Asteroid That Formed Vredefort Crater Bigger Than Previously Believed

An asteroid traveling through space.

Researchers have provided a more accurate simulation of the impact that formed Earth’s largest crater two billion years ago. (Image: via Pixabay)

About two billion years ago, an impactor hurtled toward Earth, crashing into the planet in an area near present-day Johannesburg, South Africa. The impactor — most likely an asteroid — formed what is today the biggest crater on our planet. Based on previous research, scientists have widely accepted that the impact structure, known as the Vredefort crater, was formed by an object about 15 kilometers (approximately 9.3 miles) in diameter that was traveling at a velocity of 15 kilometers per second (9.3 miles per second).

Based on previous research, scientists have widely accepted that the impact structure, known as the Vredefort crater, was formed by an object about 15 kilometers in diameter traveling at a velocity of 15 kilometers per second. (NASA Earth Observatory image by Lauren Dauphin / University of Rochester illustration by Julia Joshpe)

But according to new research from the University of Rochester, the impactor may have been much bigger — and would have had devastating consequences across the planet. This research, published in the Journal of Geophysical Research, provides a more accurate understanding of the significant impact and will allow researchers to better simulate impact events on Earth and other planets, both in the past and the future. Natalie Allen, the first author of the paper, based on research she conducted as an undergraduate at Rochester with Miki Nakajima, an assistant professor of Earth and environmental sciences, said:

Subscribe to our Newsletter!

Receive selected content straight into your inbox.

“Understanding the largest impact structure that we have on Earth is critical. 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.”

Updated simulations suggest ‘devastating’ consequences

Over two billion years, the Vredefort crater has eroded. This makes it difficult for scientists to directly estimate the size of the crater at the time of the initial impact and, therefore, the size and velocity of the impactor that formed the crater. For example, an object that is 15 kilometers in length and traveling at a velocity of 15 kilometers per second would produce a crater about 172 kilometers in diameter. However, this is much smaller than current estimates for the Vredefort crater.

These current estimates are based on new geological evidence and measurements estimating that the structure’s original diameter would have been between 250 and 280 kilometers (approximately 155 and 174 miles) during the impact. Allen, Nakajima, and their colleagues conducted simulations to match the updated size of the crater. Their results showed that an impactor would have to be much larger—about 20 to 25 kilometers—and traveling at a velocity of 15 to 20 kilometers per second to explain a crater 250 kilometers in size.

This means the impactor that formed the Vredefort crater would have been larger than the asteroid that killed off the dinosaurs 66 million years ago, forming the Chicxulub crater. That impact had damaging effects globally, including greenhouse heating, widespread forest fires, acid rain, and destruction of the ozone layer, in addition to causing the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event that killed the dinosaurs. Suppose the Vredefort crater was even larger and the impact more energetic than that which formed the Chicxulub crater. In that case, the Vredefort impact may have caused even more catastrophic global consequences, Nakajima said:

“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 two billion years ago. However, the impact would have potentially affected the global climate more extensively than the Chicxulub impact.”

The world’s oldest and largest known impact structure shows some of the most extreme deformation conditions known on Earth. (NASA Earth Observatory image by Lauren Dauphin, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey)

She says that dust and aerosols from the Vredefort impact would have spread across the planet and blocked sunlight, cooling the Earth’s surface. “This could have had a devastating effect on photosynthetic organisms. 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 time.”

A multi-faceted model of the Vredefort crater

The simulations also allowed the researchers to study the material ejected by the impact and the distance the material traveled from the crater. They can use this information to determine the geographic locations of land masses billions of years ago. For instance, previous research determined material from the impactor was ejected to present-day Karelia, Russia. Using their model, Allen, Nakajima, and their colleagues found that, two billion years ago, the distance of the land mass containing Karelia would have been only 2,000 to 2,500 kilometers from the crater in South Africa — much closer than the two areas are today, Allen said:

“It is challenging to constrain the location of landmasses long ago. 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.”

In the abraded heart of the South African Vredefort crater lurk striking green-black rocks, some of the only remnants of a magma sea that once filled the gaping Vredefort crater.
In the abraded heart of South Africa’s Vredefort crater lurk striking green-black rocks, some of the only remnants of a magma sea that once filled the gaping Vredefort crater. (Image: via NASA)

Undergraduate research leads to publication

The idea for this paper arose as part of a final for the course Planetary Interiors (now named Physics of Planetary Interiors), taught by Nakajima, which Allen took as a junior. Allen says the experience of having undergraduate work result in a peer-reviewed journal article was gratifying and helped her when applying for graduate school, adding:

“When Professor Nakajima approached me and asked if I wanted to work together to turn it into a publishable work, it was gratifying and validating. I had formulated my research idea, and other scientists saw it as compelling enough that they thought it was worth publishing!

“This project was way outside my usual research comfort zone, but I thought it would be a great learning experience and would force me to apply my skills in a new way. In addition, it gave me a lot of confidence in my research abilities as I prepared to enter graduate school.”

Provided by the University of Rochester [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

Follow us on TwitterFacebook, or Pinterest

Recommended Stories

Statue of Chinese alchemist and explorer Xu Fu in Wakayama, Japan.

3 Famous Chinese People Enshrined in Japanese Shrines

Traditionally, Japanese people have great respect for those who are capable or have made outstanding ...

Productivity going up.

Stop Wasting Your Time and Start Doing This

The way you use your time has a significant influence on your capacity to achieve, ...

Pink lotus flower in bloom with planet Earth and flower of life illustration along with fractals and nebulae drawings.

Ancient Chinese Mathematicians With the Power of Divination – Part 1 

There are many mystical and even magical aspects of ancient Chinese mathematicians. Anecdotes of them ...

Wooden emas at a Japanese shrine.

Japanese Shrines Vandalized by Pro-China Forces

In many Shinto and Buddhist shrines, you’ll find racks of emas — small wooden boards ...

Continous-wave lasing.

Continuous-Wave Lasing of Deep-Ultraviolet Laser Diode

A research group led by 2014 Nobel laureate Hiroshi Amano at Nagoya University’s Institute of ...

A cutting laser.

Gamma-Ray Laser Moves a Step Closer to Reality

A physicist at the University of California, Riverside, has performed calculations showing hollow spherical bubbles ...

A sunset with clouds.

The 8 Divinations and Wisdom of Life in Zhouyi

Zhouyi, which is believed to be the oldest text and is named after the Zhou ...

Allosaurus jimmadseni.

New Species of Allosaurus Discovered in Utah

A remarkable new species of meat-eating dinosaur has been unveiled at the Natural History Museum ...

A herbal apothecary.

A Famous Medicinal Herb Merchant in Chang’an During the Tang Dynasty

In the mid-period of the Tang Dynasty, there was a herb merchant named Song Qing ...

Send this to a friend