The oldest impact structure

Ilulisat Isfjord

Ilulisat Grenland (credit: Wikipedia)

Various lines of evidence, such as sedimentary deposits of glass spherules and shocked minerals or signs of unusual isotopic chemistry (see Ejecta from the Sudbury impact and Evidence builds for major impacts in Early Archaean in EPN April 2005 and August 2002) point to the predicted intensity of meteorite or comet bombardment of the early Earth, and evidence is growing for some events that had global effects. Yet no actual impact sites from the Archaean Eon have been found, until recently. That is not entirely unexpected because erosion during the last few billion years will have removed all trace of the characteristic surface craters. But perhaps there is cryptic evidence in Archaean terrains for the deeper influence of impacts: after all, the depth of penetration of large meteoritic ‘missiles’ would have been of a similar order to their diameter where shock structures in minerals would slowly anneal and impact-generated melts would crystallise slowly enough to masquerade as plutonic igneous rocks.

Close to the Arctic Circle in SW Greenland Archaean gneisses are associated with a roughly 200 km wide geomagnetic anomaly and regionally curvilinear features that suggest a series of concentric closed structures over a 100 km diameter area (Garde, A.A. et al. 2012. Searching for giant, ancient impact structures on Earth: The Mesoarchaean Maniitsoq structure, West Greenland. Earth and Planetary Science Letters, v.  337, p. 197-210). Adam Garde and colleagues from the Greenland Geological Survey, Cardiff University UK and Lund University Sweden focused on the central part of these anomalies where gneisses are extensively brecciated with signs of annealed shock-induced lamellae in quartz, feldspar melting and fluidization of highly comminuted mylonites. They ascribe this assemblage of features on a variety of scales to the effects of a major meteorite impact on 25 km deep continental crust. The metamorphic complex contains the famous Amitsoq Gneisses that once had the status of the world’s oldest rocks at around 3.8 Ga, but is dominated by migmatites formed around 3.1 Ga that are akin to the Nuuk Gneisses from further south.

The possible signs of a deeply penetrating impact are cut through by small ultramafic intrusions, zircons from which yield 207Pb/206Pb ages between 3.01 and 2.98 Ma, confirming the structures’ Mesoarchaean age. An interesting and unanswered question concerns the origin of these magmas together with marginally younger, voluminous granites. Were the ultramafic magmas generated by high degrees of partial melting of mantle as a result of the immense energy of impact?  Having temperatures well above those of basaltic melts, could the ultramafic intrusions in turn have induced crustal melting within the depths of a large impact basin?

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