AstronomyPhotographyScienceScience & Nature

Don’t be a Crater-Hater: Visiting the Barringer Crater

Cool picturesque viewing area by the entrance. It overlooks the desert.

Usually when Rob and I do road trips, we bust through them. We don’t stop at visitor centers and we definitely don’t stop at what some might call “tourist traps”. We want to get from point A to point B as fast as we can without getting a speeding ticket. When we were driving through Arizona on the way to the west coast, we drove by a sign that said something along the lines of “Meteor Crater: 52 Miles”. Hmm…meteor crater? Rob mentioned we should stop there on the way back home. I said, “Sounds like fun.” Now, we’ve said things like this before and were just too tired to stop when the time came or we just wanted to keeping on trucking to get the trip over A.S.A.P., so there was no guarantee that we’d actual do it.

I honestly didn’t really think we would remember to see the crater on the way back or even if we did remember it, that we might be too tired after driving all the hours that had been driven. Heck, if we did stop to see it, there was a high probability that it would be a massive disappointment. In the beauty of the mountains and desert that surrounded us, not to mention all the other landscapes we had viewed up to that point (we saw the Grand Canyon, for heaven’s sake), I thought this crater would be just a little blemish on the earth’s surface, by comparison.

As we drove back home and passed the “Meteor Crater Ahead” signs, we decided we stop and stretch our legs. We were on vacation after all. As we drove the stretch of land to the museum that continued to guide us farther and farther from the highway, I must admit we were becoming more and more skeptical of this crater thing. Signs along the roadside informed us about how awesome the crater was going to be. This place is literally in the middle of nowhere. No houses. No buildings. Nothing.

The meteor crater museum had some NASA relics available for viewing.

We were preparing ourselves for the letdown and the total waste of money on the price of admission for a family of six to view the letdown.

Boy, were we ever wrong.

Jude taking in the view. From the vantage point we had, I had to merge about 6 or 7 photos together to capture the entirety of the crater for this shot.

I cannot describe to you the shock you feel upon viewing the sheer magnitude of the Barringer Crater. It truly is a sight to behold, and I dare say, a visit that should be required for anyone interested in the sciences. This is far from a tourist trap; there is an actual museum (which is currently being expanded) located at the crater, complete with neat displays and a theater. Outside are several viewing platforms of various heights. It was a pleasant surprise for our family, after having to drive a ways off the highway to get there. There were people all around; people visiting the museum, taking pictures in front of the crater, and viewing the movie in the theater.

The Holsinger Meteorite is the largest meteorite left over from the impact that created the Barringer Crater.

How the Barringer Crater Came to Be

Fifty thousand years ago, a 150-foot meteor shot through our atmosphere, traveling at speeds of 26,000 mph and weighing over 300,000 tons. And where would this meteor make its landing? In an area which would one day many years later be called “Arizona”. The collision created a crater that is almost 1 mile across and roughly 750 feet deep. Interestingly, at the time of the impact, the area was cool and wet, not a desert. From the Barringer Crater website:

The impact occurred during the last ice age, a time when the Arizona landscape was cooler and wetter than it is today. The plain around it was covered with a forest, where mammoths, mastodons and giant ground sloths grazed. The force of the impact would have leveled the forest for miles around, hurling the mammoths across the plain* and killing or severely injuring any animals unfortunate enough to be nearby. Over time, the landscape recovered.

A lake formed in the bottom of the crater, and sediments accumulated until the bowl was only 550 feet deep. Then, with the ending of the ice age, the climate changed and dried. The desert that we see today has helped to preserve the crater, by limiting the erosion that might otherwise have blurred or erased the traces of the ancient impact.

*Side note: Mammoths are rarely “hurled”, so this was obviously a truly exceptional event. I understand the impact was powerful enough to send sloths and mammoths flying through the air, but it does remind me of something from the movie Ice Age, so I must admit to giggling a bit when I read that part.

