Earth’s most powerful asteroid impact may be even bigger than we thought
The crash might have changed life on Earth forever.
Ancient impacts played a powerful role in Earth’s complex history. On other Solar System bodies like the moon or Mercury, the impact history is preserved on their surfaces because there’s nothing to erase it. But Earth’s geologic activity has erased the evidence of impact craters over time, with some help from erosion.
Earth’s complex history has elevated its status among its Solar System siblings and created a world that’s rippling with life. Ancient asteroid impacts have played a role in that history, bringing catastrophe and disruption and irrevocably changing the course of events.
Deciphering the role these giant impacts played is difficult since the evidence is missing or severely degraded. So how do scientists approach this problem?
One crater at a time.
The most well-known giant asteroid impact on Earth is the Chicxulub impactor, which wiped out the dinosaurs about 65 million years ago and cleared the way for mammals to become preeminent. But there’ve been other giant impacts, including one in South Africa. It’s called the Vredefort Crater, and it’s Earth’s largest confirmed impact crater.
The Vredefort impactor struck Earth about 2 billion years ago during the Paleoproterozoic Era and is now located in South Africa. Previous research put the Vredefort impactor at between 6 to 9 miles in diameter, and the crater — or impact structure as scientists call them — was about 100 to 200 miles across when it was formed.
Erosion has reduced its size in the 2 billion intervening years, though, making the nature of the impactor, the size of the crater, and the impact’s effects difficult to gauge accurately.
But a new study published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets arrives at a different size and impact velocity for the Vredefort impactor. The study’s authors say that the impactor was larger than thought, struck Earth at a greater velocity than thought, and had devastating and far-reaching consequences.
The study is A Revision of the Formation Conditions of the Vredefort Crater. The lead author is Natalie Allen, a Ph.D. student in the department of physics and astronomy at Johns Hopkins University.
“Understanding the largest impact structure that we have on Earth is critical,” Allen said in a news release. “Having access to the information provided by a structure like the Vredefort Crater is a great opportunity to test our model and our understanding of the geologic evidence so we can better understand impacts on Earth and beyond.”
The size of the impact
More recent impacts like the Chicxulub event also had far-reaching and catastrophic consequences. Chicxulub caused megatsunamis, violent earthquakes, firestorms that turned forests to ash and cinders, atmospheric dust accumulations that caused global temperatures to drop for a sustained period of time, and of course, the extinction of the dinosaurs.
But Earth was much different when the Vredefort impact event occurred in the Paleoproterozoic Era. There were no animals and no forests.
Previous estimates for the Vredefort impactor place it at about 9 miles in diameter with an impact velocity of 9 miles/s. That would excavate a crater about 107 miles in diameter. The crater has eroded extensively in the intervening 2 billion years, so earlier geologic evidence supported the “15×15” estimation.
But the problem is that the crater is now understood to be much larger. The most relied-upon modern estimation for the crater is between 155 to 174 miles. To help sort out the discrepancy, the authors of this study brought new tools to bear on the Vredefort impact event in the form of computer simulations.
The researchers ran simulations with the “impact code iSALE2D (impact Simplified Arbitrary Lagrangian Eulerian)” tool. It’s a shock physics simulation tool that helps researchers understand impact events. Scientists use it to simulate impacts and reproduce their effects. Their simulations led to an impactor size and velocity that more accurately reflects modern evidence. The researchers say that the Vredefort impactor was actually either a 9-mile diameter body traveling at 9 miles/s or a 12-mile diameter body traveling at 12 miles/s.
The size of the crater isn’t the only evidence that lines up with the impactor’s revised diameter and velocity. Certain features in the rock under the impact site also suggest a larger impactor than thought. Researchers have found shock-metamorphic features in the Vredefort impact structure, including “breccia, shatter cones, planar deformation features in quartz and zircon, and melt,” the authors write. Their location suggests that the impact was more powerful than thought.
