.

But there was enough infrared radiation from the upper atmosphere that reached Earth’s surface to create searing conditions that likely ignited tinder, including dead leaves and pine needles. If a person was on Earth back then, it would have been like sitting in a broiler oven for two or three hours, said Robertson.

The amount of energy created by the infrared radiation the day of the asteroid-Earth collision is mind-boggling, said Robertson. “It’s likely that the total amount of infrared heat was equal to a 1 megaton bomb exploding every four miles over the entire Earth.”

A 1-megaton hydrogen bomb has about the same explosive power as 80 Hiroshima-type nuclear bombs, he said. The asteroid-Earth collision is thought to have generated about 100 million megatons of energy, said Robertson.

Some researchers have suggested that a layer of soot found at the K-Pg boundary layer roughly 66 million years ago was created by the impact itself. But Robertson and his colleagues calculated that the amount of soot was too high to have been created during the massive impact event and was consistent with the amount that would be expected from global fires.

Challengers to Clovis-age impact theory missed key protocols, new study finds

An interdisciplinary team of scientists from seven U.S. institutions says a disregard of three critical protocols, including sorting samples by size, explains why a group challenging the theory of a North American meteor-impact event some 12,900 years ago failed to find iron- and silica-rich magnetic particles in the sites they investigated.

Not separating samples of the materials into like-sized groupings made for an avoidable layer of difficulty, said co-author Edward K. Vogel, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon.

The new independent analysis — published this week in the online Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences — did, in fact, isolate large quantities of the “microspherules” at the involved sites where the challengers previously reported none. Lead author Malcolm A. LeCompte, an astrophysicist at Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina, said the findings support the climate-altering cosmic impact, but his team stopped short of declaring this as proof of the event.

The Clovis-age cosmic-impact theory was proposed in 2007 by a 26-member team led by Richard B. Firestone. That team included University of Oregon archaeologists Douglas J. Kennett and Jon M. Erlandson. While other groups have found corroborating evidence of a potential cosmic event, other groups reported difficulties doing so. One group, led by Todd A Surovell of the University of Wyoming, did not find any microspherule evidence at five of seven sites they tested, including two previously studied locations where Firestone reported large numbers of microspherules.

“In investigating the two common sites and a third tested only by Surovell’s team, we found spherules in equal or greater abundance than did the Firestone team, and the reported enhancement was in strata dated to about 13,000 years before the present,” LeCompte said. “What we’ve done is provide evidence that is consistent with an impact, but we don’t think it proves the impact. We think there’s a mystery contained in the Younger Dryas strata, and that we’ve provided some validation to the original research by Firestone’s group.”

The particles in question, the team concluded, are terrestrial as was claimed by the Firestone group, and not of meteoric origin as claimed by other challengers including Surovell’s group, and are similar to metamorphic material in Earth’s crust. That determination was made using electron microscopy and spectroscopy.

“These spherules have evidence of very high-temperature melting and very rapid cooling, which is characteristic of debris ejected from an impact,” LeCompte said. Speherules would have melted at temperatures approaching 2,000 degrees Celsius (more than 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit), he added. Cosmic materials, including the some microspherules, regularly fall to earth from space due to meteorite ablation, but the spherules found in soils dating to 13,000 years ago are much different, he added. Other researchers had suggested that these spherules were deposited by a cosmic rain or resulted through slow, terrestrial processes occurring under ambient conditions.

LeCompte and some key collaborators wondered why Surovell didn’t find any spherules, and that led them to Vogel. Many of the spherules investigated were tiny, ranging in size from 20 to 50 micrometers (microns); about the diameter of a human hair.

“The inherent difficulty in finding these small, relatively rare magnetic microspherules suggested there may be inherent limitations in human faculties that needed to be addressed, and that’s how and why we sought out UO Professor Ed Vogel. His research into human cognitive capabilities proved so important in understanding both why the search was so difficult and why size-sorting was effective and important in making it easier,” LeCompte said.

Vogel specializes in the ability of people to find specific items amid multiple distractions.

