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Comet

10/5/2005:

More than two hundred million years ago – but probably not on this date – a meteorite slammed into what is now McKenzie County, leaving behind a crater 5-miles across.

Many people confuse meteors with shooting stars. Generally, a shooting star is the size of a grain of sand. A meteor, on the other hand, is large enough to survive its fiery trip through the atmosphere and to reach the earth’s surface – at which point it becomes a meteorite. Meteors of this size are often asteroids or comets or fragments from a comet’s tail.

The Red Wing Creek crater near Williston is believed by many scientists to be connected to a group of at least five massive comet fragments that bombarded the earth within hours of each other during the Triassic Period some 240 millions years ago.

The largest crater formed by these collisions – the Manicouagan in Quebec – is 62 miles across. Some of the others in the group are in Manitoba, France and the Ukraine. The craters are now located very far apart from each other, but at the time of impact, the planet’s continents were still primarily one land mass, so the five locations were much closer together – and all in a pretty-much straight line.

When large meteors like these collide with the earth, the damage can be spectacular. Shock waves roll over the earth’s surface, through its fragile crust and into its mantel and core. Trillions of tons of debris can be sent into the atmosphere. Dust and debris from cosmic collisions and explosions can remain in the atmosphere for months and sometimes even years. Around the year 535 AD, for example, Earth was wrapped in a swarm of atmospheric debris that produced two years of continuous winter. It’s now believed this vast dust cloud came from either outer space or from an unrecorded, massive, volcanic eruption somewhere on the globe.

During those two years of darkness, it snowed in the summer, areas that were typically drought-stricken experienced constant flooding, crops failed, and famine decimated Italy, China and the Middle East.

John of Ephesus, a 6th century historian, wrote, “The sun became dark... Each day it shone for about four hours and still this light was only a feeble shadow.” This event marked the beginning of what is now called the Dark Ages.

When the Red Wing Creek grouping landed, the impact of the comet fragments was nothing short of catastrophic. In fact, it’s believed these collisions caused history’s 3rd largest mass extinction, affecting approximately 80% of the planet’s species and bringing the Triassic Period to a close.

Many millions of years later, a massive meteor also hit Mexico, forming a crater more than 100 miles across. This one is believed to have caused the mass extinction of the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous Period.

Despite the fact that North Dakota’s Red Wing Crater is more than five miles across, it unfortunately has filled in over the millennia and can’t be seen from either land or air. Unlike craters formed by volcanoes that leave a rim above ground level, the Red Wing Crater, as well as the Newporte – a smaller one in Renville County – are both below ground level and were accidental discoveries recently made by oil drillers.

Sources:

Gee, Henry. “In the line of fire.” Nature News Service. Macmillan Magazines Ltd 1998.

Gonzalez, Mark A. “Of Meteors and Meteorites.” North Dakota Geological Survey. <http://www.state.nd.us/ndgs/geology%20notes/meteor/meteor.htm>

O’Neill, Graeme. Killer Comet Storm Hit Earth. 12 March, 1998. <http://www.irysec.vic.edu.au/sci/goneill/triassicimpact.htm>

Schat, Marjolein. Justinian’s Foreign Policy and the Plague: Did Justinian Create the First Pandemic? <http://scarab.msu.montana.edu/historybug/YersiniaEssays/Schat.htm>

K-T Event. <http://www2.jpl.nasa.gov/sl9/back3.html>

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm