Yarrabubba is Earth’s oldest known asteroid strike – and it may have ended an ice age

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  Last updated February 7, 2020 at 5:17 pm

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The asteroid impact that created this massive WA crater changed the climate of the entire world over 2.2 billion years ago.


yarrabubba impact crater_yarrabubba_meteor impact crater

The Yarrabubba impact structure in Western Australia. Credit: Chris Kirkland.




Why This Matters: What is now Australia played a pivotal role in the creation of today’s world.




The tiny town of Meekatharra, about 750km north-east of Perth, doesn’t have many claims to fame. But just outside this mining town is the world’s oldest remaining asteroid crater, say scientists.


The 70-kilometre wide Yarrabubba crater, on Tjupany traditional land, was first discovered in 2003. Now, researchers have put a precise date on the cataclysmic impact that created the crater, and it’s a phenomenal 2.229 billion years old. That makes it 200 million years older than the next known asteroid strike at Vredefort Dome in South Africa.


At over 2.2 billion years old, it’s age puts it at the the end of an ancient deep freeze known as early Snowball Earth, and the researchers believe the strike could have contributed to the ice thawing.


After this time period there are no rock records of large glacial deposits for 400 million years, says Timmons Erickson, who led the research at NASA Johnson Space Centre in Houston.


“Because of this, we were interested in seeing the role that an impact crater could have had during a time of global glaciations and whether an impact could release enough water vapour, a strong greenhouse gas, to significantly warm the planet.”


The research has been published in the journal Nature Communications.


Meteorite impact contributed to global ice melt


Calculating the impact of the meteorite on an icy continent, they found that it could have sent half a trillion tonnes of water vapour into the atmosphere, thereby contributing to the global ice melt.


This highlights why the timing of “extraterrestrial bombardment” is important, as the authors write, so its effects on the Earth’s environment can be understood.


To date, the historical impact record is fragmented, making it hard to understand how meteorites affect the planet – apart from the Chicxulub asteroid that triggered the last mass extinction and could explain the ocean’s acidification.




Elsewhere: Earliest life found in ancient Aussie rocks




“There are still lots of gaps in the terrestrial impact record; while we know of thousands of impact craters on the Earth’s moon, there are only about 190 recognised impact structures on Earth,” says Erickson.


Craters gradually disappear with time through erosion and tectonic movements, making it challenging to find old craters at all, says co-author Aaron Cavosie from Curtin University.


This is the case with Yarrabubba, he adds. “The landscape is barren, but not empty. Bits of rocks exposed near the centre of the formerly giant crater hold the microscopic clues to the past violence that occurred 2.229 billion years ago.”


Yarrabubba a “once-in-a-generation type discovery”


Added to that, geoscience relies heavily on fieldwork, he says, “where observations are made standing in the burning sun, flies buzzing in your ears, dust on your boots.


“The analytical firepower is what delivers the result, but it starts with a geologist who says, ‘hey, that rock looks interesting’.”


Once the rocks are selected, advanced lab methodologies are applied – in this case, Cavosie says, “electron backscatter diffraction was used to identify the specific crystals that had been age-reset through analysis of their microscopic orientation”.




Elsewhere: Wolfe Creek Crater is way younger than we thought




Then they used mass spectrometry to measure “isotopic clocks” contained by uranium and lead in the rocks.


Trace amounts of uranium decays to lead over time at a known rate, Cavosie explains, so their disruption by a meteorite helps to pinpoint the time it struck.


“When a giant impact forms, rocks in the centre get hot enough to cause the atomic bonds in the mineral to break open and reform. This process evacuates the accumulated lead. After the impact, lead starts collecting again.”


The breakthrough at Yarrabubba, part of Western Australia’s rich geological heritage, is a “once-in-a-generation type of discovery,” says Cavosie, the last dating being the 2.02 billion-year-old Vredefort impact 25 years ago.


“What the Yarrabubba discovery shows clearly is that it is worth the effort to continue to search the geological record for old craters.


“It helps planetary scientists recreate the formative years of Earth’s history and write some of the earliest pages in the history book.”


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About the Author

Natalie Parletta
Natalie Parletta is an Australian freelance science writer.

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