“A visual search is a very error-prone process,” Vogel said. “This was a case of looking at millions of particles from which you are hoping to find something that might be present much less than 0.1 percent of the time.” Size-sorting, he said, is vital because it is easier to find a target item with a characteristic shape and color when all of the many more-distracting objects are very similar. “It is a slow, tedious process to examine such quantities of materials with the human eyes when object sizes are extremely dissimilar.”

“Science is only as good as the humans who conduct it, and this study shows how the minds of researchers can operate in some surprising ways,” said Kimberly Andrews Espy, UO vice president for research and innovation, and dean of the graduate school. “Dr. Vogel’s excellent work, which illustrates the importance of understanding how the human mind processes information and the consequences it can have beyond making everyday computations, reflects the University of Oregon’s strengths in interdisciplinary research.”

LeCompte described Surovell’s study “as possibly the most damning of the reports that had challenged the original theory.”

“Todd had worked very hard and couldn’t find the spherules, but I think he made some fatal errors that need to be pointed out,” LeCompte said. “It is instructive in that we initially made the same mistake and came to the same erroneous conclusion, but then we corrected our mistake. I would say this is a case of a missed opportunity due to their deviations from the protocol.”

Two other critical protocol deviations not followed by the challengers involved the amounts of material examined and the use of microscopy techniques specified in Firestone’s original research. Another two minor aspects of the protocol also were not repeated, reported LeCompte’s team, which, in addition to Vogel, included an archaeologist, two materials scientists, a botanist, a periglacial geographer and an aerospace engineer.

LeCompte’s team — using the protocols of Firestone’s group and electron microscopy — additionally studied a quarry site in Topper, S.C., where Clovis-age people had made stone tools. After removing chert debris associated with tool making in soil at the depth of the Clovis occupation, LeCompte said, researchers observed virtually no spherules below it, while in soil just above the chert fragments they found a spike in the number of telltale spherules.

Further above that level, he noted, the soil layers were essentially “a dead zone” somewhat analogous to the K-T boundary, or “tombstone layer,” from an extinction event that occurred 65 million years ago. At Topper, the dead zone showed almost no trace of human habitation for perhaps as long as 1,000 years duration.

“This suggests that something very dramatic happened,” LeCompte said.

“The effects of such an impact would have been catastrophic on a global scale,” said co-author Barrett Rock, a botanist at the University of New Hampshire. “On the order of 36 ice-age species became extinct, and the Clovis human culture eventually lost. All of this in response to dramatic changes in the vegetation at the base of the faunal food chain.”

Earth’s oldest known impact crater found in Greenland

A 100 kilometer-wide crater has been found in Greenland, the result of a massive asteroid or comet impact a billion years before any other known collision on Earth.

The spectacular craters on the Moon formed from impacts with asteroids and comets between 3 and 4 billion years ago. The early Earth, with its far greater gravitational mass, must have experienced even more collisions at this time – but the evidence has been eroded away or covered by younger rocks. The previously oldest known crater on Earth formed 2 billion years ago and the chances of finding an even older impact were thought to be, literally, astronomically low.

Now, a team of scientists from the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland (GEUS) in Copenhagen, Cardiff University in Wales, Lund University in Sweden and the Institute of Planetary Science in Moscow has upset these odds. Following a detailed programme of fieldwork, funded by GEUS and the Danish ‘Carlsbergfondet’ (Carlsberg Foundation), the team have discovered the remains of a giant 3 billion year old impact near the Maniitsoq region of West Greenland.

“This single discovery means that we can study the effects of cratering on the Earth nearly a billion years further back in time than was possible before,” according to Dr Iain McDonald of Cardiff University’s School of Earth and Ocean Sciences, who was part of the team.

Finding the evidence was made all the harder because there is no obvious bowl-shaped crater left to find. Over the 3 billion years since the impact, the land has been eroded down to expose deeper crust 25 km below the original surface. All external parts of the impact structure have been removed, but the effects of the intense impact shock wave penetrated deep into the crust – far deeper than at any other known crater – and these remain visible.

