Impact Events

Impact events, proposed as causes of mass extinction, are when the planet is struck by a comet or meteor large enough to create a huge shock wave felt around the globe. Widespread dust and debris rain down, disrupting the climate and causing extinction on a global, rather than local, scale. The demise of the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous has been linked to an impact that left a crater in the seabed off the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico. Impacts have also been blamed for other mass extinctions, but the timing and links between cause and effect for these is still debated by scientists.

Asteroid impact. Illustration of a large asteroid colliding with Earth on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. This impact is believed to have led to the death of the dinosaurs some 65 million years ago. The impact formed the Chicxulub crater, which is around 200 kilometres wide. The impact would have thrown trillions of tons of dust into the atmosphere, cooling the Earth’s climate significantly, which may have been responsible for the mass extinction. A layer of iridium- rich rock, known as the K/T boundary, is thought to be the remnants of the impact debris.

Chicxulub crater

The Chicxulub crater is an impact crater buried underneath the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico. Its center is located near the town of Chicxulub, after which the crater is named. It was formed by a large asteroid or comet at least 10 kilometres (6 miles) in diameter, the Chicxulub impactor, striking the Earth. The date of the impact coincides precisely with the Cretaceous–Paleogene boundary (K–Pg boundary), around 66 million years ago, and a widely accepted theory is that worldwide climate disruption from the event was the cause of the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event, a mass extinction in which 75% of plant and animal species on Earth suddenly became extinct, including the dinosaurs. The crater is more than 180 kilometers (110 miles) in diameter and 20 km (12 mi) in depth, well into the continental crust of the region of about 10–30 km depth. It makes the feature the third of the largest confirmed impact structures on Earth.

Location of Chicxulub crater, Mexico

The crater was discovered by Antonio Camargo and Glen Penfield, geophysicists who had been looking for petroleum in the Yucatán during the late 1970s. Penfield was initially unable to obtain evidence that the geological feature was a crater and gave up his search. Later, through contact with Alan Hildebrand in 1990, Penfield obtained samples that suggested it was an impact feature. Evidence for the impact origin of the crater includes shocked quartz, a gravity anomaly, and tektites in surrounding areas.

Imaging from NASA’s Shuttle Radar Topography Mission STS-99 reveals part of the 180 km (110 mi) diameter ring of the crater. The numerous sinkholes clustered around the trough of the crater suggest a prehistoric oceanic basin in the depression left by the impact.

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