Mérida, Yucatán — Too few people appreciate how the Chicxulub Crater impact changed the world, a prominent scientist says. A museum in Yucatán that may help correct that is late in coming and over budget.
Although school children have been allowed to see some exhibits in an adjacent Science Park, the Chicxulub Crater Science Museum is months behind deadline.
Its four exhibit halls will also educate the public on the universe and the solar system, Yucatan’s biodiversity and Mayan culture.
Research facilities were due to open this month, but instead, its six labs are now scheduled to be completed in February.
Scientist Adriana Ocampo has visited the peninsula numerous times since her discoveries here in the late 1980s, but when asked if people are aware of the importance of this place, she responds disappointedly.
“The short answer is no,” she replies. “We need to do better. We need to educate, we need to make them aware of the extraordinary ground that they are living on.”
“They [local people and authorities] are trying to raise the knowledge base and it would be wonderful to help,” said Ocampo, who is also a proponent of planetary science education in Latin America. “It is a unique place in our planet. It truly is.”
“It should be preserved as a World Heritage site,” she says.
Crater studies are rooted in the mid-1980s, when a group of U.S. archaeologists pored over satellite images showing one unexpected pattern: a near-perfect ring, about 200km across, on the Yucatan Peninsula.
From the ground, those cenotes that dot the arid landscape here appear to open up at random. But from space, they are seen to cluster together to form an arc, articulating nearly half a circle.
Archaeologists had discovered the pattern, which encircles Merida, Sisal and Progreso, while trying to understand what had become of the Mayan civilization that had once ruled over the peninsula. The uncanny circular arrangement of the holes perplexed researchers at a 1988 scientific conference in Acapulco.
Ocampo, then a young planetary geologist at NASA, was there. She saw not just a ring, but a bullseye.
“As soon as I saw the slides that was my ‘Aha!’ moment,” said Ocampo, now 63 and director of NASA’s Lucy program, which will send a spacecraft into Jupiter’s orbit in 2021. “I was really excited inside but I kept cool because obviously you don’t know until you have more evidence.”
Approaching the scientists, heart pounding, Ocampo asked if they had considered an asteroid impact – one giant and violent enough to have scarred the planet in ways still being revealed 66 million years later.
“They didn’t even know what I was talking about!” she laughs, three decades later.
Ocampo’s chance encounter was the beginning of a scientific correspondence that would establish the foundations for what most scientists believe today: that this ring corresponds to the edge of the crater caused by an asteroid 12km wide, which struck the Yucatan and exploded with unimaginable force that turned rock to liquid.
Since the early 1990s, teams of scientists from the Americas, Europe and Asia have worked to fill in the remaining blanks. They now believe the impact instantly created a crater 30km deep, causing the Earth to act like a pond after a pebble is dropped, rebounding up in the center to create a mountain – just for a moment – reaching twice the height of Mt. Everest, before crashing down. In the years that followed, the plume of ash blocked the sky and created a perpetual nighttime for more than a year, plunging temperatures below freezing, and killing off about 75 percent of all life on Earth – including almost all the dinosaurs.
Today, the place where that mountain once rose is buried a kilometer below tiny Chicxulub Puerto.
Until Ocampo’s findings were published in 1991, this area of the Yucatan had been the subject of little international interest.
Today, the museum, being developed in a remote area between Chicxulub Puerto and Merida, aims to take people back to the moment, 66 million years ago, when the 12-km asteroid changed world history, ending the reign of the giant beasts that had lasted millions of years.
And by boosting local awareness of the cataclysmic events that took place here, the museum hopes to begin the process of bringing tourists to explore the Yucatan’s prehistoric past, which overlaps with popular Mayan historical destinations like Chichen Itza and the party city of Cancun.
Chicxulub Puerto and its surrounds deserve to be better known worldwide, says Ocampo, who was born in Colombia but moved as a child to Argentina, arriving in the U.S. when she was 15.
She says that all of humanity can thank the crater for its existence.
“It gave us a leg up to be able to compete, to be able to flourish, as we eventually did,” she said.
Ocampo’s discovery came at the end of a decade-long quest for the location of the asteroid impact. The key to her ‘Aha! moment’ had been an intuition she’d picked up after working with a legendary figure in space science, Eugene Shoemaker. Shoemaker – the pioneering American geologist who is credited as one of the founders of the field of planetary science and remains, 21 years after his death, the only person whose ashes are buried on the Moon – had instructed her that near perfect circles were unlikely to have been caused by other terrestrial forces, and could provide clues to Earth’s geological development.
The idea that a giant asteroid had wiped out the dinosaurs was proposed by Californian father-son duo Luis and Walter Alvarez in the early 1980s. “But, then, it was extremely controversial,” Ocampo said. What she did was to place one of the final connecting jigsaw pieces that began linking scattered ideas between scientists who were working independently with fragments of information, often on overlapping investigations.
As early as 1978, geophysicist Glen Penfield, working alongside Antonio Camargo-Zanoguera for Mexico’s national oil company Pemex, had flown out over the Gulf waters that meet Chicxulub Puerto. Using a magnetometer, he scanned the waters looking for signs of oil, instead finding the underwater half of the huge crater. But that evidence belonged to Pemex and was not made available to the scientific community.
In fact, the first person to connect the Yucatan ring with the Alvarez asteroid theory was a Texan journalist named Carlos Byars who wrote an article for the Houston Chronicle in 1981 asking if the two were linked. Byars later shared his theory with a grad student named Alan Hildebrand, who then approached Penfield after examining a rock layer in Haiti, and it was the two of them who determined that the crater wasn’t a volcano, but an asteroid impact.
“[Byars] gets the credit for being the first to put the pieces together – a newspaperman!” Ocampo said. “It’s an amazing story when you put all the pieces together.”
In February, officials had promised the 75-million-peso museum project would be completed between June and September. Early this year, the complex was budgeted at 50 million pesos.
The initiative is a collaboration between the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), the Yucatan Center for Scientific Research and the Autonomous University of Yucatan (UADY).
Sources: Punto Medio, BBC