How a ring of mountains forms inside a crater

Rocks drilled from Mexico’s Chicxulub impact confirm dynamic collapse theory

Chicxulub illustration

RINGING TRUE  A ring of mountains (inner circle) inside large impact craters, such as the one left by the famous dinosaur-killer at Chicxulub (illustrated above), form when rocks from deep underground rebound upward and collapse outward following the impact, new research suggests. The outer ring is the crater edge.

Detlev van Ravenswaay/Science Source

Building mountains in minutes requires deep rocks and a big bang.

Rings of mountainous peaks sit inside large impact craters, but scientists weren’t sure how these features formed. One explanation proposed that these mountains form from deep rocks jolted to the surface by the impact. Another theory suggested that uplift caused surface rocks to congregate in heaps around the crater.

Rocks extracted from ground zero of the impact that devastated the dinosaurs have now resolved this debate. That crater’s peak ring is made up of deep rocks, researchers report in the Nov. 18 Science.

Confirming this explanation of peak ring formation will help scientists study the depths of other planets, says study coauthor Sean Gulick, a geophysicist at the University of Texas at Austin. It will also help better estimate the environmental damage wrought by the dinosaur-killing impact.

KABLOOEY! Rocks extracted from the impact site of the asteroid that devastated the dinosaurs 66 million years ago reveal that big craters build their characteristic rings of mountains using rocks from deep underground. ARae@ECORD_IODP
“Unlike tectonic mountains that take millions of years to form, these mountains are made in less than 10 minutes,” Gulick says. Knowing the forces involved in sculpting those mountains will allow scientists to better estimate the total energy released during the catastrophic crash.

The Chicxulub impactor whacked into Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula around 66 million years ago, leaving behind a 200-kilometer-wide hole in the ground. Rising around 600 meters from the crater floor — though now buried under sediment – is the peak ring. While similar rings of mountains have been spotted inside large craters on other planetary bodies such as the moon and Mercury, Chicxulub is the only crater on Earth with an intact peak ring structure. And “it’s a lot cheaper to get to the one in Mexico,” Gulick says.

Last spring, Gulick and colleagues drilled into Chicxulub’s peak ring off the coast of Mexico using a special ship that can convert into a stable platform using three long legs. Rock samples, collected from about 750 to 1,300 meters below the seafloor, contained bits of granite and other minerals that would have been buried many kilometers belowground just before the impact. That means that the same process that built the peak ring must have churned those deep rocks to the surface, the researchers concluded.

That result does not mesh with the idea that the peak ring material instead came from much closer to the surface. Under that theory, after impact, surface material slides down the crater rim onto the floor. The middle of the floor then rebounds upward due to the removal of the weight of the overlying rock. That uplift shifts the fallen material, forming a peak ring.

PUT A RING ON IT Rocks from deep underground are brought to the surface during large impact events, new research shows. That upward churning of deep material could help scientists study the innards of other planetary bodies such as the moon (shown). NASA
Instead, the dynamic collapse theory of peak ring formation explains what happened at Chicxulub, researchers say. After the initial strike, churned-up material rushed in to fill the deep void left by the impact, like water when a stone is dropped into a pond. The flowing material met in the middle of the crater and surged upward into a towering central peak that then collapsed outward, dumping rocks previously buried several kilometers underground onto the crater’s surface.

These rocks became more porous and less dense during their dramatic rise, the researchers found. While typical deep rocks in the region have an average density of more than 2.6 grams per cubic centimeter, the peak ring rocks average just 2.41 grams per cubic centimeter and are heavily fractured.

“About 10 percent of the rock is pores, so there’s lots of space,” Gulick says. Microbes, he proposes, may have moved into those holes as life repopulated the impact site. Early life on Earth may have even gotten its first foothold in the porous rock inside similar impact craters, he speculates.

The high porosity of the Chicxulub rock could also explain why the moon’s crater-riddled crust is highly porous and help solve other planetary mysteries as well, says Ross Potter, a planetary scientist at Brown University.

“Impact craters are excavating material from depth, so they’re very good probes into the interior of planetary bodies,” he says. “You may be able to find very interesting samples that tell you a lot about not only the cratering process itself, but also the interior of the planet and how the planet formed.”

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