However, because the effects of impact at these depths have never been observed before it has taken nearly three years of painstaking work to assemble all the key evidence. “The process was rather like a Sherlock Holmes story,” said Dr McDonald. “We eliminated the impossible in terms of any conventional terrestrial processes, and were left with a giant impact as the only explanation for all of the facts.”

Only around 180 impact craters have ever been discovered on Earth and around 30% of them contain important natural resources of minerals or oil and gas. The largest and oldest known crater prior to this study, the 300 kilometre wide Vredefort crater in South Africa, is 2 billion years in age and heavily eroded.

Dr McDonald added that “It has taken us nearly three years to convince our peers in the scientific community of this but the mining industry was far more receptive. A Canadian exploration company has been using the impact model to explore for deposits of nickel and platinum metals at Maniitsoq since the autumn of 2011.”

The international team was led by Adam A. Garde, senior research scientist at GEUS. The first scientific paper documenting the discovery has just been published in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters.

Study finds new evidence supporting theory of extraterrestrial impact

This is James Kennett. -  UCSB
This is James Kennett. – UCSB

An 18-member international team of researchers that includes James Kennett, professor of earth science at UC Santa Barbara, has discovered melt-glass material in a thin layer of sedimentary rock in Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Syria. According to the researchers, the material — which dates back nearly 13,000 years — was formed at temperatures of 1,700 to 2,200 degrees Celsius (3,100 to 3,600 degrees Fahrenheit), and is the result of a cosmic body impacting Earth.

These new data are the latest to strongly support the controversial Younger Dryas Boundary (YDB) hypothesis, which proposes that a cosmic impact occurred 12,900 years ago at the onset of an unusual cold climatic period called the Younger Dryas. This episode occurred at or close to the time of major extinction of the North American megafauna, including mammoths and giant ground sloths; and the disappearance of the prehistoric and widely distributed Clovis culture. The researchers’ findings appear today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“These scientists have identified three contemporaneous levels more than 12,000 years ago, on two continents yielding siliceous scoria-like objects (SLO’s),” said H. Richard Lane, program director of National Science Foundation’s Division of Earth Sciences, which funded the research. “SLO’s are indicative of high-energy cosmic airbursts/impacts, bolstering the contention that these events induced the beginning of the Younger Dryas. That time was a major departure in biotic, human and climate history.”

Morphological and geochemical evidence of the melt-glass confirms that the material is not cosmic, volcanic, or of human-made origin. “The very high temperature melt-glass appears identical to that produced in known cosmic impact events such as Meteor Crater in Arizona, and the Australasian tektite field,” said Kennett.

“The melt material also matches melt-glass produced by the Trinity nuclear airburst of 1945 in Socorro, New Mexico,” he continued. “The extreme temperatures required are equal to those of an atomic bomb blast, high enough to make sand melt and boil.”

The material evidence supporting the YDB cosmic impact hypothesis spans three continents, and covers nearly one-third of the planet, from California to Western Europe, and into the Middle East. The discovery extends the range of evidence into Germany and Syria, the easternmost site yet identified in the northern hemisphere. The researchers have yet to identify a limit to the debris field of the impact.

“Because these three sites in North America and the Middle East are separated by 1,000 to 10,000 kilometers, there were most likely three or more major impact/airburst epicenters for the YDB impact event, likely caused by a swarm of cosmic objects that were fragments of either a meteorite or comet,” said Kennett.

The PNAS paper also presents examples of recent independent research that supports the YDB cosmic impact hypothesis, and supports two independent groups that found melt-glass in the YDB layers in Arizona and Venezuela. “The results strongly refute the assertion of some critics that ‘no one can replicate’ the YDB evidence, or that the materials simply fell from space non-catastrophically,” Kennett noted.

He added that the archaeological site in Syria where the melt-glass material was found — Abu Hureyra, in the Euphrates Valley — is one of the few sites of its kind that record the transition from nomadic hunter-gatherers to farmer-hunters who live in permanent villages. “Archeologists and anthropologists consider this area the ‘birthplace of agriculture,’ which occurred close to 12,900 years ago,” Kennett said.

