Scientists basically knew what happened here – but the full story that’s emerging beggars belief. The Chicxulub crater marks the point of contact made by an asteroid so enormous that it wiped out an entire planet’s worth of dinosaurs. Yet now experts have dug deep into the massive cavity, and they’ve finally realized precisely what occurred when the space rock actually struck the Earth. What’s more, the team’s findings paint a truly terrifying picture.
Of course, much was already known about the Chicxulub crater. It stretches 93 miles in diameter, for instance, and plunges a stunning 12 miles into the ground. And of all the known impact points on Earth, the crater is the second-largest in the world. Yet even though it appeared about 66 million years ago, its peak ring remains in one piece.
This particular detail highlights just how stunning the Chicxulub crater – and its long-term preservation – has already proven to be. It’s the only crater on the planet that has its peak ring still intact, in fact. The next available one for scientists to study sits, rather inconveniently, on the moon.
Still, all of this information has to do with the crater’s dimensions and exterior features. Now, though, scientists have gone beyond the topical details of the Chicxulub crater. Digging into the expanse, which sits more than half a mile beneath Mexico’s Yucután Peninsula, experts in fact uncovered the impact that an up to 50-mile-wide asteroid had on the planet.
To put the findings in context, though, it’s worth understanding a little about the crater’s background. So the Chicxulub crater derives its name from the nearby Mexican town of the same name. And experts estimate that an asteroid or comet, ranging in size from 6.8 to 50.3 miles in diameter, smashed into the Earth at this very spot.
It’s hard to imagine such a massive piece of space debris hurtling in the direction of our planet. But perhaps even more stunning is the abyss it left behind; the Chicxulub crater has an estimated diameter of 93 miles. For reference, that’s just 1.6 miles shorter than the drive between New York City and Philadelphia.
Experts have been able to calculate the strength with which the space rock smashed into the Earth, too. In fact, they estimate that the asteroid or comet had 21 to 921 billion times as much energy as the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in World War II. Even the Soviet Union’s Tsar Bomba – the strongest human-made explosive to ever detonate – couldn’t compare. The Solar System body also released 100 million times the energy of Tsar Bomba upon impact.
So with that much power hitting the Earth, the size of the Chicxulub crater makes sense. It’s not just its width that’s extra-large, either; the crater reaches depths of up to 18.6 miles into the planet. These dimensions make the Chicxulub crater the second-largest impact crater on Earth, just behind the one near Vredefort in South Africa.
But the Chicxulub crater has one feature that no other known crater on Earth has: it’s a peak ring crater. This means that the impact site has no single central peak. Instead, the crater has a circle-shaped plateau encompassing its center. The rim of the crater encircles this ring, but it sits at a distance from the center.
Marine geophysicist Sean P. S. Gulick explained to The New York Times in 2016 just how rare the peak ring feature is. He said, “Chicxulub is the only crater on Earth with an intact peak ring that we can go sample… It’s ground zero of the Cretaceous extinction event.”
And yet scientists haven’t necessarily rushed to dig into the Chicxulub crater. That was partly due to the fact that the massive hole appeared approximately 66 million years ago. So over time, rock and water filled in the void and eventually more than half a mile of sedimentary rock covered the crater.
Also, scientists didn’t discover the Chicxulub crater until relatively recently – especially considering that it has been around for millions of years. It wasn’t until 1978, in fact, that geophysicists Glen Penfield and Antonio Camargo stumbled upon the crater. And they weren’t even looking for the asteroid impact site when they discovered it; the pair were searching for petroleum.
So Penfield and Camargo took to the skies to complete a magnetic survey that mapped any potential drilling locations beneath the Gulf of Mexico. As he pored over the resulting data, though, Penfield noted something particularly extraordinary: a 40-mile-wide “underwater arc” with impeccable symmetry.
Such a strange discovery inspired Penfield to dig deeper. He then sought out a gravity map commissioned by his employer, oil company Petróleos Mexicanos, in the 1960s. On it, Penfield noticed another arc – but this one curved over the Yucatán Peninsula itself. And when the geophysicist put that map and his magnetic survey together, he realized that the two arcs made a circle.
