Thursday, 27 November 2014

Asteroid Impact 3.3 Billion Years Ago "Dwarfed the Dinosaur-Extinction Event" (Thanksgiving Holiday Feature)

Although scientists had previously hypothesized enormous ancient impacts, much greater than the one that may have eliminated the dinosaurs, a 2014 study revealed the power and scale of a cataclysmic event which is thought to have created geological features found in a South African region known as the Barberton greenstone belt.

Reconstructing the asteroid’s impact could help scientists better understand the conditions under which early life on the planet evolved. Along with altering the Earth itself, the environmental changes triggered by the impact may have wiped out many microscopic organisms living on the developing planet, allowing other organisms to evolve, they said.

The collision punched a crater into the planet’s crust that’s nearly 500 kilometers (about 300 miles) across: greater than the distance from Washington, D.C. to New York City, and up to two and a half times larger in diameter than the hole formed by the dinosaur-killing asteroid 65 million years ago. Seismic waves bigger than any recorded earthquakes shook the planet for about half an hour at any one location – about six times longer than the huge earthquake that struck Japan three years ago. The impact also sets off tsunamis many times deeper than the one that followed the Japanese quake.


The huge impactor – between 37 and 58 kilometers (23 to 36 miles) wide – collided with the planet at 20 kilometers per second (12 miles per second). The jolt, bigger than a 10.8 magnitude earthquake, propelled seismic waves hundreds of kilometers through the Earth, breaking rocks and setting off other large earthquakes. Tsunamis thousands of meters deep – far bigger than recent tsunamis generated by earthquakes — swept across the oceans that covered most of the Earth at that time.

A graphical representation of the size of the asteroid thought to have killed the dinosaurs, and the crater it created, compared to an asteroid thought to have hit the Earth 3.26 billion years ago and the size of the crater it may have generated. A new study reveals the power and scale of the event some 3.26 billion years ago which scientists think created geological features found in a South African region known as the Barberton greenstone belt.

A graphical representation of the size of the asteroid thought to have killed the dinosaurs, and the crater it created, compared to an asteroid thought to have hit the Earth 3.26 billion years ago and the size of the crater it may have generated. A new study reveals the power and scale of the event some 3.26 billion years ago which scientists think created geological features found in a South African region known as the Barberton greenstone belt.

Lowe, who discovered telltale rock formations in the Barberton greenstone a decade ago, thought their structure smacked of an asteroid impact. The new research models for the first time how big the asteroid was and the effect it had on the planet, including the possible initiation of a more modern plate tectonic system that is seen in the region, according to Lowe.

The study marks the first time scientists have mapped in this way an impact that occurred more than 3 billion years ago, Lowe added, and is likely one of the first times anyone has modeled any impact that occurred during this period of the Earth’s evolution.

The impact would have been catastrophic to the surface environment. The smaller, dino-killing asteroid crash is estimated to have released more than a billion times more energy than the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The more ancient hit now coming to light would have released much more energy, experts said.

The sky would have become red hot, the atmosphere would have been filled with dust and the tops of oceans would have boiled, the researchers said. The impact sent vaporized rock into the atmosphere, which encircled the globe and condensed into liquid droplets before solidifying and falling to the surface, according to the researchers.

The impact may have been one of dozens of huge asteroids that scientists think hit the Earth during the tail end of the Late Heavy Bombardment period, a major period of impacts that occurred early in the Earth’s history – around 3 billion to 4 billion years ago.

Many of the sites where these asteroids landed were destroyed by erosion, movement of the Earth’s crust and other forces as the Earth evolved, but geologists have found a handful of areas in South Africa, and Western Australia that still harbor evidence of these impacts that occurred between 3.23 billion and 3.47 billion years ago. The study’s co-authors think the asteroid hit the Earth thousands of kilometers away from the Barberton Greenstone Belt, although they can’t pinpoint the exact location.

“We can’t go to the impact sites. In order to better understand how big it was and its effect we need studies like this,” said Lowe. Scientists must use the geological evidence of these impacts to piece together what happened to the Earth during this time, he said.

The study’s findings have important implications for understanding the early Earth and how the planet formed. The impact may have disrupted the Earth’s crust and the tectonic regime that characterized the early planet, leading to the start of a more modern plate tectonic system, according to the paper’s co-authors.

The pummeling the planet endured was “much larger than any ordinary earthquake,” said Norman Sleep, a physicist at Stanford University and co-author of the study. He used physics, models, and knowledge about the formations in the Barberton greenstone belt, other earthquakes and other asteroid impact sites on the Earth and the moon to calculate the strength and duration of the shaking that the asteroid produced. Using this information, Sleep recreated how waves traveled from the impact site to the Barberton greenstone belt and caused the geological formations.

The geological evidence found in the Barberton that the paper investigates indicates that the asteroid was “far larger than anything in the last billion years,” said Jay Melosh, a professor at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, who was not involved in the research.

The Barberton greenstone belt is an area 100 kilometers (62 miles) long and 60 kilometers (37 miles) wide that sits east of Johannesburg near the border with Swaziland. It contains some of the oldest rocks on the planet.

The model provides evidence for the rock formations and crustal fractures that scientists have discovered in the Barberton greenstone belt, said Frank Kyte, a geologist at UCLA who was not involved in the study.

“This is providing significant support for the idea that the impact may have been responsible for this major shift in tectonics,” he said.

“We are trying to understand the forces that shaped our planet early in its evolution and the environments in which life evolved,” Lowe said.

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 impact 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. They reported their preliminary results in a recent poster session at the American Geophysical Union Joint Assembly meeting in Baltimore.

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."

He 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 said.

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.

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 circular 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

No comments:

Post a Comment

About Me

Designed ByBlogger Templates