There’s something big lurking beneath Greenland’s ice. Using airborne ice-penetrating radar, scientists have discovered a 31-kilometer-wide crater — larger than the city of Paris — buried under as much as 930 meters of ice in northwest Greenland.
The meteorite that slammed into Earth and formed the pit would have been about 1.5 kilometers across, researchers say.
That’s large enough to have caused significant environmental damage across the Northern Hemisphere, a team led by glaciologist Kurt Kjær of the University of Copenhagen reports November 14 in Science Advances.
Although the crater has not been dated, data from glacial debris as well as ice-flow simulations suggest that the impact may have happened during the Pleistocene Epoch, between 2.6 million and 11,700 years ago.
The discovery could breathe new life into a controversial hypothesis that suggests that an impact about 13,000 years ago triggered a mysterious 1,000-year cold snap known as the Younger Dryas.
Members of the research team first spotted a curiously rounded shape at the edge of Hiawatha Glacier in northwest Greenland in 2015, during a scan of the region by NASA’s Operation IceBridge.
The mission uses airborne radar to map the thickness of ice at Earth’s poles. The researchers immediately suspected that the rounded shape represented the edge of a crater, Kjær says.
For a more detailed look, the team hired an aircraft from Germany’s Alfred Wegener Institute that was equipped with ultra-wideband radar, which can send pulses of energy toward the ice at a large number of frequencies.
Using data collected from 1997 to 2014 from Operation Icebridge and NASA’s Program for Arctic Regional Climate Assessment, as well as 1,600 kilometers’ worth of data collected in 2016 using the ultra-wideband radar, the team mapped out the inner and outer contours of their target.
The object is almost certainly an impact crater, the researchers say. “It became clear that our idea had been right from the beginning,” Kjær says.
What’s more, it is not only the first crater found in Greenland but also one of the 25 or so largest craters yet spotted on Earth. And it has held its shape beautifully, from its elevated rim to its bowl-shaped depression.
Those data clearly suggest that the impact is at least 11,700 years old, Kjær says.
And the rim of the crater appears to cut through a preexisting ancient river channel that must have flowed across the land before Greenland became covered with ice about 2.6 million years ago.
That time span — essentially, the entire Pleistocene Epoch — is a large range.
The team is working on further narrowing the possible date range, with more sediment samples, simulations of the rate of ice flow and possibly cores collected from within the crater.
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