Huge crater discovered hiding beneath ice sheet

Unexpected discovery under Greenland ice.

An international team of scientists came together to unravel the mystery of Greenland’s Hiawatha crater. Credits: NASA/Jefferson Beck
An international team of scientists came together to unravel the mystery of Greenland’s Hiawatha crater. Credits: NASA/Jefferson Beck

An international team of scientists has recently discovered a 19 miles wide impact crater of vast proportions hiding beneath more than a half-mile of ice in Greenland. This huge crater is hiding almost 1,000 feet deep and also one of the 25 biggest craters ever discovered on Earth.

According to scientists, the crater is formed when a meteorite more than half a mile wide smashed into an area that is now covered by the Hiawatha Glacier in northwestern Greenland.

Although, scientists are currently unable to estimate the age of the crater. Looking at its well-preserved condition suggests that it formed “after ice began to cover Greenland, so younger than three million years old and possibly as recently as 12,000 years ago.

Close up ofthe area in which the crater was found.
Close up ofthe area in which the crater was found.

Joe MacGregor, a glaciologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland said, “There is still so much more about our landscape that we have yet to understand. That’s particularly true of the polar regions because so much is covered by ice.”

Though, scientists originally spotted this crater in 2015, when they saw an abnormal element on a topographical map from data obtained by NASA aircraft that had reviewed the area with ice-infiltrating radar. They put in the following three years affirming the revelation, utilizing satellite imagery and additional aerial surveys made with a newer radar system.

MacGregor said, “Radar sounding of ice sheets is a decades-old technology now, but the system we used to study Hiawatha Glacier is the most sophisticated yet deployed to survey a glacier.”

In their final step to confirm the discovery, the scientists visited the area in 2016 and 2017 to collect samples of sediments that had washed out from under the glacier. The samples included bits of quartz with internal structures that were deformed by intense pressure.

This so-called shocked quartz has been found in other impact craters as well as in areas where underground nuclear tests have been conducted. Its presence helped convince the researchers that the strange feature on the map really was an impact crater.

Ludovic Ferriere, an impact crater expert at the Natural History Museum in Vienna, told National Geographic said, “I can say what they are presenting as shock quartz is definitely shock quartz. I think they have something here, but they make strong conclusions based on very preliminary data.”

MacGregor said the researchers hope to return to the area to conduct additional research but acknowledged the difficulty of drilling through the ice and into the underlying bedrock to obtain more evidence. That would be a difficult process that could take several years.

Their finding is published in the Nov. 14 issue of the journal Science Advances.

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