[meteorite-list] Drilling for Africa's Climate History (Lake Bosumtwi Impact Crater)

From: Ron Baalke <baalke_at_meteoritecentral.com>
Date: Tue Oct 12 18:13:56 2004
Message-ID: <200410122213.PAA02369_at_zagami.jpl.nasa.gov>


Drilling for Africa's climate history
By Roland Pease
BBC News
October 12, 2004

The still waters of Lake Bosumtwi impose a sense of deep calm on those
who visit the sub-Saharan African nation of Ghana. But the silence,
punctuated by occasional frogs' croaks and bird calls, belies a violent

"A million years ago, this was the site of an enormous catastrophe,"
explains Christian Koeberl, a geologist from Vienna University, Austria.

"We had a lush rainforest, filled with animals minding their own
business, when a kilometre-sized rock came hurtling down from space, at
enormous velocity, and crashed into the ground here.

"Within a few seconds, it opened up a gigantic hole in the ground which
later filled with water and became the lake we see today," he told the
BBC World Service's Discovery programme.

It's very important to understand what would happen during such an
impact; what would happen to mankind, to civilisation
Christian Koeberl, Vienna University

Researchers know of 170 impact craters around the world, including the
enormous Chicxulub structure in the Gulf of Mexico formed 65 million
years ago, and widely associated with the demise of the dinosaurs.

But Lake Bosumtwi is unique to science, says Professor Koeberl.

"It is the youngest large impact crater we have on Earth, and it's very
well preserved. There is no crater of the same size that is younger; and
there is no crater that is better exposed or larger."

Earth prepared

This summer, following a 10-year campaign of geological field work and
geophysical investigations, Koeberl and a team of collaborators brought
a floating drilling platform, to bring up samples of crushed and melted
rock from the basement of the crater.

[Map of Lake Bosumtwi]
One of only 18 confirmed African impact craters
Crater rim about 10km across; maximum water depth 80m

"What we're trying to understand is how exactly the meteorite hit the
Earth, from which direction did it come, what type of meteorite it was,
and what were the immediate consequences," Professor Koeberl says.

"There are many more rocks of this size out in space - and an impact of
this size happens every million years or so. So it's very important to
understand what would happen during such an impact; what would happen to
mankind, to civilisation."

To appreciate the violence of the collision, you have to understand that
it released as much energy in a single second as the eruption of Mount
St Helens released in six months in 1980.

As well as carving out the 11-km bowl of the lake, the impact lifted
pulverised and melted rock 20-30 km into the sky, which then rained like
fire on the surrounding countryside, incinerating everything in its path.

Tiny frozen droplets of once-molten rock from the impact have been found
1,000km away in Atlantic sediments.

The heat in the crater would have taken 10-20,000 years to dissipate,
and during that time the crater floor would have been peppered with
Yellowstone-like hot springs, and home to heat-seeking "thermophile"

Although an impact of this size would not cause a mass extinction on the
Chicxulub scale, today, warns Professor Koeberl, one could devastate a
small country.

'Bathring' of data

Scientific interest in the lake does not end with the events of the
impact. Climate researchers also have been making the pilgrimage to
central Ghana, including John Peck from the University of Akron, US.

"[The impactor] created essentially a very large bowl. And as rainfall
increases and evaporation decreases, the bowl fills up; other times the
lake decreases, as rainfall goes down and evaporation increases," he

We hope we will understand how wet and how dry west Africa has become in
the past, and how quickly, because the answers to those questions have a
direct effect on the people living here
John Peck, University of Akron

About 250m of mud at the bottom of the lake record the ups and downs of
African climate for the past million years.

In some places, sandy beach deposits replace the mud in the sediments,
revealing times when the region was so dry that the lake shrank to a
fraction of its current size.

During the wettest times, the lake has overflowed the crater leaving a
"bathring" of muddy deposits around the crater rim.

One of the ideal aspects of the lake for palaeo-climate, says Professor
Peck, is its stillness.

The surrounding hills shield it from strong winds that would disturb the
surface; and no rivers flow through to stir up the lake either. As a
result, no oxygen gets mixed into the deeper waters of the lake.

Future climate

"What this means," Professor Peck explains, "is that once you go below
about 18m deep, there is no oxygen, there is no life - there are no
worms to mix up the mud.

Drilling platform on Lake Bosumtwi
The sediments at the bottom of the lake look back in time

"What we end up with are very beautiful layers of sediment that record
the past seasons. And these layers go all the way down to the bottom of
the sediment - a million years ago."

Alternating black and light layers mark out the annual cycles of
weather, interrupted occasionally by grey layers of debris washed in
from the surrounding hills by rainstorms.

"The black layers represent the wet summertime, when we have lots of
algae growing in the lake and dying and settling to the lake bottom; the
light brown layers represent the winter time, when you have a lot of
dust being blown in from the Sahel and around Lake Chad - it turns the
sky yellow."

As a result, Lake Bosumtwi holds an unrivalled record of tropical
weather going back through several ice ages.

In combination with climate data drilled from the Antarctic ice sheets,
these will give climatologists a detailed picture of global climate
since before humans evolved - and against which they can test their
models for global warming.

And it is not just a global picture that will emerge. Ghanaians should
themselves benefit from the research - the region has been suffering a
prolonged drought since the 1960s.

"We hope we will understand how wet and how dry west Africa has become
in the past, and how quickly, because the answers to those questions
have a direct effect on the people living here," Professor Peck says.

"We know in the future the climate's going to change - but we don't know
how that's going to occur. What we hope to do is understand the past as
a way to predict the future."

Deep Impact - Ghana is broadcast on the BBC World Service's Discovery
Programme on Wednesday 13 October at 0905GMT, 1405GMT and 1905GMT; and
on Thursday 14 October at 0105GMT
Received on Tue 12 Oct 2004 06:13:51 PM PDT

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