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“Impact Craters Under the Sea”. Earth2Class Workshops for Teachers Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory Originally presented 14 Dec 2002. Guest Scientist. Dr. Dallas Abbott Visiting Assistant Professor, Barnard College and LDEO Research Scientist .

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impact craters under the sea

“Impact Craters Under the Sea”

Earth2Class Workshops for Teachers

Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

Originally presented 14 Dec 2002

guest scientist
Guest Scientist

Dr. Dallas Abbott

Visiting Assistant Professor, Barnard College and LDEO Research Scientist


The primary focus of Dallas Abbott’s research is the thermal history of the earth, and the manner in which heat transport through the crust and upper mantle influences geological processes, both ancient and present-day.

An important theme centers about her theory that plate tectonics - meaning sea floor spreading and subduction - has been active over nearly the entire span of earth history, that is, since the early Archean era 4 billion years ago.

One key difference between ancient and present-day tectonics is due to the ever-decreasing thickness of oceanic crust caused by falling upper-mantle temperature.

The most important consequence of this decrease has been a change in the style of subduction, from predominantly shallow-dipping "buoyant" subduction in the Archean to predominantly steeply-dipping "Andean" subduction today.


Recent research has led Dr. Abbott to investigate data from sea floor studies that may be the result of impacts of asteroids, meteorites, and other extraterrestrial objects. She will provide more evidence from petrologic studies and other techniques during her portion of this program.


Impact craters on land have been known and studied for many years. This STS-9 image of The Manicouagan Crater in northern Canada shows the remains of a collision estimated to have taken place 200 million years ago.

http cass jsc nasa gov publications slidesets craters html

One of the best presentations about impact craters on the Internet is Terrestrial Impact Craters, Second EditionCompiled by Christian Koeberland Virgil L. SharptonThey include descriptions and images from craters on Earth and elsewhere in the solar system

some important concepts about impact craters
Some important concepts about impact craters
  • Form when a meteoroid (asteroid or comet) collides with a solid planet or moon
  • Clearly seen on the Moon, Mercury, and Mars, where weathering and erosion are slow
  • Often hard to recognize on Earth because of the effects of weathering and erosion
meteor crater barringer crater in arizona was the first recognized
Meteor Crater (Barringer Crater) in Arizona was the first recognized

many other craters have subsequently been identified especially by remote sensing
Many other craters have subsequently been identified, especially by remote sensing
  • Earth’s greater gravitation pull probably means it has been hit more, but water, atmospheric weathering, and plate tectonicshave destroyed or hidden many impact sites
  • Approximately 160 are known
  • Mostly within the stable cratons of North America, Africa, Australia, and Europe
High velocities at which meteoroids collide with Earth explain the great effects from even small objects
  • Velocities range between 11.2 km/sec (escape velocity from Earth) and 72 km/sec (orbital velocity of Earth plus escape velocity of solar system)
  • Kinetic Energy released is proportional to square of velocity
  • Effects is that meteorites are, gram for gram, more than 100x as powerful as TNT!
impact craters are classified as simple or complex
Impact Craters are classified as “Simple” or “Complex”
  • “Simple Craters” are relatively small, have a smooth bowl shape, and a depth:diameter ratio of 1:5 to 1:7
  • “Complex Craters” are largely and show the effect of gravitational collapse of the walls to produce a central peak or peak ring
  • These are illustrated in the next slide
many craters or remnants have been recognized by the presence of rare elements
Many craters or remnants have been recognized by the presence of rare elements
  • “Siderophile elements” such as Ir indicate that terrestrial clays have been mixed with extraterrestrial materials
  • One of the best studied is the subsurface Chicxulub structure in Mexico, widely accepted at the location of the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary event

Not exposed at the surface, it has been identified through geophysical studies of the gravitational field. Located at 21.3°N 89.6°W, the structure has a diameter of ~250-280 km. Its age has been calculated at 64.98 ± 0.05 million years


Connections between impacts and mass extinctions provide evidence for the still-unproved theory that such events may be the “metronome that sets the cadence for biological evolution on Earth.” (Koeberl and Sharpton)

methods to identify impact locations include
Methods to identify impact locations include:
  • Siderophile elements (esp. Ir, Os, and Pt) in “impact melt rocks”
  • “Shock metamorphism” in “target rocks” and minerals
  • “Shatter cones”
  • High-pressure mineral phases, such as stishovite
  • “Diaplectic glass” and tektites in “ejecta blankets”
what might happen when an impact occurs in the ocean tsunami
What might happen when an impact occurs in the ocean? Tsunami!
  • A tsunami is a giant sea wave or series of waves caused by disruption of the ocean surface
  • Tsunamis are sometimes erroneously called “tidal wave,” but have nothing to do with tidal motions
  • Most tsunamis are connected with earthquakes or volcanic eruptions
  • For more information about tsunamis, go to
but considering the force with which an impact occurs could it trigger a tsunami
But considering the force with which an impact occurs, could it trigger a tsunami?
  • What evidence would still exist of past events?
  • Does such evidence actually exist?

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory provides much more information about impact craters throughout the solar system in their “Welcome to the Planets” web site


Excellent information and classroom activities have been created by the Hawai'i Space Grant College, Hawai'i Institute of Geophysics and Planetology, University of Hawai'i

selected urls about impact craters
Selected URLs about Impact Craters
  • For more information and some classroom activities:
  • The Meteor Crater home page:
  • A Webquest about impact craters:
Dr. Abbott presents an interesting description of her research about Earth’s thermal history and how this led into studies of impact craters in the next part of this Workshop for Teachers