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Two Southwest craters look the same, have sharply contrasting history

Video: Overview of 570-foot-deep Meteor Crater in Arizona

In north-central Arizona, Meteor Crater is a rare example of a meteorite-caused crater. The crater was created about 50,000 years ago.
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In north-central Arizona, Meteor Crater is a rare example of a meteorite-caused crater. The crater was created about 50,000 years ago.

Looking at them, you might wonder if they are twins. About the same size, similar profile.

Truth is, they had starkly different upbringings. And then there is the matter of their age difference: 43,000 or more years.

Meteor Crater in Arizona and Ubehebe Crater in Death Valley National Park are mere cousins in terms of geology. The former, thanks to a 26,000-mile-per-hour meteorite, went from flat terrain to a 600-foot hole three-quarters of a mile in diameter in about 10 seconds. The latter was born in comparably quick fashion by magma-heated, exploding-upward steam.

The two arguably represent the most scenic and accessible craters in the American Southwest. Although they are remote – Meteor is 186 miles northeast of Phoenix, and Ubehebe is 182 miles northwest of Las Vegas – uninterrupted asphalt leads to both, their rims possess paved parking lots, and, in Meteor’s case, there is a well-conceived visitors center and museum.

For years my parents and I had passed by the Meteor Crater exit on our way from their Denver home to baseball spring training games in Greater Phoenix. Earlier this year, I seized a chance to finally visit Meteor with my buddy Dave. We toured both it and Ubehebe on a driving-intensive, windy weekend, shivering a bit on the sidelines and finding calm relief by descending into one of the big old bowls.

Meteor Crater

Pair the phrase “impact crater” with North America and your brain may summon images of hadrosaurs, stegosaurs, tyrannosaurs and the rest of their prehistoric brethren being blasted into eternal smithereens by an astronomical missile. However, dinosaurs went extinct long, long before Meteor Crater was formed about 50,000 years B.M.C. (Before Michael Crichton, who wrote “Jurassic Park.”)

“When our meteorite hit, it was a colder and wetter climate,” said Kim Merrill, a third-generation Arizonan and Meteor Crater tour guide, as she stood on the rim, buffeted by 50 mph gusts. “We had mastodons, wooly mammoths, giant sloths, we think there might have been some camels in the area, but we don’t think there were any people here at the time.”

150How many feet wide the meteorite was that created Meteor Crater

Merrill’s facts-intensive spiel, which she gave at high volume due to the ferociously loud wind, spotlighted three men who played key roles in Meteor’s metamorphosis from landscape curiosity to its current, self-lauded status as “the world’s best-preserved impact crater site.” They were:

 

▪  Karl Gilbert, a chief geologist for the U.S. Geological Society who in the 1890s investigated the site’s origins. He initially suspected that a meteorite the size of the crater had formed it, but when he found no evidence of such a massive space rock underneath, he chalked it all up to subterranean steam and shuffled off into history with a three-quarter-mile-wide misinterpretation.

▪  Daniel Moreau Barringer, a Philadelphia mining engineer who dug around for meteorite fragments for 27 years, fruitlessly, until his death in 1929.

“It wasn’t until years later he was proven right that this actually is an impact strike,” Merrill said. “ … Scientists now call it Barringer Crater, in his honor, so he finally got some recognition in the end.”

A fourth generation of Barringers continues to own and operate the crater today.

▪  Eugene Shoemaker, who in 1963 published a scientific paper that proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Meteor was indeed an impact crater.

“He was a geologist, but he was hoping to be an astronaut,” Merrill told us. “He wanted to be the very first geologist on the moon. Of course this was during the age of the Apollo program.

“He thought the best thing to do was to become an expert on craters, so he came out to see ours. Before that he studied nuclear test sites, especially the underground explosions. Ours was basically underground, too. He found this site had a lot in common with the nuclear sites he had been studying.”

Shoemaker’s breakthrough led to the subsequent discovery of about 200 other impact craters around the world.

As Dave and I gazed into the shadowed abyss, Merrill put Shoemaker’s breakthrough in layperson’s terms. She pointed out how the terrain surrounding the crater was reddish sandstone, but the meteorite’s impact drove the subterranean layers, composed of beige-colored rocks, on top.

“It’s just like throwing something into water and everything is splashed out, only with rocks,” she said. “… We’re on that uplifted, ejected material. And that’s what Dr. Shoemaker taught the astronauts. How to recognize an impact strike, and see which rocks had surfaced.”

It’s just like throwing something into water and everything is splashed out, only with rocks.

Kim Merrill, a Meteor Crater tour guide, describing what happened when the meteorite landed

Although Shoemaker never realized his own outer-space dreams, he helped astronauts by persuading NASA to use moon-esque Meteor Crater as part of its lunar-mission training. (Asteroids and comets account for the moon’s pockmarked appearance, having not been compromised by an atmosphere; “meteorite” refers only to space debris that manages to strike the Earth’s surface.)

“One day one of the astronauts was testing his space suit when he fell, and the space suit tore,” Merrill recounted. “You can imagine how upset he was: If that would have happened on the moon, he never would have survived. Thank goodness it happened here first. They fixed the suits, made them more sturdy.”

Today’s visitors can look out on the crater from three platforms: one on the rim and the other two a few dozen feet down the crater’s north interior side. Fixed-view telescopes are trained on particular points of interest across and below. Only scientists venture down to the bottom. A short film in the visitors center complex touches on why they bother.

