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Science

Modelling the Seismic Fallout of a Meteorite Strike

Many believe that the meteorite strike that caused the Chicxulub crater in Mexico was what caused the extinction of the dinosaurs some 65 million years ago, and researchers from Princeton University have simulated the event in the hopes of better understanding the levels of death and destruction that would result from such a massive impact striking our planet.

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Princeton researchers created the first model to consider the Earth's elliptical shape and surface features in predicting the fallout from a massive meteorite impact. A film based on the Princeton model shows that the impact's seismic waves be uneven and slightly broken, meeting in the area of the globe opposite of the impact in clusters with much lower energy.

The researchers from Princeton University based in the laboratory of Jeroen Tromp, the Blair Professor of Geology in Princeton’s Department of Geosciences, and who published their findings in the October issue of the journal Geophysical Journal International, developed a new model that more accurately simulates the seismic fallout of such a massive meteorite strike.

The research also sheds more light about the surface and interior of planets based on past collisions.

The interesting part of this study is the manner in which it differs from previous ones. Up until now, any such predictions were based on a meteorite strike impacting a perfectly spherical planet with no features getting in the way.

The Princeton simulations – which mapped seismic fallout on a planet with features – showed that the seismic waves which would radiate out from the impact would be scattered and unfocused. This means that the outcome would be less severe ground displacement, tsunamis, and seismic and volcanic activity, well below what had previously been assumed.

Lead author Matthias Meschede of the University of Munich developed the model at Princeton through the University’s Visiting Student Research Collaborators program with co-authors Conor Myhrvold, who earned his bachelor’s degree from Princeton in 2011, and Tromp, who also is director of Princeton’s Institute for Computational Science and Engineering and a professor of applied and computational mathematics. Meschede describes the findings as follows:

“We have developed the first model to account for how Earth’s surface features and shape would influence the spread of seismic activity following a meteorite impact. For the Earth, these calculations are usually made using a smooth, perfect sphere model, but we found that the surface features of a planet or a moon have a huge effect on the aftershock a large meteorite will have, so it’s extremely important to take those into account.

“After a meteorite impact, seismic waves travel outward across the Earth’s surface like after a stone is thrown in water. These waves travel all the way around the globe and meet in a single point on the opposite side from the impact known as the antipode. Our model shows that because the Earth is elliptical and its surface is heterogeneous those waves travel with different speeds in different areas, changing where the waves end up on the other side of the world and the waves’ amplitude when they get there. These waves also are influenced by the interior. The effect on the opposite side is a result of the complete structure.

“We began by asking whether the meteorite that hit the Earth near Chicxulub could be connected to other late-Cretaceous mass-extinction theories. For example, there’s a prominent theory that the meteorite triggered huge volcanic eruptions that changed the climate. These eruptions are thought to have originated in the Deccan Traps in India, approximately on the opposite side of the Earth from the Chicxulub crater at the time. Because North America was closer to Europe and India was closer to Madagascar during the Cretaceous period, however, it seemed questionable that the Deccan Traps were at the Chicxulub impact’s antipode.

The Princeton model shows (at left) that the structure of the Earth's surface at the time of the meteorite impact that caused the Chicxulub crater in Mexico would have placed the Deccan Traps in India far west of the crater's antipodal point, instead of directly opposite of the impact. Correspondingly, the model shows (at right) that the meteorite struck far east of the antipodal point for the Deccan Traps, which are remnants of large volcanoes thought to have contributed to the mass extinction event at the end of the Cretaceous period. The model also revealed that the Chicxulub impact, when the Earth's surface and shape are considered, would have likely been too small to cause the Deccan Traps.

“Regarding the mass extinction, we saw from our measurements that a Chicxulub-sized impact alone would be too small to cause such a large volcanic eruption as what occurred at the Deccan Traps. Our model shows that the antipodal focusing of the seismic wave from such an impact was hugely overestimated in previous calculations, which used a spherical-Earth model.

“The Earth’s maximum ground displacement at this point has been calculated to be 15 meters, which is extreme. The first outcome of our model was that this is reduced by a large amount to about three to five meters. On the spherical model, all the waves come together at exactly one point and, as a result, have a huge amplitude. We found the waves are disturbed by surface features and take on a more ragged structure, meaning less energy is concentrated at the antipode.

“But our results go beyond Chicxulub. We can, in principle, now estimate how large a meteorite would have to have been to cause catastrophic events. For instance, we found that if you increase the radius of the Chicxulub meteorite by a factor of five while leaving its velocity and density the same, it would have been large enough to at least fracture rocks on the opposite side of the planet. Our model can be used to estimate the magnitude and effect of other major impacts in Earth’s past. A similar model could be used to study other examples of antipodal structures in the solar system, such as the strange region opposite the gigantic Caloris Basin crater on Mercury.

“Also, such a model can help examine the interior of a moon or planet by comparing the size of the crater to the amount of antipodal disruption — you only need two pictures, basically. One could correlate a certain impact magnitude with the observed antipodal effect — which is dependent on the object’s surface features — and better understand the heterogeneity of the surface by how the energy was distributed between those two points. That can reveal information about not only the surface structure of the body at the time of the impact, but also the interior, such as if the planet has a hard core.”

Source: Princeton University
Image Source: Matthias Meschede and Conor Myhrvold




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