Batter your planet

K/T extinction event theory. An artist's depic...

Artist’s depiction of the asteroid impact 65 million years ago that caused the K-T mass extinction. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Just in time for the festive season I have been sent the URL for an on-line impact simulator written by a team from Imperial College London and the University of Arizona (Collins, G.S. et al. 2005. Earth Impact Effects Program: A Web-based computer program for calculating the regional environmental consequences of a meteoroid impact on Earth. Meteoritics and Planetary Science, v. 40, p. 817–840), with a web presence designed at Purdue University, Indiana. ImpactEarth (http://www.purdue.edu/impactearth/) has been around for two years and has a scientifically pleasing level of precision, thanks to the authors, Gareth Collins, Jay Melosh and Robert Marcus.

The fact that the target shown by the accompanying animation and other graphics seems to be the Washington-New York megalopolis may be a cause for some concern for US readers, especially the Department of Homeland Security, National Security Agency and CIA. They can rest easy, however, as this seems to be a matter of artistic license: the choice of parameters allows for ocean strikes and targets of sedimentary or crystalline rocks. Others are impactor diameter and density, impact angle and speed, plus distance from ground zero. An element of whimsy allows the casual user to choose inbound humpback whales, school buses and the Empire State Building as well as more astronomically likely scenarios.

There are a number of missing parameters such as direction relative to Earth’s rotation, latitude and the likely affect of an ice-cap strike, and no mention in the results of the electromagnetic burst from atmospheric compression on entry – the Diesel effect. However, the thermal effects on bystanders, buildings and vegetation at the ‘viewpoint’ personalise the experience to some extent. It is the detail about crater dimensions and evolution, lithospheric melting and what might happen to the Earth’s axial tilt and day length that the wealth of computations produce surprises. It is not easy to destroy our planet: using a body with a density of 3000 kg m-3 and the diameter of Asia causes no significant melting or changes in axial tilt at speeds less than 12 km s-1, but does change the length of the day by up to 113 hours. This is because the power of impacts and therefore the work done by them is proportional to the square of the speed. Mind you, nothing is left standing as the seismic effect has a Richter Magnitude of more than 15! Yet, curiously, no atmospheric or thermal radiation effects are noted.

Have fun.

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