Penfield knew almost immediately that he had found something spectacular; the geophysicist hypothesized that he had pinpointed a cataclysmic event in the planet’s geological history. Petróleos Mexicanos then allowed him and Camargo to present their findings at the 1981 Society of Exploration Geophysicists conference. Unlike the asteroid they theorized had hit the Earth, though, their presentation made little impact at the time.
So eventually Penfield gave up on his research into the crater. Much of the evidence that he had sought was even destroyed or lost. Nevertheless, Penfield published all of the data he had and returned to work. Yet meanwhile other scientists had begun to theorize something similar – without having seen Penfield’s research.
Specifically, in 1981 a graduate student at the University of Arizona named Alan R. Hildebrand and his adviser William V. Boynton published their own Earth-impact theory. They just needed to find a crater that could corroborate their hypothesis. The pair had plenty of geological evidence, though, and their work got a bit more traction than Penfield’s.
Namely, a professor in Haiti named Florentine Morás uncovered evidence that an ancient volcano had once stood in his country. Hildebrand consequently realized that such a feature could have emerged when a major force of impact crashed nearby. And in 1990 he learned the precise spot of such a collision.
In that year, you see, a reporter for the Houston Chronicle named Carlos Byars clued Hildebrand into Penfield’s findings. The journalist also mentioned that the geophysicist had thought he had found an impact crater in the vicinity. So Hildebrand subsequently picked up the phone, and the two experts later started analyzing drill samples from the oil company’s storage unit.
What Penfield and Hildebrand found amid the drilling debris were shock-metamorphic materials. Such substances appear after an impact-related event causes deformation and heating. In normal cases, shock-metamorphism occurs along with a volcanic eruption – but, of course, Penfield and Hildebrand had uncovered something much bigger than that.
Since then, more research into the Chicxulub crater has transpired, and more theories about its origins have arisen. In September 2007, for instance, authors William F. Bottke, David Vokrouhlicky and David Nesvorny offered a theory to Nature magazine. The trio said that the rock responsible for creating the crater came from a specific cosmic family called the Baptistina asteroids.
Yet in spite of facts that seemed to corroborate Vokrouhlicky, Bottke and Nesvorny’s theory, new evidence released in 2011 negated their claim. What came to light? Well, researchers had pinpointed the Baptistina asteroid family’s formation to around 80 million years ago. This would make it nearly impossible for the space rock to reach Earth when the Chicxulub crater formed 66 million years ago. That’s because it takes multiple tens of millions of years for asteroids to collide and resonate.
But the discovery of the Chicxulub crater also lent credibility to a theory first formed by physicist Luis Alvarez and his geologist son, Walter Alvarez. Both men believed that between the Cretaceous and Paleogene periods, a massive impact on Earth had triggered a series of animal and plant extinctions. And among them were all of the non-avian species of dinosaurs.
Some of the Chicxulub crater’s statistics do apparently fall in line with the Alvarez theory too. For one thing, initial dating of the crater estimated its formation happening about 66 million years ago. So this timing would have the asteroid or comet slamming into Earth just between the Cretaceous and Paleogene periods – just as the father-and-son duo suspected.
Many people also subscribe to the Alvarez theory about the Chicxulub crater. Namely, that the impact that caused it also triggered a mass extinction of, among other species, land- and sea-dwelling dinosaurs. Yet still so much mystery surrounded the enormous undersea divot. So scientists would have to drill into it to learn more.
And in 2016 it finally came time for such an excursion. Marine geophysicist Gulick and geophysicist Joanna Morgan helmed a crew of over 30, who represented a dozen different countries. The researchers boarded a boat and sailed into the Gulf of Mexico. And there, they transformed their vessel into a drilling station.
The drilling station stood tall on three legs, rising about 40 feet above the Gulf of Mexico’s turquoise waters. The team then drilled incredibly far into the Earth. And after the tool delved 60 feet underwater, it met the rock below and continued to dig a stunning 2,000 feet into the crust.
