New analysis of commercial oil drilling data—denied to the academic community until recently—offers the first detailed look at how the Chicxulub impact reshaped the Gulf of Mexico, the Smithsonian reports.
Figuring out what happened after that impact is immensely valuable to scientists who want to predict what would happen should another asteroid strike again. The University of Texas has finally received records from oil companies that held those records.
More than 65 million years ago, a six-mile wide asteroid smashed into the Yucatán peninsula, triggering earthquakes, tsunamis and an explosion of debris. The impact wiped out large dinosaurs and giant marine reptiles, but also created a global layer of debris.
“It is truly a tree ring for the Earth, because how we define time geologically is by extinction events,” says Sean Gulick of the University of Texas Institute for Geophysics in Austin. “Everywhere on Earth this layer marks exactly the time when the mass extinction happened.”
New analysis shows that the Chicxulub impact mobilized nearly 48,000 cubic miles of sediment across the gulf. It wiped out the contours of the bottom of the gulf, covering everything from the Yucatán to the Caribbean in hundreds of feet of debris.
“This deposit was literally laid down in a matter of days and weeks,” says lead author Jason Sanford, an exploration geologist for Chevron.
When David Kring, of the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, discovered and named the Chicxulub impact site in 1991, he immediately started talking to oil companies about gaining access to their Gulf of Mexico data — conversations that went nowhere. But now the University of Texas has achieved what Kring could not.
Using these datasets, scientists were able to probe up to 50,000 feet below sea level to determine the thickness, volume and nature of the boundary layer in the gulf region. They found that the Chicxulub impact dwarfed the next biggest instantaneous deposit—the Nuuanu debris flow in Hawaii—by two orders of magnitude.
The Chicxulub impact released as much energy as a hundred terratons of TNT, beyond a billion times the power of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.