The distinctive mark of an impact crater is the presence of rock that has undergone shock-metamorphic effects, such as shatter cones, melted rocks, and crystal deformations. The problem is that these materials tend to be deeply buried, at least for simple craters. They tend to be revealed in the uplifted center of a complex crater, however.
High-temperature rock types, including laminated and welded blocks of sand, spherulites and tektites, or glassy spatters of molten rock. The impact origin of tektites has been questioned by some researchers; they have observed some volcanic features in tektites not found in impactites. Tektites are also drier (contain less water) than typical impactites. While rocks melted by the impact resemble volcanic rocks, they incorporate unmelted fragments of bedrock, form unusually large and unbroken fields, and have a much more mixed chemical composition than volcanic materials spewed up from within the Earth. They also may have relatively large amounts of trace elements that are associated with meteorites, such as nickel, platinum, iridium, and cobalt. Note: it is reported in the scientific literature that some “shock” features, such as small shatter cones, which are often reported as being associated only with impact events, have been found in terrestrial volcanic ejecta.
The burden of proof for an impact origin generally lies with the documentation of the occurrence of shock-metamorphic effects.
Impacts produce distinctive “shock-metamorphic” effects that are found in situ within the crater and allow impact sites to be distinctively identified. Such shock-metamorphic effects, in addition to the shatter cones and slickenslides, include brecciated rocks, suevites, impact melts and pseudotachylites. They attest to the destructive power of the impact event.
The rocks at an impact target site are melted, shattered, and mixed during the impact explosion. When the site finally settles and cools, a new composite rock, impact breccia in bodies tens to hundreds of meters in size, is the result.
Lithologies showing these unique diagnostic shock effects, formed at pressures ≥10 GPa, tend to be restricted to two locations:
crater-fill materials (suevites, melt breccias, and fragmental impact breccias) deposited in the crater; and
brecciated basement rocks, often containing shatter cones, near the center of the structure.
The magnitudes of the impact shock relative to the point of impact that form the shock metamorphic effects are quantified for reference:
a Hypervelocity – 11.2 km/sec to 70 km/sec.
b Crater: impactor size ratio ranges from 20:1 to 50:1 (Shoemaker 1963, Baldwin 1963).
c The standard unit of pressure is the Pascal, abbreviated Pa, which is equivalent to 1 kilogram per square meter. A GPa is a gigapascal (giga means billion), a measurement of pressure, and is equal to 10,000 times the atmospheric pressure at the Earth’s surface.
SHOCK METAMORPHIC EFFECTS
PLANAR DEFORMATION FEATURES (PDF) – The passage of the shock wave through the rock changes the structure of some of the enclosed minerals. IE: change is possible in the feldspar mineral plagioclase. The shock wave can break down the structure of the mineral, changing parts of it into a diapletic glass (glass formed at high-pressure in the solid-state) which is isotropic, or uniform in all directions.
PSEUDOTACHYLITE – is a fault rock that has the appearance of the basaltic glass, tachylyte. It is dark in color and has a glassy appearance. However, the glass has normally been completely devitrified into very fine-grained material with radial and concentric clusters of crystals. It may contain clasts of the country rock and occasionally crystals with quench textures that began to crystallize from the melt. It is formed when a high pressure from an impact is applied to country rocks and then abruptly released. This causes the rock along and within fracture lines or faults to partly melt. The fractures or faults containing the pseudotachylite are welded shut as soon as the motion created by the impact stops.
The entire period of activity of a fracture or fault filled with pseudotachylite may be measured in minutes. (e.g., Pseudotachylite is a rock type formed by friction-induced melting, during very rapid deformation) Philpotts 1964; Maddock 1983.
SUEVITE – is an impact fallback breccia, formed when a meteorite strikes the earth and blasts “target rock” high into the atmosphere. Some target rock falls back into the newly formed crater, and is compacted to form suevite. Suevite typically contains fragments of shock-metamorphosed rocks and glass set in a matrix of fine-grained minerals, rock, and glass fragments.
COMMINUTION – the reduction of solid materials from one average particle size to a smaller average particle size, by crushing, grinding, cutting, vibrating, or other processes. In geology, it occurs naturally during faulting in the upper part of the Earth’s crust.
IMPACT MELT – rock that has been made temporarily molten as a result of the energy released by the impact of a large colliding body. Impact melts include small particles, known as impact melt spherules, that are splashed out of the impact crater, and larger pools and sheets of melt that coalesce in low areas within the crater. They are composed predominantly of the target rocks, but can contain a small but measurable amount of the impactor.
BRECCIA – (from a Latin word meaning “broken”) is a rock that is composed of angular fragments of other rocks surrounded by a fine-grained “matrix” that may be of a similar or a different material. Breccias are extremely common in the central uplift, in crater-fill deposits, and in the ejecta blanket of meteorite impact craters.