Of course, over a 66-million-year period, the Chicxulub crater had filled with a sizeable amount of limestone and sediment. But the scientists’ machine worked its way past the new collection of rock to find what they were looking for: the material that made up the planet’s only peak ring crater.
Gulick, Morgan and their team actually discovered that a peculiar type of rock made up the peak ring: granite. Normally, you see, this variety of rock is found far deeper in the Earth’s crust than it appears in the crater. This means that the asteroid had such an incredible impact that it had pushed sediment from miles beneath the surface all the way to the top.
Geophysicist Morgan, who works for Imperial College London, told The New York Times, “These rocks behaved like a fluid for a short period of time, and rocks don’t tend to do that. It’s a very dramatic process when you form a large crater.” Apparently, such a chain reaction gave credence to something called the dynamic collapse model theory.
The dynamic collapse model theory hypothesizes that the asteroid’s impact pushed rocks deep into the Earth’s crust before forcing them back up and out of it. Then these rocks collapsed down again and settled to form the crater’s peak rings. And the fact that granite forms the crater’s central plateau apparently goes hand-in-hand with such a theory.
But drilling into the Chicxulub crater revealed more than one truth about this devastating geological event. The rocks also told the story of what had happened once the asteroid had smashed into the Earth. Scientists revealed this evidence in 2019. And the picture they painted of the world post-impact was a terrifying one, to say the least.
Gulick said he and the rest of the scientists could be so specific with their findings because they had an unprecedented amount of rock to work with. He explained to The New York Times, “We normally get to read rock records that give us centimeters per thousand years. We have 130 meters for a day.”
The rocks told a story that goes like this. First, an enormous chunk of cosmic rock slammed into the ground, instantly creating a crater 60 miles wide and 20 miles into the Earth. The initial impact created waves in the nearby gulf – quite literally. A tsunami formed, in fact, charging in the opposite direction of the new crater.
The asteroid’s impact also sent huge pieces of rock hurtling into the air, as far as the planet’s upper atmosphere – and likely beyond even that. Gulick theorized that “almost certainly some of the material would have reached the Moon.” Yet the largest bits flew up before crashing back down on the ground, still hot from the initial impact.
Some smaller pieces of hot rock took longer to fall – and had more time to cool. These geological wonders, called tektites, scattered across what is now the North American continent. Then water started rushing back into the crater after it waved outward. But refilling the geological depression would be tame compared to the next stage.
When the asteroid collided with the Earth, you see, it sent a tsunami speeding off in the opposite direction. And of course, water ebbs and flows. So, soon enough, those powerful waves returned back toward the crater. Multiple massive tsunamis with waves towering hundreds of feet in the air then came back over the gaping geological hole.
The rush of back-and-forth tsunamis quickly filled the peak ring with a four-inch coating of sand and gravel. And as the gulf raged, the land close by was also ravaged. The asteroid’s impact had, for instance, sparked wildfires across the area. Scientists know this because they pinpointed pieces of charcoal in the peak ring just above the tsunami sediments.
These wildfires could have started from the asteroid’s scorching thermal energy upon impact. The aforementioned shower of molten rock could have had something to do with it too. In any case, Gulick told The New York Times, “Probably not everything burned, but certainly there were global wildfires.” So altogether, the tsunamis, falling rock and fires wiped out a stunning number of Cretaceous-era species.
It’s hard to believe that scientists could conjure such haunting images from layers of rock hidden deep beneath the Yucatán Peninsula. Yet for planetary geologist Paul Byrne, the Chicxulub crater’s layers make palpable some long-standing scientific theories. He told The New York Times that it was one thing to develop and simulate such hypotheses, but it was “quite another to see it.” And, considering the size and scope of the crater, this could be just the beginning of the startling secrets uncovered there.
But the Chicxulub crater is far from the only crater to have yielded fascinating secrets. Deep in the heart of Siberia, for instance, there’s a giant chasm that’s constantly growing in size. And inside, archaeologists have made some jaw-dropping discoveries. The real cause of this huge hole, however, is rather unsettling.
Deep within a Siberian forest, just outside of a small town called Batagai, lies an ominous sight to behold. And for the past 25 years, it’s been growing – along with the superstitions of the local community. In fact, the land here is so disconcerting that the locals are literally terrified.