Underestimating the force
These revised results for the Vredefort impact mean that the impact was more energetic than previously thought. The impact dwarfs that of the dinosaur-killing Chicxulub impactor.
Chicxulub was catastrophic for life on Earth at the time, so the Vredefort impact would’ve been a mega-catastrophe. However, it left no record of a mass extinction and no consistent layer of ash around the globe like Chicxulub did. What havoc did the Vredefort impactor wreak on Earth?
“Unlike the Chicxulub impact, the Vredefort impact did not leave a record of mass extinction or forest fires, given that there were only single-cell lifeforms and no trees existed 2 billion years ago,” said professor Miki Nakajima, one of the paper’s authors, also from Johns Hopkins. “However, the impact would have affected the global climate potentially more extensively than the Chicxulub impact did.”
The impact thickened the atmosphere with dust and aerosols, blocking out sunlight and causing temperatures to drop. At the time, oxygen was accumulating in the atmosphere, and photosynthetic organisms were widespread and had been around for a billion years already. What happened to them?
“This could have had a devastating effect on photosynthetic organisms,” Nakajima said. “After the dust and aerosols settled — which could have taken anywhere from hours to a decade — greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide that were emitted from the impact would have raised the global temperature potentially by several degrees for a long period of time.”
As we see all around us, a temperature rise of only a couple of degrees has a powerful effect on the global climate. Flooding, hurricanes, droughts, and other phenomena are occurring with greater frequency in our warming world.
Geologic evidence is hard to come by, but 2 billion years ago, Earth was just coming out of the Huronian Glaciation, so there was likely a lot of ice on the planet’s surface. If the Vredefort impact raised global temperatures, melting might have raised the ocean level considerably. The impact may also have heralded a period of violent storms, though there’s no way of knowing for sure.
The authors refrain from an exact explanation of the consequences for life on Earth at the time. But they do arrive at several conclusions.
What happened to life on Earth?
Previous estimates of the crater size and the impactor size don’t match the geologic evidence. The weaker impact from previous research is unable to create enough pressure to create the geologic features at the Vredefort impact site.
Impacts of this size also create a melt sheet under the impact site. While much of it would’ve eroded over the 2 billion years, the team’s models show some should still exist under the center, where it’s found today.
Another of their conclusions concerns the locations of the land masses 2 billion years ago. We know the continents have drifted considerably and were even joined together in the past, but pinning down their precise locations at specific times is difficult. Scientists have found ejecta from the Vredefort impact at different locations around the globe, especially in Karelia, Russia, and they know how far ejecta can travel from an impact of a given energy.
So with a more accurate understanding of the energy of Vredefort’s impact, the authors were able to constrain the location of Karelia at the time of impact. When the Vredefort impact struck, Karelia was between 1,242 to 2,553 miles from the impact site. Now they’re four times as distant from one another.
“It is incredibly difficult to constrain the location of landmasses long ago,” Allen says. “The current best simulations have mapped back about a billion years, and uncertainties grow larger the further back you go. Clarifying evidence such as this ejecta layer mapping may allow researchers to test their models and help complete the view into the past.”
It’ll be difficult for scientists to ever understand what happened to life on Earth when the Vredefort impactor struck. The vast quantities of gases released, along with all the dust, may have rendered photosynthesis ineffective for large parts of the globe. It may have taken 10 years for all that dust to settle and for the gases to leave the atmosphere. It was a catastrophe any way you slice it.
Life on Earth has run a gauntlet of catastrophic impacts, extinctions, and global climate gyrations. The dinosaur-killing Chicxulub impactor puts heavy emphasis on that. But this study shows that massive impacts may have shaped the course of life on Earth, even when that life was only single-celled. What specific effects did the Vredefort impact have on life’s long evolutionary journey?
“The global effects of this impact would have been extensive,” the authors write. “The liberation of climatic gases would have altered the global climate, but predictions further than that require study beyond the scope of this work.”