“At any given time, perhaps a thousand asteroids larger than a kilometer are headed our way,” says film interviewee Dr. David Kring, who heads the Center for Lunar Science and Exploration. Immediately he tries to reassure:

Dave Williams of Rancho Palos Verdes struggles to keep his balance on the impact crater's north rim.

“Impact events the size of Meteor Crater occur about once per 1,600 years on Earth. Most of those impact events occur at sea. The United States and other governments sponsor several astronomical search programs designed to detect and track objects in the solar system that pose a threat to the Earth in the future. The goal is to be able to detect them early enough so that we can deflect them out of harm’s way.”

If you have seen the 1998 movie “Deep Impact,” you are excused for feeling skeptical of Kring’s can-do comments.

The meteorite that 50,000 years ago crashed into what is now Arizona weighed “several hundred thousand tons,” according to Meteor Crater’s website.

“Anything within a 10-mile radius would have died or been seriously injured by the shock blast,” Merrill said. “And they would have felt hurricane-force winds as far as 19 miles out.”

As for dinosaurs, Merrill said a meteor strike in Mexico might have played a role in their extinction about 65 million years ago. “That one, the meteorite was about the size of Mount Everest, about 6 miles across, and the crater is about 110 miles in diameter.”

Ouch.

Ubehebe Crater

Five hundred miles west of Meteor Crater, the weekend wind was still howling as we rounded down Towne Pass and Mesquite Flat unfolded before us. Reddish-brown clouds of dust interrupted what had been a bright morning drive up from Ridgecrest and into Death Valley National Park.

We passed through the haze on Scotty’s Castle Road to Ubehebe Crater, whose surrounding gray-rock terrain and brown east-side walls exulted in the winter sun. Pronounced you-bee-hee-bee, the crater is about a half-mile across and 600 feet deep. Guesses on its origin, as part of the Maar cluster of volcanoes in the area, range from 300 to 7,000 years.

 

Rather than a missile from above, it was an explosion from below that created Ubehebe. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, “molten rock (magma) rising toward the Earth’s surface flashed groundwater to steam (phreatic eruption).” Debris from the blast scattered over 15 square miles.

Our intention had been to take the gently sloping, rim-side trail up and past Little Ubehebe Crater to the south and on around, something I had enjoyed doing years before. But a man and woman, about to drive off in the parking lot’s only other vehicle, encouraged us to walk down into the big pit. “It’s just like going down stairs, and the bottom is incredible,” he said.

Turns out the trek down, begun just to the north of the parking lot, took not quite 20 minutes and felt especially gentle because with each downward step there was a beachlike, cushiony give. On our return trek, not surprisingly, that “give” was the opposite of helpful, and we needed more than a half-hour to ascend.

Before descending, we marveled at the bushes rising from the soft, level floor, which was still moist from rare rains that had passed through that weekend.

And obviously, the 360-degree scenery was outstanding, inspiring lots of slow-motion twirls and panoramic picture-taking on our smartphones.

Soon we noticed two people making their way down, too. Cousins Michaela Hänel of Aufkirchen, Germany, and Larissa Moss of Idyllwild happily accepted my offer to take their picture and chatted with us for a few minutes, sharing their impressions of the crater.

Ubehebe Crater, estimated to be 300 to 7,000 years old, is one of the many points of interest in Death Valley National Park.

“It’s a completely different perspective,” Moss, who had been here before, said in comparing the views from atop and within Ubehebe. “I think when you’re on the bottom, you have a feeling as if you are part of the crater. At least I do.

The top is just something like sightseeing. You look at it like the outside of a cathedral, whereas when you are inside … you can imagine, you know, the earth underneath being on fire.

Larissa Moss of Idyllwild, a Death Valley National Park tourist

“The top is just something like sightseeing. You look at it like the outside of a cathedral, whereas when you are inside, you can kind of feel the atmosphere, you can imagine, you know, the earth underneath being on fire.

“I don’t know, it’s like being part of something, as opposed to just looking at something.”

Hänel, enjoying her first visit to the park, said, “From the top you can’t imagine what it’s really like here.”

“The vegetation, I think, is just fantastic,” Moss added. “That anything grows here – and the colors, the different shapes and colors, are just incredible.”

Cousins Michaela Hanel of Germany and Larissa Moss of Idyllwild share their impressions of being in the bottom of a Death Valley National Park attraction.

Incredibly fortunate is how I felt as we drove back to civilization and our busy, big-city lives. We had just seen two of nature’s most beautiful, in the starkest sense, creations. Meteor and Ubehebe, alike but also different, made for a most satisfying twin adventure.

Crater tourism

If you are going to Greater Phoenix for baseball’s spring training, Meteor Crater represents a day-trip option. Death Valley is a fine destination in late winter and early spring, especially when rainfall has been decent, which thankfully is the case this season.

Meteor Crater is open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily (until 7 p.m. in the summer). Admission is $18 general, $16 for ages 60 and older, $9 for ages 6-17; deep discounts for military personnel past and present. For more information, visit meteorcrater.com.

Ubehebe Crater is open even though nearby Scotty’s Castle (the Mojave Desert’s version of Hearst Castle) is closed due to flash-flooding damage from October 2015; ongoing repairs may be finished later this year. A vehicle pass into Death Valley National Park costs $20. nps.gov/deva.

Interested in more crater exploration? Sunset Crater National Monument is an 80-minute drive northwest of Meteor Crater, has volcanic vistas and hikes atop lava trails. nps.gov/sucr.

California has at least 24 other explorable craters, which have varying levels of accessibility challenges. Learn more at california.hometownlocator.com/features/physical,class,crater.cfm.

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