Need proof? Well, the people of the area have taken to calling the geological feature a “gateway to the underworld.” It’s easy to see why: there is a huge gouge in the landscape, after all. Plus, local religions believe in a three-tiered universe: an upper, a middle and a lower world.
Moreover, some people are so apprehensive of the startling abyss that they’re afraid to go near it. And that is before you even consider the loud and fearsome booms that can sometimes be heard emanating from within. But there’s a bigger question here.
The crater that has caused such fear stretches more than a mile through the landscape. At its deepest, it plummets almost 400 feet below the Earth. And there’s more: the crater is constantly growing, spreading around 60 feet a year by current estimates.
But beyond the superstitions and local legends, something even more terrifying is going on at the so-called Batagaika Crater. That’s because this huge hole in the ground could be a warning sign of future geographical change in the region and, indeed, the world in general.
To understand what’s happening in Siberia we need to go back in time around 55 years to when the crater first began to develop. And how this massive scar in an ancient landscape first sprang into life could well come as a shock.
At some point in the early part of the 1960s, a local industrial group cleared part of the forest. What they didn’t realize, however, was that in the process they were exposing a layer of ancient permafrost for the first time. Moreover, the results, which first came to light in the 1990s, were catastrophic.
The group had unknowingly set in motion what scientists call a “megaslump.” Essentially, the fast-thawing permafrost turned into a mush of mud, compromising the stability of the ground above, which quickly slipped into the slurry below.
Surprisingly, these slumps aren’t that rare in Arctic climates. And since the Yakutia Republic – where the crater occurred – is one of the coldest places on Earth, some scientists believe this was just another of those bizarre but predictable happenings. Now it looks like they could have been wrong.
Flooding in 2008 increased the spread of the crater, which has now become a focal point for scientific researchers. And some of their findings have started to change the way we think about permafrost around the globe.
The major area of study at the crater has been the effects of climate change on permafrost. Fascinatingly, during excavations the mummified bodies of multiple ancient animals have been found in the layers of mud and rock that make up the crater walls.
But other findings are not so positive: research suggests that the Batagaika Crater is just the tip of a very worrying, and quickly melting, iceberg. Indeed, if you think the crater is a one-off event, then you’re sorely mistaken, because more sinkholes are springing up around the area.
Dr. Julian Murton is a professor of geology at the University of Sussex, and speaking to Vice, he revealed some alarming statistics. For instance, the last time a megaslump such as this occurred was 10,000 years ago, and the conditions the world finds itself in now are far more conducive to such events than they were then.
In fact, at the end of the last ice age, when the slumps were more common, carbon dioxide levels were at 280 parts per million. Right now, on the other hand, they sit at the shockingly high rate of 400 parts per million. And that’s resulted in more than one megaslump.
Another researcher, Vasily Bogoyavlensky from the Oil and Gas Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, revealed to the AFP news agency last year that another crater, this one 0.6 miles in diameter, had emerged in Yakutia. He also said that there are another six confirmed megaslumps, with yet more likely to exist.
It’s not just enormous craters, either; a range of smaller sinkholes and collapses have been monitored across the Russian frontier. And many scientists reckon they’re all linked to the region’s increasing temperature, which is a result of climate change.
Studying the various layers in the now unlocked permafrost is key to understanding the potential changes that are likely to happen in the future. Murton told Vice, “If we can understand how the landscape was altered then, it helps us to anticipate what may happen to Siberian permafrost terrain in the next centuries.”
So while the crater may not be an entrance to the underworld as many of the locals seem to think, it could still be hugely important for the future of the planet. Plus, it performs another function.
The huge gash ripped in the landscape stands as a stark physical representation of the effects that we as human beings are having on our planet. It is, after all, a literal scar in the landscape that’s down to us.
Whether or not the superstitions of the local people are true, the Batagaika Crater still remains a stark warning. It may not be waiting to drag us all to hell, but there’s a real chance that it represents something much, much scarier. Why? Because this threat could be so very much on the horizon.