In modern humanity's short existence on this planet — a timeline stretching back only about 200,000 years — we've experienced nothing to compare to the violent, species-ending events that have rocked our planet in the past. In fact, as new research shows, what occurs when an asteroid several miles wide strikes our planet is beyond our wildest imagination.
In a paper published in Science Magazine, an international team of scientists details the most accurate simulation yet for the formation of the famed Chicxulub crater. Buried underneath both ocean and land in Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula, Chicxulub was formed some 66 million years ago when an asteroid 6 miles wide collided with the planet. The impact, estimated to have been the third largest on Earth, generated a crater more than 110 miles wide and 12 miles deep. It wiped out most life on Earth, including the dinosaurs.
To better understand what the Chicxulub impact did to the region around ground zero, researchers spent a month on a drilling platform above the Gulf of Mexico. While sediment cores had been previously gathered from land, this was the first attempt at retrieving them from a deep ocean site. The goal was to drill into the Chicxulub's "peak rim," a circular formation within the crater that, while present in other impact craters in our solar system, is the only one of its kind on Earth.
Based on core samples gathered from depths of more than 2,000 feet, the team was able to measure how the impact violently ripped apart the Earth's crust. In a span of only minutes, the asteroid buried itself into the crust, displacing an estimated 48,000 cubic miles of rock and lifting the bottom crust more than 15 miles. The sedimentary rock above became almost fluid-like, rippling and triggering the brief formation of a mountain range taller than Mount Everest. This collapsed minutes later, with the shock wave of rocks propelled back towards the impact point and bursting outwards to form the peak ring.
All told, the impact likely had more than a billion times the energy of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki near the end of World War II.
You can see the computer simulation of the impact in the video below:
"These rocks must have lost their strength and cohesion, and very dramatically had their friction reduced," study co-author professor Joanna Morgan of Imperial College London told the BBC. "So, yes, temporarily, they behave like a fluid. It's the only way you can make a crater like this."
In addition to decimating the Yucatán, the impact triggered global earthquakes, mega-tsunamis, wildfires and violent volcanic eruptions. It's estimated that an "impact winter" of several years prevented sunlight from reaching much of the globe.
The researchers are hopeful that Chicxulub will yield more clues about how planetary bodies cope with large impacts from asteroids and comets.
"In addition to being interesting from an extinction element," expedition leader Sean Gulick told NPR, "it's also interesting because it's a well-preserved, very large crater that we can access without leaving the planet. It's equivalent to studying the really big craters with peak rings, for instance, on the moon, on Mercury, on Mars — but obviously at a fraction of the cost."