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Meteor Crater

The tourism industry in the Grand Canyon State has been blessed with not only one, but two enormous holes in the ground. There's that great big one up north for which the state is nicknamed, then a bit further south there's the gaping void known as Meteor Crater.

Mind you, it's not "the" Meteor Crater. Just "Meteor Crater"––referred to in the manner of Tonto or Tarzan, like you haven't yet grasped the nuance of definite articles, as in "I drive long way, see Meteor Crater."

It's just 30 minutes east of Flagstaff, off Exit 233 and at the end of a 6-mile, yet seemingly interminable road extending south into the center of nothing. It sits isolated in the middle of a deserted tableland, a pockmark nearly a mile wide interrupting an otherwise unmitigated horizontality, as if God himself took a melon baller to the Colorado Plateau.

At the rim, which rises 150 feet from the surrounding flatland, one can look down from a suspended platform to witness what the absence of roughly 80 million cubic yards of dirt looks like. It's nearly a mile to the other side and well over 500 feet to the bottom. Though wind erosion has filled it in just a little in the last few millennia, it appears today very much like it did shortly after its formation 50,000 years ago, making it the most well-preserved impact crater on Earth.

The forces in creating the giant pothole were so great, they can be difficult to wrap your brain around. Some 175 million tons of rock were displaced when the meteor responsible hit the planet, scattering debris for over a mile. Limestone boulders the size of houses were blown onto the rim. The compression forces at the moment of impact were so intense––more than 20 million pounds per square inch––that small amounts of graphite present in the meteor were instantly turned to microscopic diamonds. Most of the material melted or vaporized.


The mass of nickel-iron that did all this, which was up to 150 feet in diameter and weighed some 300,000 tons, is believed to have been traveling almost 27,000 mph upon impact. The resulting blast of energy was equal to that of at least 2.5 megatons of TNT, although some estimates have placed it at 20, or even 40, megatons. In standard measures, that's a ball of 40,000 African elephants traveling from Tucson to Flagstaff in 104 seconds, then exploding with the power of no less than 165 atomic bombs like that dropped at Hiroshima, Japan.

If you're still having trouble grasping those figures, don't worry. The world's leading scientists only recently worked it out, themselves. Until the 1960s, when famed scientist Eugene Shoemaker published his findings, not everyone was convinced the crater was even caused by a meteor. At first, it was dismissed as the result of a steam explosion. In 1891, the chief geologist for the U.S. Geological Survey, G.K. Gilbert, figured any supposed meteorite would be almost as big as the crater itself and would be buried beneath the surface. But since the theoretical mass of iron didn't affect his compass, it couldn't be there. So, the cause had to be volcanic. All the meteorites found nearby were just coincidence.

A decade later, a mining engineer named Daniel Barringer disagreed. Learning that meteorites were mixed with the ejected material, he was positive it had to be an impact crater. Still, like Gilbert, he remained convinced the meteorite was underground. Calculating its composition at 10 million tons of iron, he knew he could make a fortune mining it. Over the next 27 years, he spent the equivalent of $10 million hunting the object, drilling more than two dozen shafts in his search. Finding nothing, Barringer was forced to call it quits in 1929. He died of a heart attack just weeks later.

Yet, Barringer's efforts weren't wasted, at least not scientifically speaking. Even though he was wrong about the meteorite, the evidence he uncovered in all his years of research and exploration continued to support his impact hypothesis. Though he encountered relentless opposition from those who disagreed, the scientific community eventually accepted his theory and Meteor Crater became the first proven impact feature on Earth.

Weird Arizona

 

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