Natural Landform vs. Collision from Space

Up until the 20th century, scientists believed this crater to be a natural formation. It was thought to be something that occurred over thousands, possibly millions, of years. It wasn’t until geologist, Grove Karl Gilbert, entered the arena that people started rethinking the crater’s possible formation. In 1891, he posited the idea that the crater was caused by a meteor. Here’s another excerpt from the Barringer Crater website:

Gilbert assumed that if the crater had been formed by a meteorite, that meteorite must have been nearly as big as the crater itself. He also assumed that it was still there, taking up space underneath the crater floor. He therefore decided to test the impact hypothesis in two ways:

  • By comparing the volume of the hollow of the crater to the volume of the ejected material.
  • By experimenting with magnets to test for a large mass of buried iron. 

If the meteorite were still under the crater floor, he reasoned, the space inside the crater would be smaller than the volume of material thrown out by the impact. And a large mass of iron would attract a magnet, altering the direction of a compass needle.

The results of both tests were negative. Gilbert concluded that the crater was created by a steam explosion, and that the thousands of meteorite fragments lying around it were simply a coincidence. He later used his investigation of the crater, and his own abandonment of the impact hypothesis, in a series of lectures illustrating the application of the dispassionate scientific approach.

Cute little astronaut at the bottom of the crater to give you perspective on how big the crater truly is.

Enter Daniel Moreau Barringer, who was informed of the crater through casual conversation. Not convinced by the steam explosion argument, he set out to prove the crater was created by an impact. His evidence included:

  • The presence of millions of tons of finely pulverized silica, which could only have been created by enormous pressure.
  • The large quantities of meteoritic iron, in the form of globular “shale balls”, scattered around the rim and surrounding plain.
  • The random mixture of meteoritic material and ejected rocks.
  • The fact that the rock strata in the rim and on the surrounding plain appeared to have been deposited in the opposite order from their order in the underlying rock beds, indicating that the topmost material had been thrown out of the crater first, followed by the rocks from the lower strata.
  • The absence of any naturally occurring volcanic rock in the vicinity of the crater.

Through some barbs he lobbed at certain geologists and their inability to see this was obviously not caused by volcanic activity, many scientists were offended by Barringer. His demeanor caused some geologists to dismiss his evidence to which he replied, “They know in their heart of hearts that I have got them beaten and yet they are not men enough to admit it.”

A nice man volunteered to take our photograph in front of the crater. It was windy!

Many defeats came toward Barringer’s way in his struggle with this crater. He died of a heart attack in 1929. He had lost money and possible fortunes on this endeavor without ever seeing his hypothesis come to fruition. After all was said and done, eventually Barringer’s children saw their father proven correct about his impact hypothesis:

Finally, in 1963, Eugene Shoemaker published his landmark paper analyzing the similarities between the Barringer crater and craters created by nuclear test explosions in Nevada. Carefully mapping the sequence of layers of the underlying rock, and the layers of the ejecta blanket, where those rocks were deposited in reverse order, he demonstrated that the nuclear craters and the Barringer crater were structurally similar in nearly all respects. His paper provided the clinching arguments in favor of an impact, finally convincing the last doubters.

There is so much more to the “best preserved crater in the world”, so please feel free to read more about it through the Barringer Crater website, the Meteor Crater museum website, or its wikipdedia page.

Crater House
That’s a house-sized ROCK!

Photographing the Crater

While I regret you weren’t all there with us to view the crater, I humbly submit my photographs of the crater in the hopes of getting you to visit it yourself one day. It is worth it.

No amount of photographs will ever come close to the majesty of viewing the crater with your own two eyeballs. You just cannot capture the behemoth of this crater.

I took 10 photos and merged them together to fit the crater into this panoramic shot.

When you’re gazing into the crater, you realize just how frightening it would be to experience one of these meteor impacts during your lifetime. You’re thankful that it hasn’t happened. And yet, you can’t stop looking and simultaneously wondering what it’d be like to witness and perhaps to be hurled across the plain like so many mammoths.

Gigi Chickee

All photos are taken by me, Gigi Chickee, unless otherwise noted. Photography Correspondent here at Mad Art Lab. Wife to my gorgeous husband, Rob. Mother to my four girls. Proud Secular Homeschooler. Photographer when the occasion arises. Seamstress in training. Skeptic always. Follow me and my musings on Twitter: @gigichickee

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