Earth’s Violent Past

Earth is a dynamic and evolving planet, shaped by various forces both internal and external. Among the most powerful and destructive of these forces are asteroid impacts, which have occurred throughout Earth’s history, from its formation to the present day. Asteroid impacts are natural processes that can alter the surface, climate, and even the life of our planet, sometimes with catastrophic consequences.

The Early Bombardment

Earth was born about 4.6 billion years ago from a disk of dust and gas that surrounded the young Sun. In this chaotic environment, Earth was constantly bombarded by asteroids, comets, and other debris, which caused the large-scale melting of its surface rocks. Most of these surface rocks were basalts, and the asteroid impacts produced large pools of superheated impact melt of such composition.

One of the most dramatic events in Earth’s early history was the collision with a protoplanet named Theia, about 4.5 billion years ago. Theia was roughly the size of Mars, and it slammed into Earth with tremendous force, nearly destroying it. The collision vaporized most of Theia and Earth’s crust, and ejected a ring of debris around our planet. This debris eventually coalesced to form the Moon, which explains why Earth and the Moon have similar compositions.

The collision with Theia also tilted Earth’s axis, creating the seasons, and increased Earth’s rotation, making the days shorter. It also enriched Earth’s mantle with metals and other elements, which later contributed to the formation of the core and the magnetic field. The collision with Theia was the most violent event in Earth’s history, and it set the stage for the evolution of our planet.

The Late Heavy Bombardment

After the collision with Theia, Earth’s surface gradually cooled and solidified, forming the first crust. However, this crust was not stable, as it was still subjected to frequent asteroid impacts. Between 4.1 and 3.8 billion years ago, Earth experienced a period of intense bombardment, known as the Late Heavy Bombardment (LHB). During this period, Earth was hit by hundreds of large asteroids, some as big as 300 km in diameter.

The LHB was a global cataclysm that reshaped Earth’s surface, creating large impact basins and craters, some of which are still visible today. The LHB also melted and mixed the crust, creating a more diverse and complex geology. The LHB also affected Earth’s atmosphere and oceans, as some of the impactors contained water and other volatile substances, which were released upon impact. The LHB may have been responsible for delivering some of the water and organic molecules that are essential for life.

The LHB was the last major episode of asteroid bombardment in Earth’s history, and it marked the end of the Hadean eon, the first and most violent eon of Earth’s history. After the LHB, Earth entered the Archean eon, when the first signs of life appeared.

Mass Extinctions

Although the frequency and size of asteroid impacts decreased after the LHB, they did not stop completely. Throughout Earth’s history, there have been several instances of large asteroid impacts that had devastating effects on the biosphere, causing mass extinctions of many species. The most famous and well-studied of these impacts is the one that occurred 66 million years ago, at the end of the Cretaceous period, and wiped out the dinosaurs and many other forms of life.

This impact was caused by an asteroid or comet about 10 to 15 km in diameter, which hit Earth near the coast of the Yucatán Peninsula, in what is now Mexico. The impact created a crater about 200 km in diameter, known as the Chicxulub crater, and released an enormous amount of energy, equivalent to 100 million megatons of TNT.

The impact had multiple and lasting consequences for Earth and its inhabitants. The impact generated massive tsunamis, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions, which destroyed habitats and ecosystems around the world. The impact also ejected a huge amount of dust, ash, and vapor into the atmosphere, which blocked the sunlight and caused a global cooling and darkness, lasting for months or years. This disrupted the photosynthesis of plants and plankton, which are the basis of the food chain, and caused a widespread famine and starvation. The impact also triggered acid rain and wildfires, which further damaged the environment and the living organisms. The impact killed about 75% of all species on Earth, including the dinosaurs, which had dominated the land for over 160 million years.

The impact that ended the Cretaceous period was the most recent and most severe of the five major mass extinctions in Earth’s history, but it was not the only one. Other mass extinctions have been linked to asteroid impacts, such as the one that occurred 251 million years ago, at the end of the Permian period, and killed 96% of all marine species and 70% of all terrestrial species. Asteroid impacts are one of the main drivers of biological evolution, as they eliminate some species and create opportunities for others to diversify and adapt.

Recent and Future Impacts

In the present day, Earth is still under the threat of asteroid impacts, although the chances of a large and catastrophic impact are very low. However, there have been some notable events in recent history that remind us of the potential danger of these cosmic intruders. One of these events was the Tunguska event, which occurred in 1908, in a remote area of Siberia. A small asteroid or comet, about 30 m in diameter, exploded in the air, releasing the energy of 1,000 Hiroshima bombs. The explosion flattened 80 million trees over an area of 2,150 square km, and created a shock wave that was felt hundreds of kilometers away. Luckily, the event happened in a sparsely populated area, and no human casualties were reported.

Another recent event was the Chelyabinsk event, which occurred in 2013, over the city of Chelyabinsk, in Russia. A small asteroid, about 20 m in diameter, entered the atmosphere at a high speed, and exploded in the air, releasing the energy of 500 Hiroshima bombs. The explosion created a bright flash and a loud boom, which shattered windows and damaged buildings across six cities. About 1,500 people were injured by flying glass and debris, mostly because they were curious and looked out of the windows after seeing the flash. The Chelyabinsk event was the largest recorded meteor airburst since the Tunguska event, and it was captured by many cameras and witnesses.

These events show that asteroid impacts are not a thing of the past, but a present and future reality. Fortunately, most of the asteroids that pose a threat to Earth are known and tracked by various agencies and organizations, such as NASA and the Planetary Society. These agencies and organizations are also working on developing methods and technologies to prevent or mitigate the effects of a potential impact, such as deflection, fragmentation, or evacuation. However, there is still a lot of uncertainty and unpredictability involved in the detection and prevention of asteroid impacts, and there is always a possibility of a surprise impact by an unknown or undetected object.