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Scientists to Drill Chicxulub Crater for Clues to Mass Extinction Event

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Sixty-six million years ago, a giant asteroid slammed into Earth near what is now Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. The impact was so powerful that it likely killed off the dinosaurs and most of Earth's other organisms. Now, Science reports that researchers plan to drill into the heart of the giant Chicxulub crater, a 110-mile-wide, 12-mile-deep impression that researchers believe resulted from the collision. They hope the sediment will yield clues as to how life returned to our planet, and potentially reveal whether the crater served as a home for new microbial life forms.

“You can assume that at ground zero of this impact we are dealing with a sterile ocean, and over time life renewed itself. We might learn something for the future," Sean Gulick, a research professor from the University of Texas Institute for Geophysics, told CNN. Gulick is co–chief of the project, which is sponsored by the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP) and the International Continental Scientific Drilling Program.

Scientists still haven’t proved whether the six-mile-wide asteroid that caused the Chicxulub impact crater—now buried beneath the peninsula—is responsible for Earth’s mass extinction, although it’s a widely accepted theory. However, the crater itself is geologically important. According to the Christian Science Monitor, one of its distinguishing characteristics is its “peak rings”—rocky ridges that were formed from the meteor impact. These formations could provide new geological and environmental evidence about life after the collision. Since Chicxulub is the only remaining formation on Earth with an intact peak ring, it’s an invaluable resource for scientists.

At the end of the month, researchers from the University of Texas, the National University of Mexico, and the International Ocean Discovery Program will travel to the Mexican town of Chicxulub. There, they will sail to an offshore location above a peak ring and use pylons to raise the watercraft above the waves, transforming it into a drilling platform. They’ll use a diamond-tipped bit to drill down through 500 meters of limestone deposited on the ocean floor since the impact, Science reports, and then continue another kilometer down through the peak ring to extract core rock samples. Scientists will later analyze them to learn more about peak ring structure and the genetics of the life forms that might live in them. The entire project is expected to take two months.

While scientists don’t think that another catastrophic collision will happen in our lifetime, it’s still important to know what happens to the Earth when they strike. “We pretty much knew what would happen if another asteroid of this size hit us today—it would not be good—but our work contributes to a larger body of work dedicated to understanding the many geologic and ecologic processes that happen when such large-magnitude events occur,” geologist Jason Sanford told CNN. 

[h/t Science]

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Big Questions
Just How Hot Is Lava?
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Like the bubbling cheese of a pizza consumed too quickly, lava has been anointed as one of the most scorching substances on Earth. But just how hot is lava? How quickly could it consume your flesh and destroy everything in its path?

You may already know that lava is actually molten rock that oozes or spurts out of volcanoes because of the extreme temperatures found miles deep in the Earth. As the rocks melt, they begin to rise toward the surface. (Lava is typically referred to as magma until it reaches the surface.) As you can imagine, the heat that's needed to melt rock is pretty staggering. Cooler lava—relatively speaking—could be around 570°F, about the same as the inside of your typical pizza oven. On the extreme side, volcanoes can produce lava in excess of 2120°F, according to the United States Geological Survey.

Why is there so much variation? Different environments produce different chemical compositions and minerals that can affect temperature. Lava found in Hawaii from basalt rock, for example, tends to be on the hotter side, while minerals like the ones found near the Pacific Northwest's Mt. Saint Helens could be a few hundred degrees cooler.

After lava has erupted and its temperature begins to lower, it will eventually return to solid rock. Hotter lava flows more quickly—perhaps several feet per minute—and then slows as it cools, sometimes traveling only a couple of feet in a day.

Because moving lava takes its sweet time getting anywhere, there's not much danger. But what if you did, in some tremendously unfortunate circumstance, get exposed to lava—say, by being thrown into a lava pit like a villain in a fantasy film? First, you're unlikely to sink rapidly into it. Lava is three times as dense as water and won't simply move out of the way as quickly. You would, however, burn like a S'more at those temperatures, even if you wouldn't quite melt. It's more likely the radiant heat would singe you before you even made contact with the hypothetical lava lake, or that you'd burst into flames on contact.

Because lava is so super-heated, you might also wonder how researchers are even able to measure its temperature and answer the burning question—how hot is lava, exactly—without destroying their instrumentation. Using a meat thermometer isn't the right move, since the mercury inside would boil while the glass would shatter. Instead, volcanologists use thermocouples, or two wires joined to the same electrical source. A user can measure the resistance of the electricity at the tip and convert it to a readable temperature. Thermocouples are made from ceramic and stainless steel, and both have melting points higher than even the hottest lava. We still don't recommend using them on pizza.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Time Has Only Strengthened These Ancient Roman Walls
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Any seaside structure will erode and eventually crumble into the water below. That’s how things work. Or at least that’s how they usually work. Scientists say the ancient Romans figured out a way to build seawalls that actually got tougher over time. They published their findings in the journal American Mineralogist.

The walls’ astonishing durability is not, itself, news. In the 1st century CE, Pliny the Elder described the phenomenon in his Naturalis Historia, writing that the swell-battered concrete walls became "a single stone mass, impregnable to the waves and every day stronger."

We know that Roman concrete involved a mixture of volcanic ash, lime, seawater, and chunks of volcanic rock—and that combining these ingredients produces a pozzolanic chemical reaction that makes the concrete stronger. But modern cement involves a similar reaction, and our seawalls fall apart like anything else beneath the ocean's corrosive battering ram.

Something else was clearly going on.

To find out what it was, geologists examined samples from walls built between 55 BCE and 115 CE. They used high-powered microscopes and X-ray scanners to peer into the concrete's basic structure, and a technique called raman spectroscopy to identify its ingredients.

Microscope image of crystals in ancient Roman concrete.
Courtesy of Marie Jackson

Their results showed that the pozzolanic reaction during the walls' creation was just one stage of the concrete toughening process. The real magic happened once the walls were built, as they sat soaking in the sea. The saltwater did indeed corrode elements of the concrete—but in doing so, it made room for new crystals to grow, creating even stronger bonds.

"We're looking at a system that's contrary to everything one would not want in cement-based concrete," lead author Marie Jackson, of the University of Utah, said in a statement. It's one "that thrives in open chemical exchange with seawater."

The goal now, Jackson says, is to reproduce the precise recipe and toughen our own building materials. But that might be harder than it sounds.

"Romans were fortunate in the type of rock they had to work with," she says. "They observed that volcanic ash grew cements to produce the tuff. We don't have those rocks in a lot of the world, so there would have to be substitutions made."

We still have a lot to learn from the ancient walls and their long-gone architects. Jackson and her colleagues will continue to pore through Roman texts and the concrete itself, looking for clues to its extraordinary strength.

"The Romans were concerned with this," Jackson says. "If we're going to build in the sea, we should be concerned with it too."

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