“The presence of a thick charcoal layer in the ancient village in Syria indicates a major fire associated with the melt-glass and impact spherules 12,900 years ago,” he continued. “Evidence suggests that the effects on that settlement and its inhabitants would have been severe.”

Tiny ‘spherules’ reveal details about Earth’s asteroid impacts

Researchers are learning details about asteroid impacts going back to the Earth's early history by using a new method for extracting precise information from tiny 'spherules' embedded in layers of rock. The spherules were created when asteroids crashed into Earth, vaporizing rock that expanded as a giant vapor plume. Small droplets of molten rock in the plume condensed and solidified, falling back to the surface as a thin layer. This sample was found in Western Australia and formed 2.63 billion years ago in the aftermath of a large impact. -  Oberlin College photo/Bruce M. Simonson
Researchers are learning details about asteroid impacts going back to the Earth’s early history by using a new method for extracting precise information from tiny ‘spherules’ embedded in layers of rock. The spherules were created when asteroids crashed into Earth, vaporizing rock that expanded as a giant vapor plume. Small droplets of molten rock in the plume condensed and solidified, falling back to the surface as a thin layer. This sample was found in Western Australia and formed 2.63 billion years ago in the aftermath of a large impact. – Oberlin College photo/Bruce M. Simonson

Researchers are learning details about asteroid impacts going back to the Earth’s early history by using a new method for extracting precise information from tiny “spherules” embedded in layers of rock.

The spherules were created when asteroids crashed into the Earth, vaporizing rock that expanded into space as a giant vapor plume. Small droplets of molten and vaporized rock in the plume condensed and solidified, falling back to Earth as a thin layer. The round or oblong particles were preserved in layers of rock, and now researchers have analyzed them to record precise information about asteroids impacting Earth from 3.5 billion to 35 million years ago.

“What we have done is provide the foundation for understanding how to interpret the layers in terms of the size and velocity of the asteroid that made them,” said Jay Melosh, an expert in impact cratering and a distinguished professor of earth and atmospheric sciences, physics and aerospace engineering at Purdue University.

Findings, which support a theory that the Earth endured an especially heavy period of asteroid bombardment early in its history, are detailed in a research paper appearing online in the journal Nature on Wednesday (April 25). The paper was written by Purdue physics graduate student Brandon Johnson and Melosh. The findings, based on geologic observations, support a theoretical study in a companion paper in Nature by researchers at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo.

The period of heavy asteroid bombardment – from 4.2 to 3.5 billion years ago – is thought to have been influenced by changes in the early solar system that altered the trajectory of objects in an asteroid belt located between Mars and Jupiter, sending them on a collision course with Earth.

“That’s the postulate, and this is the first real solid evidence that it actually happened,” Melosh said. “Some of the asteroids that we infer were about 40 kilometers in diameter, much larger than the one that killed off the dinosaurs about 65 million years ago that was about 12-15 kilometers. But when we looked at the number of impactors as a function of size, we got a curve that showed a lot more small objects than large ones, a pattern that matches exactly the distribution of sizes in the asteroid belt. For the first time we have a direct connection between the crater size distribution on the ancient Earth and the sizes of asteroids out in space.”

Because craters are difficult to study directly, impact history must be inferred either by observations of asteroids that periodically pass near the Earth or by studying craters on the moon. Now, the new technique using spherules offers a far more accurate alternative to chronicle asteroid impacts on Earth, Melosh said.

“We can look at these spherules, see how thick the layer is, how big the spherules are, and we can infer the size and velocity of the asteroid,” Melosh said. “We can go back to the earliest era in the history of the Earth and infer the population of asteroids impacting the planet.”

For asteroids larger than about 10 kilometers in diameter, the spherules are deposited in a global layer.

“Some of these impacts were several times larger than the Chicxulub impact that killed off the dinosaurs 65 million years ago,” Johnson said. “The impacts may have played a large role in the evolutional history of life. The large number of impacts may have helped simple life by introducing organics and other important materials at a time when life on Earth was just taking hold.”

A 40-kilometer asteroid would have wiped out everything on the Earth’s surface, whereas the one that struck 65 million years ago killed only land animals weighing more than around 20 kilograms.

“Impact craters are the most obvious indication of asteroid impacts, but craters on Earth are quickly obscured or destroyed by surface weathering and tectonic processes,” Johnson said. “However, the spherule layers, if preserved in the geologic record, provide information about an impact even when the source crater cannot be found.”

The Purdue researchers studied the spherules using computer models that harness mathematical equations developed originally to calculate the condensation of vapor.

“There have been some new wrinkles in vapor condensation modeling that motivated us to do this work, and we were the first to apply it to asteroid impacts,” Melosh said.

The spherules are about a millimeter in diameter.

The researchers also are studying a different type of artifact similar to spherules but found only near the original impact site. Whereas the globally distributed spherules come from the condensing vaporized rock, these “melt droplets” are from rock that’s been melted and not completely vaporized.

“Before this work, it was not possible to distinguish between these two types of formations,” Melosh said. “Nobody had established criteria for discriminating between them, and we’ve done that now.”

One of the authors of the Southwest Research Institute paper, David Minton, is now an assistant professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at Purdue.

Findings from the research may enable Melosh’s team to enhance an asteroid impact effects calculator he developed to estimate what would happen if asteroids of various sizes were to hit the Earth. The calculator, “Impact: Earth!” allows anyone to calculate potential comet or asteroid damage based on the object’s mass.

Study supports theory of extraterrestrial impact

This is James Kennett. -  	University of California - Santa Barbara
This is James Kennett. – University of California – Santa Barbara

A 16-member international team of researchers that includes James Kennett, professor of earth science at UC Santa Barbara, has identified a nearly 13,000-year-old layer of thin, dark sediment buried in the floor of Lake Cuitzeo in central Mexico. The sediment layer contains an exotic assemblage of materials, including nanodiamonds, impact spherules, and more, which, according to the researchers, are the result of a cosmic body impacting Earth.

These new data are the latest to strongly support of a controversial hypothesis proposing that a major cosmic impact with Earth occurred 12,900 years ago at the onset of an unusual cold climatic period called the Younger Dryas. The researchers’ findings appear today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


Conducting a wide range of exhaustive tests, the researchers conclusively identified a family of nanodiamonds, including the impact form of nanodiamonds called lonsdaleite, which is unique to cosmic impact. The researchers also found spherules that had collided at high velocities with other spherules during the chaos of impact. Such features, Kennett noted, could not have formed through anthropogenic, volcanic, or other natural terrestrial processes. “These materials form only through cosmic impact,” he said.

The data suggest that a comet or asteroid — likely a large, previously fragmented body, greater than several hundred meters in diameter — entered the atmosphere at a relatively shallow angle. The heat at impact burned biomass, melted surface rocks, and caused major environmental disruption. “These results are consistent with earlier reported discoveries throughout North America of abrupt ecosystem change, megafaunal extinction, and human cultural change and population reduction,” Kennett explained.

The sediment layer identified by the researchers is of the same age as that previously reported at numerous locations throughout North America, Greenland, and Western Europe. The current discovery extends the known range of the nanodiamond-rich layer into Mexico and the tropics. In addition, it is the first reported for true lake deposits.

In the entire geologic record, there are only two known continent-wide layers with abundance peaks in nanodiamonds, impact spherules, and aciniform soot. These are in the 65-million-year-old Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary layer that coincided with major extinctions, including the dinosaurs and ammonites; and the Younger Dryas boundary event at 12,900 years ago, closely associated with the extinctions of many large North American animals, including mammoths, mastodons, saber-tooth cats, and dire wolves.

