Antarctica: Site of the Biggest Impact Crater on Earth Revealed

6a00d8341bf7f753ef0120a6403fdb970c.jpg No mass extinction on Earth has been so tightly linked to an impact as the Chicxulub Crater which cuts across the northern Yucatan peninsula in Mexico in a mighty arc 170 kilometers (105 miles) across. The crater's size implies an asteroid some 10 kilometers -seven miles- wide and reaching a depth as deep as the deepest ocean trench plunging the Earth into a global winter night that cut off photosynthesis for months, even years.

But one other impact may make the Chicxulub look like a 4th of July event.

In 2006, NASA gravity and subsurface radar maps revealed a 500-kilometer-wide crater that lies hidden more than a mile beneath the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, created by a 50-kilometer wide object. The gravity measurements suggest that it could date back about 250 million years — the time of the Permian-Triassic extinction, when almost all animal life on Earth died out.

Its size and location — in the Wilkes Land region of East Antarctica, south of Australia — also suggest that it could have begun the breakup of the Gondwana supercontinent by creating the tectonic rift that pushed Australia northward.

Paleontologists believe that the Permian-Triassic extinction paved the way for the dinosaurs to rise to prominence. The Wilkes Land crater is more than twice the size of the Chicxulub crater, which marks the impact that may have ultimately killed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. The void left at the K-T boundary created by the impact left the world to the mammals.

"This Wilkes Land impact is much bigger than the impact that killed the dinosaurs, and probably would have caused catastrophic damage at the time," said Ralph von Frese, a professor of geological sciences at Ohio State University.

Von Frese and Laramie Potts, a postdoctoral researcher in geological sciences, led the team that discovered the crater. They collaborated with other Ohio State and NASA scientists, as well as international partners from Russia and Korea. 

The scientists used gravity fluctuations measured by NASA's GRACE satellites to peer beneath Antarctica's icy surface, and found a 200-mile-wide plug of mantle material — a mass concentration, or "mascon" — that had risen up into the Earth's crust. Mascons form where large objects slam into a planet's surface. Upon impact, the denser mantle layer bounces up into the overlying crust, which holds it in place beneath the crater.

When the scientists overlaid their gravity image with airborne radar images of the ground beneath the ice, they found the mascon perfectly centered inside a circular ridge some 300 miles wide — a crater easily large enough to hold the state of Ohio.

Taken alone, the ridge structure wouldn't prove anything. But to von Frese, the addition of the mascon means "impact." Years of studying similar impacts on the moon have honed his ability to find them.

"If I saw this same mascon signal on the moon, I'd expect to see a crater around it," he said. "And when we looked at the ice-probing airborne radar, there it was."

"There are at least 20 impact craters this size or larger on the moon, so it is not surprising to find one here," he continued. "The active geology of the Earth likely scrubbed its surface clean of many more."

Von Frese and Potts admitted that such signals are open to interpretation. Even with radar and gravity measurements, scientists are only just beginning to understand what's happening inside the planet. Still, von Frese said that the circumstances of the radar and mascon signals support their interpretation.

"We compared two completely different data sets taken under different conditions, and they matched up," he said.

To estimate when the impact took place, the scientists took a clue from the fact that the mascon is still visible.

"On the moon, you can look at craters, and the mascons are still there," von Frese said. "But on Earth, it's unusual to find mascons, because the planet is geologically active. The interior eventually recovers and the mascon goes away." He cited the very large and much older Vredefort crater in South Africa that must have once had a mascon, but no evidence of it can be seen now.

"Based on what we know about the geologic history of the region, this Wilkes Land mascon formed recently by geologic standards — probably about 250 million years ago," he said. "In another half a billion years, the Wilkes Land mascon will probably disappear, too."

Approximately 100 million years ago, Australia split from the ancient Gondwana supercontinent and began drifting north, pushed away by the expansion of a rift valley into the eastern Indian Ocean. The rift cuts directly through the crater, so the impact may have helped the rift to form, von Frese said. 

"All the environmental changes that would have resulted from the impact would have created a highly caustic environment that was really hard to endure. So it makes sense that a lot of life went extinct at that time," he added.

The ultimate proof of the Antarctica impact theory lies in finding the shattered rock -the stuff of future expeditions and discovery.

What would happen to the human species and life on Earth in general if an asteroid the size of the one that created the famous K/T Event, and impact exponentially smaller than the Wilkes Land impact?

As Stephen Hawking says, the general consensus is that any comet or asteroid greater than 20 kilometers in diameter that strikes the Earth will result in the complete annihilation of complex life – animals and higher plants. (The asteroid Vesta, for example, one of the destinations of the Dawn Mission, is the size of Arizona).

How many times in our galaxy alone has life finally evolved to the equivalent of our planets and animals on some far distant planet, only to be utterly destroyed by an impact? Galactic history suggests it might be a common occurrence.

The first this to understand about the KT event is that is was absolutely enormous: an asteroid (or comet) six to 10 miles in diameter streaked through the Earth's atmosphere at 25,000 miles an hour and struck the Yucatan region of Mexico with the force of 100 megatons -the equivalent of one Hiroshima bomb for every person alive on Earth today. Not a pretty scenario!

Recent calculations show that our planet would go into another "Snowball Earth" event like the one that occurred 600 million years ago, when it is believed the oceans froze over (although some scientists dispute this hypothesis -see link below).

While microbial bacteria might readily survive such calamitous impacts, our new understanding from the record of the Earth's mass extinctions clearly shows that plants and animals are very susceptible to extinction in the wake of an impact.

Impact rates depend on how many comets and asteroids exist in a particular planetary system. In general there is one major impact every million years -a mere blink of the eye in geological time. It also depends on how often those objects are perturbed from safe orbits that parallel the Earth's orbit to new, Earth-crossing orbits that might, sooner or later, result in a catastrophic K/T or Permian-type mass extinction.

The asteroid that hit Vredefort located in the Free State Province of South Africa is one of the largest to ever impact Earth, estimated at over 10 km (6 miles) wide, although it is believed by many that the original size of the impact structure could have been 250 km in diameter, or possibly larger(though the Wilkes Land crater in Antarctica, if confirmed to have been the result of an impact event, is even larger at 500 kilometers across). The town of Vredefort is situated in the crater (image). Dating back 2,023 million years, it is the oldest astrobleme found on earth so far, with a radius of 190km, it is also the most deeply eroded. Vredefort Dome Vredefort bears witness to the world’s greatest known single energy release event, which caused devastating global change, including, according to many scientists, major evolutionary changes.

What has kept the Earth "safe" at least the past 65 million years, other than blind luck is the massive gravitational field of Jupiter, our cosmic guardian, with its stable circula
r orbit far from the sun, which assures a low number of impacts resulting in mass extinctions by sweeping up and scatters away most of the dangerous Earth-orbit-crossing comets and asteroids

Posted by Casey Kazan with Rebecca Sato

For more information about asteroids and near-Earth objects, visit:

Note: Portions of this post was adapted from a news release issued by University of Southampton.


Image at top of page courtesy of Ohio State University shows gravity fluctuations from airborne radar in the Wilkes Land region of East Antarctica . The edges of the crater are colored red and blue; a concentration of mantle material is colored orange (center). 


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