Chesapeake Bay impact crater

Chesapeake Bay impact crater

Location of impact site in relation to the United States
Impact crater/structure
Confidence Confirmed
Diameter 85 kilometres (53 mi)
Depth 1.3 kilometres (0.81 mi)
Age 35.5 ± 0.3 million
Exposed No
Drilled Yes
Location Chesapeake Bay
Coordinates 37°17′N 76°1′W / 37.283°N 76.017°W / 37.283; -76.017Coordinates: 37°17′N 76°1′W / 37.283°N 76.017°W / 37.283; -76.017[1]
Country United States
State Virginia
Municipality Cape Charles
Impact location

Location of impact site in Virginia

Access U.S. Route 13 to S.R. 184

The Chesapeake Bay impact crater was formed by a bolide that impacted the eastern shore of North America about 35.5 ± 0.3 million years ago, in the late Eocene epoch. It is one of the best-preserved "wet-target" or marine impact craters, and the largest known impact crater in the U.S.

Continued slumping of sediments over the rubble of the crater has helped shape the Chesapeake Bay.

Formation and aftermath

During the warm late Eocene, sea levels were high, and the Tidewater region of Virginia lay in the coastal shallows. The shore of eastern North America, about where Richmond, Virginia, is today, was covered with dense tropical rainforest, and the waters of the gently sloping continental shelf were rich with marine life that was depositing dense layers of lime from their microscopic shells.

Boundaries of the crater

The bolide made impact at a speed of many kilometers per second, punching a deep hole through the sediments and into the granite continental basement rock. The bolide itself was completely vaporized, with the basement rock being fractured to depths of 8 km (5.0 mi), and a peak ring being raised around it. The deep crater, 38 km (24 mi) across, is surrounded by a flat-floored terrace-like ring trough with an outer edge of collapsed blocks forming ring faults.

The entire circular crater is about 85 km (53 mi) in diameter and 1.3 km (0.81 mi) deep, an area twice the size of Rhode Island, and nearly as deep as the Grand Canyon. However, numerical modeling techniques by Collins et al. indicate that the post-impact diameter was likely to have been around 40 km (25 mi), rather than the observed 85 km (53 mi).[2]

The surrounding region suffered massive devastation. USGS scientist David Powars, one of the impact crater's discoverers, has described the immediate aftermath: "Within minutes, millions of tons of water, sediment, and shattered rock were cast high into the atmosphere for hundreds of miles along the East Coast." An enormous tsunami engulfed the land and possibly even reached the Blue Ridge Mountains.[3] The sedimentary walls of the crater progressively slumped in, widened the crater, and formed a layer of huge blocks on the floor of the ring-like trough. The slump blocks were then covered with the rubble or breccia. The entire bolide event, from initial impact to the termination of breccia deposition, lasted only a few hours or days. In the perspective of geological time, the 1.2 km (0.75 mi) breccia is an instantaneous deposit. The crater was then buried by additional sedimentary beds that have accumulated during the 35 million years following the impact.

Another, smaller bolide impact site, the Toms Canyon impact crater, lies about 322 km (200 mi) to the northeast, on the continental shelf off the coast of New Jersey.

The impact has been identified as the source of the North American tektite field, namely the Georgiaite and Bediasite fields.[4]


Profile view of the crater

Until 1983, no one suspected the existence of a large impact crater buried beneath the lower part of the Chesapeake Bay and its surrounding peninsulas. The first hint was a 20 cm (8 in)-thick layer of ejecta that turned up in a drilling core taken off Atlantic City, New Jersey, far to the north. The layer contained the fused glass beads called tektites and shocked quartz grains that are unmistakable signs of a bolide impact.

In 1993, data from oil exploration revealed the extent of the crater.[5]

Effects on local rivers

The continual slumping of the rubble within the crater has affected the flow of the rivers and shaped the Chesapeake Bay. The impact crater created a long-lasting topographic depression which helped predetermine the course of local rivers and the eventual location of Chesapeake Bay. Most important for present-day inhabitants of the area, the impact disrupted aquifers. The present freshwater aquifers lie above a deep salty brine, remnants of 100–145 million year old Early Cretaceous North Atlantic seawater, making the entire lower Chesapeake Bay area susceptible to groundwater contamination.[6]

The crater is also one of three factors contributing to the sinking of land near the Chesapeake Bay. For example, Hampton Roads is gradually sinking at a rate between 15 and 23 centimeters (5 and 7.5 inches) per century. This is occurring because of the slippage of the coast into the crater, the reverse effects of isostatic rebound of the crust of the earth from the weight of long absent glaciers north of Maryland, and groundwater removal.[7]

See also


  1. "Chesapeake Bay". Earth Impact Database. University of New Brunswick. Retrieved 7 October 2016.
  2. Collins, Gareth S.; Wünnemann, Kai (2005). "How big was the Chesapeake Bay impact? Insight from numerical modeling". Geology. 33 (12): 925–928. doi:10.1130/G21854.1.
  3. Dell'Amore, Christine (21 Nov 2013). ""Mind-Blowing" Discovery: Oldest Body of Seawater Found in Giant Crater". National Geographic. National Geographic Society. Retrieved 1 July 2015.
  4. Koeberl, C.; Poag, C. W.; Reimold, W. U.; Brandt, D. (1 March 1996). "Impact Origin of the Chesapeake Bay Structure and the Source of the North American Tektites". Science. 271 (5253): 1263–1266. doi:10.1126/science.271.5253.1263.
  5. Poag, C. Wylie; Koeberl, Christian; Reimold, Wolf Uwe (1 January 2004). "The Chesapeake Bay crater: geology and geophysics of a Late Eocene submarine impact structure". Berlin, Germany: Springer-Verlag: 69–93,. doi:10.1007/978-3-642-18900-5. Retrieved 7 October 2016.
  6. Sanford, Ward E.; Doughten, Michael W.; Coplen, Tyler B.; Hunt, Andrew G.; Bullen, Thomas D. (13 November 2013). "Evidence for high salinity of Early Cretaceous sea water from the Chesapeake Bay crater". Nature. 503 (7475): 252–256. doi:10.1038/nature12714.
  7. James V. Koch (2010). "Costs of Defending Against Rising Sea Levels and Flooding in Mid-Atlantic Metropolitan Coastal Areas: The Basic Issues" (PDF). The Journal of Regional Analysis & Policy. 40 (1): 53–60. Retrieved 7 October 2016.


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