Dakota Datebook

Craters

Friday, October 10, 2003

Yesterday, we talked about a five-foot meteorite that landed near Carrington in 1910. But about 214 million years ago, a meteorite that landed in what is now McKenzie County was so large that it left 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 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 about 240 millions years ago.

The largest crater formed by these collisions – the Manicouagan in Quebec – is 62 miles across. The remaining three of the group are in Manitoba, France and the Ukraine. The craters are located very far apart from each other, but at the time of impact, the planet’s continents were still primarily one land mass, and the five locations were very close together.

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 & 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, Earth was wrapped in a swarm of atmospheric debris that produced two years of continuous winter. It’s believed that this vast dust cloud came from either outer space or from a massive volcanic eruption somewhere on the globe.

During those two years, it snowed in the winter, drought-stricken areas had constant flooding, crops failed, and famine decimated Italy, China and the Middle East. A 6th-century Syrian bishop 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… the Dark Ages.

When the Red Wing Creek grouping landed, the impact of comet fragments was nothing short of catastrophic. In fact, it’s believed that 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 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 another smaller on in Renville County called the Newporte, are both below ground and were accidental discoveries recently made by oil drillers.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from North Dakota Public Radio.

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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