“The timing of the impact event coincided with the most extraordinary biotic and environmental changes over Mexico and Central America during the last approximately 20,000 years, as recorded by others in several regional lake deposits,” said Kennett. “These changes were large, abrupt, and unprecedented, and had been recorded and identified by earlier investigators as a ‘time of crisis.’ “

CSI-style investigation of meteorite hits on Earth

<IMG SRC="/Images/792564511.jpg" WIDTH="350" HEIGHT="276" BORDER="0" ALT="Meteorite impact ejecta (left) compared with volcanic deposits (right) showing closely similar structures made of dust particles.

The top two photos show accretionary lapilli in density current deposits, whereas bottom two photos show pellets that formed when dust in the atmosphere clumped together and simply fell onto the land surface. – From Branney and Brown 2011 (Journal of Geology 199, 275-292″>

Meteorite impact ejecta (left) compared with volcanic deposits (right) showing closely similar structures made of dust particles.

The top two photos show accretionary lapilli in density current deposits, whereas bottom two photos show pellets that formed when dust in the atmosphere clumped together and simply fell onto the land surface. – From Branney and Brown 2011 (Journal of Geology 199, 275-292


Volcanologists from the Universities of Leicester and Durham have forensically reconstructed the impact of a meteorite on Earth and how debris was hurled from the crater to devastate the surrounding region.

New research by Mike Branney, of the University of Leicester’s Department of Geology, and Richard Brown, University of Durham, shows that some aspects of giant meteorite impacts onto Earth may mimic the behavior of large volcanic eruptions.

Meteorite impacts are more common than is popularly appreciated – but what happens when the meteorite hits? Direct observation is understandably difficult, but researchers pick through impact debris that has been spared the ravages of erosion, to forensically reconstruct the catastrophic events.

Mike Branney and Richard Brown analyzed an ejecta layer derived from the impact of a huge meteorite and discovered that much of the ejected debris moved across the ground as rapid, dense, ground-hugging currents of gas and debris, remarkably similar to the awesome pyroclastic density currents that flow radially outwards from explosive volcanoes.

Dr Branney said: “In particular, the way that ash and dust stick together seems identical. Moist ash from explosive volcanoes sticks together in the atmosphere to fall out as mm-sized pellets. Where these drop back into a hot pyroclastic density current, they grow into larger layered structures, known as accretionary lapilli.”

The researchers studied a finely preserved deposit in northwest Scotland from a huge impact that occurred a billion years ago. It shows both types of these ‘volcanic’ particles – pellets and lapilli – are produced.

Dr Brown added: “This reveals that that the 10 meter-thick layer, which has been traced for over 50 km along the Scottish coast, was almost entirely emplaced as a devastating density current that sped outwards from the point of impact – just like a density current from a volcano. Only the uppermost few centimetres actually fell out through the atmosphere. “

The Leicester and Durham scientists say that an improved understanding of what happens when large objects hits the Earth will help us understand how these catastrophic events may have affected life on the planet in the past …and possibly in the future.

The end of planet formation, as told by trace elements from the mantles of Earth, the moon and Mars

New research reveals that the abundance of so-called highly siderophile, or metal-loving, elements like gold and platinum found in the mantles of Earth, the Moon and Mars were delivered by massive impactors during the final phase of planet formation over 4.5 billion years ago. The predicted sizes of the projectiles, which hit within tens of millions of years of the giant impact that produced our Moon, are consistent with current planet formation models as well as physical evidence such as the size distributions of asteroids and ancient Martian impact scars. They predict that the largest of the late impactors on Earth, at 1,500-2,000 miles in diameter, potentially modified Earth’s obliquity by approximately 10 degrees, while those for the Moon, at approximately 150-200 miles, may have delivered water to its mantle.

The team that conducted this study comprises solar system dynamicists, such as Dr. William Bottke and Dr. David Nesvorny from the Southwest Research Institute, and geophysical-geochemical modelers, such as Prof. Richard J. Walker from the University of Maryland, Prof. James Day from the University of Maryland and Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and Prof. Linda Elkins-Tanton, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Together, they represent three teams within the NASA Lunar Science Institute (NLSI).

A fundamental problem in planetary science is to determine how Earth, the Moon, and other inner solar system planets formed and evolved. This is a difficult question to answer given that billions of years of history have steadily erased evidence for these early events. Despite this, critical clues can still be found to help determine what happened, provided one knows where to look.

