Earth 3.5 billion years ago was a terrifying place. Picture a rocky landscape pounded by meteorites and asteroids with a surface resembling that of the moon. Volcanoes spewed water vapor but also a toxic mix of carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and methane. If you could whisk yourself back to this world by time machine, you’d need to be fully protected by a spacesuit and lucky enough to not get picked off by a falling space rock. Oh, and bring a boat too. Hot-water oceans likely covered a fair portion of the planet back then.
This time-lapse illustration of the Nice (pronounced ‘neece’) model of solar system evolution shows how outer planet migrations kick asteroids into the inner solar system
Scientists call the period from about 3.8 billion to 1.8 billion years ago the Late Heavy Bombardment (LHB), a time when the number of asteroids and their fragments pelting the inner planets and their moons spiked. Why then? No one’s absolutely certain, but the leading theory posits that the migration of the giant outer planets to their present positions “stirred the gravitational pot”, slinging boatloads of asteroids into the inner solar system, where they rained down on Earth and its neighbors in hellish monotony for millions of years.
Anyone with a small telescope can see resulting devastation to this day. Just take a long look at the moon’s battered and cratered surface and thank your lucky stars you’re around during a more peaceful time. Finding Earth’s craters is trickier because water and wind erosion, along with the continual recycling of much of our planet’s crust through plate tectonics, has erased much of our violent past.
About 180 craters are known on Earth today, but we’re aware of only three resulting from the Late Heavy Bombardment. The oldest, estimated at 3 billion years old and 62 miles (100 km) wide, is also the most recently discovered. Found in western Greenland in 2012, all that remains of the impact are rocks rattled by the massive shock wave that penetrated 15 miles (25 km) deep within Earth’s crust.
You can still see the remains of the impacts that formed the 112-mile-wide (180 km) Vredefort Crater in South Africa, which is 2 billion years old, and the youngest LHB member, the 155-mile (250-km) Sudbury crater in Canada dated at 1.85 billion years.
Now, a group of scientists have announced they’ve found evidence for an even older impact, one that occurred 3.26 billion years ago and left its signature in a South African region known as the Barberton greenstone belt.
A recent press release describes the huge impactor as between 23 and 36 miles wide (37- 58 km). Colliding with the planet at 12 miles per second, the jolt delivered was bigger than a 10.8 magnitude earthquake and propelled seismic waves hundreds of miles through the Earth, breaking rocks and setting off other large earthquakes. Tsunamis thousands of feet deep swept across the oceans that covered most of the planet at that time.
“We knew it was big, but we didn’t know how big,” Donald Lowe, a geologist at Stanford University and a co-author of the study, said of the asteroid.
The collision would have blasted out a crater some 300 miles (500 km) wide, filled the atmosphere with fiery rock vapor and set the surface of the ocean a-boil. We’re talking serious cataclysm. Somehow life found a way through the heat and crater-punching to gift us with the rolling green hills, coral reefs and forests that characterize Earth today.
I try to imagine the dark days of the LHB to help me appreciate these calmer times. Yet we know in our gut – and in fact, thanks to probability – that we’ll never truly be out of the woods. Asteroids lurk in the deep that could one day cause a similar scenario. Don’t let it worry you too much – the chance of a 10-mile-wide space rock striking Earth is once every 89 million years. You’ve still got time to take a nap, catch a show and enjoy a few nights out on the town. Probably.