The Day the Dinosaurs Died

Like pilgrims flocking to the site of an astronomical apparition, we reached the end of a fishing pier in the small village of Chicxulub (Chick-SHA-lube) on the northern coast of the Yucatán Peninsula, and squinted into the bright blue sky. It was at this ordinary and inauspicious location, 66 million years ago, that a meteor larger than the city of San Francisco, hurtling 50 times faster than a speeding bullet, slammed into the Earth.

Pier Sign

Chicxulub Pier: Ground Zero of the Great Asteroid Impact

The collision unleashed the energy of 10 billion Hiroshima A-bombs, or 10 times the energy of today’s total worldwide nuclear arsenal, and created a 12 mile (20 km) deep crater approximately 110 miles (180 km) in diameter. Crashing into the shallow waters of the continental shelf, the impact caused a tidal wave 330 feet (100 m) tall that washed up to the state of Illinois. If it had struck over the deeper open ocean, the tidal wave would have been 2.9 miles (4.6 km) tall, and would have completely inundated the Earth.

Kbeis:iStock.jpg

The Day the Dinosaurs Died (credit: Kbeis/iStock)

The force of the impact ejected millions of fiery boulders the size of football stadiums that rained back down to earth in their own atomic bomb sized explosions. Colossal shock waves triggered massive 10.0-plus magnitude earthquakes and violent volcanic eruptions, all around the earth. Forest fires the size of continents raged for decades, and Category 5 hurricane strength winds swept across the entire planet.

Joe Looking Up

Looking for the Asteroid, 66 million years too late

The impact vaporized the limestone rock, released sulphur and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and created acid rain strong enough to dissolve skin. The carbon dioxide produced a severe greenhouse gas effect, and dust blocked the sun. For several years, the Earth was cast into total darkness, and freezing temperatures remained below 20 degrees Fahrenheit (-6.7 degrees C). This quickly halted plant photosynthesis, severed the food chain, and caused the extinction of 75% of all plant and animal species, including the non-avian dinosaurs.

cenote rim

Chicxulub Crater and Cenote Locations (blue dots), (credit: Expedición 364)

Today, after 66 million years, the crater has eroded and completely filled up. The only physical feature remaining on the surface of the smooth Yucatán countryside is a ring of freshwater sinkholes (cenotes). Although the entire peninsula is pocked with thousands of cenotes, the subsidence of the crater wall concentrated many of them in an arc along the edge of the former depression.

Joe Monument

Monument to the Dinosaurs and Asteroid Impact, Chicxulub, Yucatán, Mexico

During our visit to this out-of-the-way and under-appreciated shrine to the demise of the dinosaurs, we tried to locate any commemoration of the impact event. Surprisingly, all we could find was a crappy old monument with a faded interpretative sign in a weedy and unkempt park. In a way, we were happy to see that the village hadn’t yet exploited this solemn event for commercial gain.

Habenero Sauce

Chicxulub Hot Sauce and Seafood Lunch

To our delight; however, we did find a very good seafood restaurant. Sitting down to lunch, I popped the cap off a bottle of habanero seasoning and noticed that it was “Chicxulub” brand. Aptly and prominently displayed on its label was a bright red meteor creating a deep U-shaped crater. Alas, we concluded our pilgrimage to the site of Earth’s most catastrophic event by burning our tongues on a few drops of fiery hot asteroid sauce.

Croc Rio Lagartos

Crocodile at Rio Lagartos (This species survived the dinosaur extinction)

 

Blogger’s Note:  This afternoon, Mexico suffered yet another major earthquake. The 7.2 magnitude tremor was centered in a relatively uninhabited region of Oaxaca state. We are currently located in the city of Campeche, approximately 550 miles from the epicenter, and did not notice any effects. Hopefully, the property damage will be limited and the fine people of Mexico will not suffer any more loss of life.

Feature Image Credit: Alamy Stock

12 thoughts on “The Day the Dinosaurs Died

    • Thanks, WD. Esther keeps telling me to wear more sunscreen. We appreciate you asking about this afternoon’s earthquake. We are currently in Campeche, about 550 miles from the epicenter in Oaxaca state, and didn’t feel this one. I hope the Mexican government doesn’t send us back across the border.

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    • Sorry to geek out on you, Janis, but the crater was originally discovered in the late 1970s by a couple of Pemex petroleum geophysicists, using seismic and gravity data to explore for oil and gas. A couple years later, a father and son team of geologists from the University of Arizona deciphered that the element iridium was present in 66 million year old rocks around the world in concentrations only seen in meteorites. These were the key findings that led to the Chicxulub asteroid theory for the extinction, which is now almost universally accepted.

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    • Thanks, Dave. The story of the asteroid impact and mass extinction is hard to imagine. It seems like science fiction until all the pieces of the puzzle fit together.

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  1. Joe, I was in Merida and hoping to make it to Chicxulub, but ultimately the Maya won out. As a geologist, this extinction event holds lots of interest for me, but I know from experience how much of the geologic past can be hidden from view. Thanks for making the trek and the photos. You’d think some rich geologist would donate a few bucks for a decent monument. BTW, We got a good shake in Puebla from last night’s earthquake. ~ James

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    • Hi James, I was lucky to have a free day in Mérida, after a trip to Uxmal the day before. Even though there was really nothing to see at Chicxulub, it was kind of surreal to visit ground zero, look up into the sky, and consider the size and force of the asteroid impact. Maybe Pemex should spring for a monument, since they discovered the crater, and have made a bundle off of Mexican fossil fuels? We couldn’t believe that there was another major earthquake last night. I hope you guys weren’t too shaken up.

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  2. It’s amazing to realize what a change that meteor impact caused, and how much devastation. (Although I have to admit I don’t know if I’d want a dinosaur as a neighbor. But still, it’s sad to think of their extinction!) I’m surprised there isn’t something more to commemorate the spot. Thanks for another informative and entertaining post!

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  3. It sure was a powerful and devastating event, Ann. To add a little more perspective, dinosaurs lived on Earth for about 135 million years until the asteroid impact. Modern man (Homo sapiens) have only been around for about 200,000 years. I think that a new monument could be a good opportunity to educate visitors about environmental awareness, species extinction, and the fragility of life. I agree that I would not want a dinosaur for a neighbor, but they sure are cute.

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