Where Have All The Craters Gone?

Ouarkziz Impact Crater. Image courtesy NASA. See related article by B.C. Johnson and T.J. Bowling

Ouarkziz Impact Crater. Image courtesy NASA. See related article by B.C. Johnson and T.J. Bowling

Impact craters reveal one of the most spectacular geologic process known to man. During the past 3.5 billion years, it is estimated that more than 80 bodies, larger than the dinosaur-killing asteroid that struck the Yucatan Peninsula 66 million years ago, have bombarded Earth. However, tectonic processes, weathering, and burial quickly obscure or destroy craters. For example, if Earth weren’t so dynamic, its surface would be heavily cratered like the Moon or Mercury.

Work by B.C. Johnson and T.J. Bowling predicts that only about four of the craters produced by these impacts could persist until today, and geologists have already found three such craters (larger than 170 km in diameter). Their study, published online for Geology on 22 May 2014, indicates that craters on Earth cannot be used to understand Earth’s bombardment history.

Johnson and Bowling write, however, that layers of molten rock blasted out early in the impact process may act as better records of impacts—even after the active Earth has destroyed the source craters. The authors suggest that searches for these impact ejecta layers will be more fruitful for determining how many times Earth was hit by big asteroids than searches for large craters.

Where have all the craters gone? Earth’s bombardment history and the expected terrestrial cratering record
B.C. Johnson and T.J. Bowling, Dept. of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 77 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02139, USA (Johnson), Dept. of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences, Purdue University, 550 Stadium Mall Drive, West Lafayette, Indiana 47901, USA (Bowling). Published online 22 May 2014; http://dx.doi.org/10.1130/G35754.1.

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