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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Blogger’s Note II: My friend and fellow geologist James at gallivance.net visited the geologic evidence of the asteroid impact known as the K-T Boundary in Trinidad, Colorado. You can find his field trip report on his blog here.