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Article
Barringer Crater (View 9980/Answer 0)
A DIFFERENT APPROACH

Ten years later a very different sort of explorer came along. In 1902 Daniel Moreau Barringer, a successful mining engineer, heard about the crater. When he learned that small balls of meteoritic iron were randomly mixed with the ejected rocks of the crater rim, Barringer immediately concluded that the crater had resulted from a meteorite impact. If the meteorites had fallen at a different time from the time at which the crater was formed, they would have appeared in separate layers from the ejected rock.

Like Gilbert, Barringer assumed that the meteorite which made the crater would have to be extremely large - large enough, in fact, for a major mining bonanza. Without ever having seen the crater, Barringer formed the Standard Iron Company and began securing mining patents.

The mining venture, starting with this intuitive leap, lasted for 27 years, cost Barringer and his associates over $600,000 ($10 million in today's money), and produced nothing. In the process, however, Barringer succeeded in convincing most of the scientific community that his impact theory was correct.




Cross section of crater rim,
showing overturned rock layers.
BARRINGER'S PROOF

Rather than testing his impact hypothesis, Barringer set out to assemble the evidence in support of it. In 1906, and again in 1909, he presented his arguments for the impact origin of the crater to the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. The evidence included:


A. The presence of millions of tons of finely pulverized silica, which could only have been created by enormous pressure.

B. The large quantities of meteoritic iron, in the form of globular "shale balls", scattered around the rim and surrounding plain.

C. The random mixture of meteoritic material and ejected rocks.

D. The fact that the different types of rocks in the rim and on the surrounding plain appeared to have been deposited in the opposite order from their order in the underlying rock beds.

E. The absence of any naturally occurring volcanic rock in the vicinity of the crater.


Cross section of crater, showing Pleistocene-era lake, layer of brecciated rock, and undisturbed strata.
In 1908, these conclusions were championed by geologist George P. Merrill. Merrill analyzed a new type of rock discovered by Barringer at the crater, which Barringer called "Variety B". He concluded that it was a type of quartz glass which could only be produced by intense heat, similar to the heat generated by a lightning strike on sand. Merrill also pointed to the undisturbed rock beds below the crater, which proved that the force which created the crater did not come from below.



CRATERS ON THE MOON

During the same years, a debate was raging among astronomers about the origin of the craters on the moon. As with the Barringer crater, most astronomers initially assumed that those craters were volcanic. Gilbert himself, ironically, was one of the first to argue for an impact origin, in a paper published in 1893. In 1909, a German geologist advanced the same theory, based in part on the evidence presented by Barringer for the Arizona crater.

One objection to the idea of an impact origin for the lunar craters was the fact that all lunar craters are round. Astronomers assumed that most meteorites would have struck the moon at oblique angles, producing elongated craters. Barringer, however, had experimented by firing rifle bullets into rocks and mud, and had discovered that a projectile arriving at an oblique angle would nevertheless make a round hole. In 1923, Barringer's 12-year-old son Richard published an article in Popular Astronomy, using his father's rifle experiments to argue for the impact origin of the lunar craters; Barringer himself repeated the arguments a short time later in the Scientific American.

Ultimately, astronomers such as A.C. Gifford were able to demonstrate that the force of an impact at astronomical speeds would result in the explosion of the meteorite. Whatever the original angle of impact, the result would be a circular crater.

Amazingly, the idea that the Moon's craters were the result of impacts was not fully accepted in the scientific community until the 1960's. Although Ralph Baldwin's groundbreaking book, The Face of the Moon, was first published in 1949, it was over ten years before a new generation of scientists finally adopted his ideas.

WHERE WAS THE METEORITE?

In 1928, $200,000 was raised for a final assault on the meteorite. Barringer's directors, however, were growing nervous. When the new mine shaft hit water in such great quantities that it could not be pumped out, they consulted the astronomer F. R. Moulton for his opinion on the size of the meteorite.

Moulton calculated the amount of energy which would be produced by an impact at the enormous speed typical of a meteorite arriving from space. He concluded that an object big enough to create the crater would probably weigh only 300,000 tons - 3% of the amount estimated by Barringer, and too small to justify any further drilling. In addition, Moulton argued that the explosion caused by the impact would result in the total vaporization of the meteorite. In 1929, work was halted at the crater. By November of that year, it had become clear that other prominent scientists agreed with Moulton. Within weeks, Barringer was dead of a massive heart attack.

WHAT HAVE WE LEARNED SINCE THEN?

Scientists now believe that the crater was created approximately 50,000 years ago. The meteorite which made it was composed almost entirely of nickel-iron, suggesting that it may have originated in the interior of a small planet. It was 150 feet across, weighed roughly 300,000 tons, and was traveling at a speed of 28,600 miles per hour (12 kilometers per second) according to the most recent research. The explosion created by its impact was equal to 2.5 megatons of TNT, or about 150 times the force of the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.

