Dino-Killing Asteroid Impact Made 20-Kilometer-High Central Mountain Almost Instantly

The world changed in an instant 66 million years ago. Vadim Sadovski/Shutterstock

Earlier this year, a (literally) groundbreaking effort to drill into the impact crater of the asteroid that ended the age of the dinosaurs was hailed as a “fantastic success”. The team have since used this data to reconstruct the famous Earth-shattering event.

Reporting in the journal Science, the team led by the European Consortium for Ocean Research Drilling (ECORD) explain how the collision created an ephemeral soaring mass of rock many times higher than any mountain on Earth, before it collapsed in less than a few minutes or so.

“There were two models for the formation of large impact craters that were quite contradictory,” lead author Joanna Morgan, a professor of geophysics at Imperial College London, told BBC News. “One was relatively sedate. The one we’ve proven is much more dynamic and catastrophic. Much more energetic.”

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This simulation, produced by Imperial College London's Gareth Collins, reveals the scale of the impact. The blue rocks here represent what eventually come to form the peak ring.

It was previously known that the 15-kilometer-wide (9.3-mile-wide) asteroid hit the Yucatan Peninsula off the coast of Mexico with the force of nearly a thousand atomic weapons. The rocks mobilized in the 180-kilometer-wide (110-mile-wide) Chicxulub crater were liquidized in an instant, and the entire region behaved like a fluid.

Detailed core samples from the partly submerged crater, combined with detailed mathematical modeling, have revealed the nearly unfathomable story of the apocalyptic impact. Within just 10 seconds, material was forced outwards from the core, which reached heights of over 25 kilometers (15.5 miles).

Around 45 seconds post-impact, the warping walls of the transient crater began to buckle and blast out fluid material back into the crater itself at hypersonic speeds. At just about a minute, the walls of material blasting outwards from the crater began to collapse down from their lofty heights across a radius of hundreds of kilometers.

Meanwhile, the core of the crater splashes inwards and upwards, breaching heights of 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) in just 60 seconds, before falling back in on itself about a minute later. This rebound produced the tower-like inner “peak ring” that the team managed to excavate.

The granite at this site was found to be deformed, stressed, and fractured to an unprecedented degree. It clearly represented a destructive journey, one that the team have successfully charted out.

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This impact immediately changed the world. The fireball and megatsunamis gave way to the darkening of the sky and the collapse of food chains.

Although the non-avian dinosaurs were already in decline, the 66-million-year-old asteroid impact finished them off, along with somewhere between 50 and 75 percent of all life on Earth. Taking advantage, birds and mammal-like creatures promptly took over the planet.

Ultimately, this impact permitted the rise and reign of humanity. Now, thanks to science, we’re able to understand this remarkable story of regime change like never before.

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