For instance, careful study of lunar samples brought back by the Apollo astronauts, combined with numerical modeling work, indicates that the Moon formed as a result of a collision between a Mars-sized body and the early Earth about 4.5 billion years ago. While the idea that the Earth-Moon system owes its existence to a single, random event was initially viewed as radical, it is now believed that such large impacts were commonplace during the end stages of planet formation. The giant impact is believed to have led to a final phase of core formation and global magma oceans on both the Earth and Moon.

For the giant impact hypothesis to be correct, one might expect samples from the Earth and Moon’s mantle, brought to the surface by volcanic activity, to back it up. In particular, scientists have examined the abundance in these rocks of so-called highly siderophile, or metal-loving, elements: Re, Os, Ir, Ru, Pt, Rh, Pd, Au. These elements should have followed the iron and other metals to the core in the aftermath of the Moon-forming event, leaving the rocky crusts and mantles of these bodies void of these elements. Accordingly, their near-absence from mantle rocks should provide a key test of the giant impact model.

However, as described by team member Walker, “The big problem for the modelers is that these metals are not missing at all, but instead are modestly plentiful.” Team member Day adds, “This is a good thing for anyone who likes their gold wedding rings or the cleaner air provided by the palladium in their car’s catalytic convertors.”

A proposed solution to this conundrum is that highly siderophile elements were indeed stripped from the mantle by the effects of the giant impact, but were then partially replenished by later impacts from the original building blocks of the planets, called planetesimals. This is not a surprise – planet formation models predict such late impacts – but their nature, numbers, and most especially size of the accreting bodies are unknown. Presumably, they could have represented the accretion of many small bodies or a few large events. To match observations, the late-arriving planetesimals need to deliver 0.5 percent of the Earth’s mass to Earth’s mantle, equivalent to one-third of the mass of the Moon, and about 1,200 times less mass to the Moon’s mantle.

Using numerical models, the team showed that they could reproduce these amounts if the late accretion population was dominated by massive projectiles. Their results indicate the largest Earth impactor was 1,500-2,000 miles in diameter, roughly the size of Pluto, while those hitting the Moon were only 150-200 miles across. Lead author Bottke says, “These impactors are thought to be large enough to produce the observed enrichments in highly siderophile elements, but not so large that their fragmented cores joined with the planet’s core. They probably represent the largest objects to hit those worlds since the giant impact that formed our Moon.”

Intriguingly, the predicted distribution of projectile sizes, where most of the mass of the population is found among the largest objects, is consistent with other evidence.

  • New models describing how planetesimals form and evolve suggest the biggest ones efficiently gobble up the smaller ones and run away in terms of size, leaving behind a population of enormous objects largely resistant to collisional erosion.

  • The last surviving planetesimal populations in the inner solar system are the asteroids. In the inner asteroid belt, the asteroids Ceres, Pallas and Vesta, at 600, 300 and 300 miles across, respectively, dwarf the next largest asteroids at 150 miles across. No asteroids with “in-between” sizes are observed in this region.

  • The sizes of the oldest and largest craters on Mars, many of which are thousands of miles across, are consistent with it being bombarded by an inner asteroid belt-like population dominated by large bodies early in its history.

These results make it possible to make some interesting predictions about the evolution of the Earth, Mars and the Moon. For example:

  • The largest projectiles that struck Earth were capable of modifying its spin axis, on average, by approximately 10 degrees.

  • The largest impactor to strike Mars, according to this work and the abundance of highly siderophile elements found in Martian meteorites, was 900𔂿,100 miles across. This is approximately the projectile size needed to create the proposed Borealis basin that may have produced Mars’ global hemispheric dichotomy.

  • For the Moon, the projectiles would have been large enough to have created the South-Pole-Aitkin basin or perhaps a comparable-sized early basin. Moreover, if they contained even a trace amount of volatiles, then the same processes that brought highly siderophile elements to the Moon’s mantle may have also delivered its observed abundance of water.