In 1946, meteorite collector Harvey H. Nininger analyzed the tiny metallic particles mixed into the soil around the crater, along with the small "bombs" of melted rock within it. He concluded that both types of particles were solidified droplets, which must have condensed from a cloud of rock and metal vaporized by the impact. Here, he believed, was proof that the crater was created by explosion. Based on new computer simulations of the event by Elisabetta Pierazzo, we now know that most of the meteorite was actually melted, and spread across the landscape in a very fine, nearly atomized mist of molten metal.


In 1963, geologist Eugene Shoemaker published his landmark paper analyzing the similarities between the Barringer crater and craters created by nuclear test explosions in Nevada. Carefully mapping the sequence of layers of the underlying rock, and the layers of the ejecta blanket, where those rocks were deposited in reverse order, he demonstrated that the nuclear craters and the Barringer crater were structurally similar in nearly all respects. His paper provided the clinching arguments in favor of an impact, finally convincing the last doubters.


Gene Shoemaker's impact diagram;
reprinted by permission of Carolyn Shoemaker.

Three years earlier, Shoemaker, Edward Chao and David Milton had also collaborated in the discovery of a new mineral at the Barringer crater. This mineral, a form of silica called "coesite", was first created in a laboratory in 1953 by chemist Loring Coes. Its formation requires pressures of at least 20,000 atmospheres (20 kilobars) and temperatures of at least 700 degrees Celsius - greater than any occurring naturally on earth. Coesite and a similar material called "stishovite" have since been identified at numerous other suspected impact sites, and are now accepted as indicators for the impact origin of a geologic structure.

Another indicator is the presence of rock structures known as "shattercones". These structures, which can be anywhere from less than an inch to more than six feet tall, can only be created by a sudden intense pressure on existing rock. During the 40's and 50's, investigations by Robert S. Dietz and others revealed the existence of shattercones at many suspected impact sites, although not at the Barringer crater. Deitz was able to demonstrate that the apexes of the cones at most of these sites all pointed upwards, indicating that the force which created them had come from above.

A third diagnostic criterion for an impact structure is the presence of tiny parallel lines called "shock lamellae" in quartz grains affected by the impact. The intense heat and pressure of the impact causes the crystals to melt along submicroscopic planes, leaving parallel bands of melted and unmelted quartz.

HOW MANY OTHER IMPACT SITES ARE THERE?

Using these methods, meteoriticists have now identified over 150 proven impact sites. Evidence suggests that there have been many thousands of other impacts over the course of the earth's history. Meteorites weighing a quarter of a pound or more hit the earth thousands of times a year. One large enough to form the Barringer crater may arrive as often as once every thousand years. The mysterious Tunguska explosion of 1908, which devastated an area of Siberian forest the size of Rhode Island, may have been our most recent encounter with a visitor of this size.

In 1980, a new hypothesis emerged. Scientists Walter and Luis Alvarez discovered that a layer of soil containing unusually high concentrations of the noble metal iridium - rare on the Earth, but abundant in meteorites - had been deposited all over the earth about 65 million years ago. That date marks the end of the Cretaceous period, a time when not only the dinosaurs, but thousands of other plant and animal species suddenly became extinct.

The Alvarezes theorized that the mass extinctions had been caused by the impact of a giant meteorite, perhaps six miles in diameter. Such an impact would throw up a cloud of dust thick enough to obscure the sun for several years, disrupting the planetary food chain and causing the disappearance of vast numbers of species.

The Alvarez hypothesis has gathered support from many directions. Traces of coesite created by the impact have been found in Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary rocks at sites around the globe. Traces of burned material in the same layer provide evidence for continent-wide firestorms, while tsunami deposits around the Caribbean provide evidence of gigantic tidal waves. The discovery of the giant 65-million-year-old Chicxulub crater, buried a mile beneath the Yucatan peninsula, appears to have provided the final proof. As of 2005 there are still some holdouts in the scientific community, but their support is dwindling. (For the full story, see Walter Alvarez' book, T. Rex and the Crater of Doom.)

WHY SHOULD WE CARE?

Daniel Moreau Barringer's struggle to prove his theory about the impact origin of the crater is an example of the enormous difference that one determined individual can make - even if that individual is a non-scientist working to change the prevailing scientific view. His story tells us about the importance of intuitive leaps, careful data-gathering, stubbornness, and yes, self-interest in the progress of science. But it also demonstrates the rigorous testing which a theory must endure before it is finally accepted by the scientific community.

Research at the Barringer Meteorite Crater and other impact sites has taught us not only about the history of our own world, but about the history of the solar system out of which it was born. In the words of Gene Shoemaker*, "the impact of solid bodies is the most fundamental of all processes that have taken place on the terrestrial planets....Collision of smaller objects is the process by which the terrestrial planets were born."

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