Collision Course: A Brief Guide to Earth's Most Interesting Impact Craters

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A Norwegian family arrived at their cabin to open it up for the spring and found a surprise: a large rock had smashed through the roof. It was identified as a 1.3 pound breccia meteorite. It didn't hurt anybody, and its sale price should easily cover the damage to the roof; meteorites are valuable to collectors. But although most meteorites are very small, and to date nobody has been more than bruised by one, some of them are big and make a violent impression where they hit. Here are a few of the more interesting impact craters around:

Barringer Crater, Arizona, USA


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Also known as "Meteor Crater," this was the first crater identified, due to its relatively pristine appearance. It's young, as craters go -- just 50,000 years old -- and it was created by a nickel-iron meteorite about 50 meters across, excavating a crater about 1.2 km across.

Obolon' Crater, Poltava Oblast, Ukraine


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Not all craters are so obvious; sometimes their structure is only apparent in aerial views. Obolon' Crater was detected from the presence of shocked minerals in the surrounding, a tell-tale sign of an impact event. It's 20 km across and is estimated to be about 169 million years old, though there is some evidence it may be quite a bit older. (More on that next.)

Manicouagan Crater, Quebec, Canada


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Visible from space as a ring-shaped lake, this 100 km multi-ringed crater (with a 70 km central ring that is now Manicouagan Reservoir) was created by the impact of a 5km asteroid about 216 million years ago. What's interesting about this crater is that, if you account for plate tectonics and then roll the clock back about 216 million years, this crater has an eerily precise alignment with several other craters: Rochechouart in France, St. Martin in Manitoba, Obolon' in the Ukraine, and Red Wing crater in North Dakota. All of these craters may have been produced by a meteor train, the result of an object breaking up due to tidal forces or collisions.

Gosses Bluff Crater, Northern Territory, Australia


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What's left of this one is only 5 km across, but that's really only the central uplift that is found in some larger craters; the outer rim has mostly eroded away. This crater dates back about 142 million years. The local Aborigines regard it as sacred and, interestingly, give it an origin story hinting at its true origins: their story is that the child of the morning and evening stars fell out of the sky and hit the Earth in this spot; the shape of the bluff is evocative of its origin.

Karakul Crater, Pamir Mountains, Tajikistan


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This relatively young crater (between 5 and 25 million years old) is in Tajikistan and features a large lake at its center. The overall depression is 52 km across.

Sudbury Basin, Ontario, Canada


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This highly elliptical and also frighteningly large impact crater is difficult to see; it is shallow (the blow was a glancing one) and is heavily eroded and largely covered in vegetation. There is a large lake at one end, and the shape of it is crudely visible as human settlement has been mostly in the valley. The impactor would have been about 10-15 km in size, and struck the Earth about 1.849 billion years ago.

Vredefort Crater, Free State Province, South Africa


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Sudbury is big, but it's not the biggest. At 300 km across, Vredefort is the biggest confirmed impact crater on Earth. It's also the second oldest, at a little over 2 billion years of age. This impactor was probably 5-10 km, but traveling on a more direct course than the one that created Sudbury.

Chicxulub Crater, Yucatan, Mexico

This is not the largest crater on Earth, and you cannot see it at all from the surface. But it's one of the most famous, because this is the one widely suspected to have done in the dinosaurs. It's 180 km across, and the impactor is believed to have been at least 10 km across, striking Earth with a force of roughly 96 teratons of TNT. Geologic evidence indicates that the region was completely underwater at the time, and it would have produced a phenomenal tsunami.

[Gravity map created from public data by Milan Studio and released through Wikimedia Commons.]

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June 6, 2012 - 5:13am
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