Large meteorite impacts may not only form craters on the Earth, but also trigger intense, long-lived and explosive volcanic eruptions, a new study has found. Meteorite impacts spark volcanic activity that shapes the Earth’s surface and climate by bringing up material from depth, researchers said.
An international team, led by geochemists from Trinity College Dublin in Ireland, studied rocks filling one of the largest preserved impact structures on the planet, located in Ontario, Canada.The ‘bolide’ hit the Earth there 1.85 billion years ago and excavated a deep basin, which was filled with melted target rocks and, later, with jumbled mixed rocks full of tiny volcanic fragments.
Not only are there volcanic fragments throughout the sequence of the 1.5 kilometre-thick basin but they have a very distinctive angular shape, which the scientists explain resembles a ‘crab claw’. Such shapes form when gas bubbles expand in molten rock that then catastrophically explodes – a feature of violent eruptions involving water, and which can be seen under glaciers in Iceland, for example, researchers said.
In the crater, these took place for a long period of time after the impact, when the basin was flooded with sea water.The key finding of the research, published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets, is that the composition of the volcanic fragments changed with time.Right after the impact, volcanism is directly related to melting of the Earth’s crust. However, with time, volcanism seems to have been fed by magma coming from deeper levels within the Earth.
“This is an important finding, because it means that the magma sourcing the volcanoes was changing with time,” said Balz Kamber, Professor at Trinity. “The reason for the excitement is that the effect of large impacts on the early Earth could be more serious than previously considered,” said Kamber. On the early Earth there was a relatively brief period during which very large impacts occurred, whereas since then, only a handful have hit the Earth.
“The intense bombardment of the early Earth had destructive effects on the planet’s surface but it may also have brought up material from the planet’s interior, which shaped the overall structure of the planet,” Kamber added. The findings raise interest in topical research on similar volcanism on other planetary bodies like Mercury, Venus, Mars and the Moon, researchers said. There, unlike on the Earth, the lack of plate tectonics and erosion help preserve surface features, which are probed by space craft, they said.