A huge asteroid strike about 2.5 million years ago in the South Pacific could have caused a mega-tsunami and even changed the Earth’s climate, according to a new Australian study.
Known as Eltanin, it was up to 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) wide and struck at high speed in very deep water between Chile and Antarctica.
“This is the only known deep-ocean impact event on the planet and it’s largely been forgotten because there’s no obvious giant crater to investigate, as there would have been if it had hit a landmass,” said study lead author James Goff at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in a press release.
The ensuing tsunami probably affected coastlines across the Pacific, and sent up huge amounts of water vapor, sulfur, and dust.
“The tsunami alone would have been devastating enough in the short term, but all that material shot so high into the atmosphere could have been enough to dim the sun and dramatically reduce surface temperatures,” Goff explained.
“Earth was already in a gradual cooling phase, so this might have been enough to rapidly accelerate and accentuate the process and kick start the Ice Ages.”
Geological deposits at various sites, including in Antarctica and New Zealand, have been interpreted as evidence of climate change when the Quaternary period started, but could actually be mega-tsunami deposits.
Although Earth was already cooling by the late Pliocene, the Eltanin impact could have catalyzed the 2.5-million-year cycle of glaciations seen during the Pleistocene.
“As a ‘cene’ changer—that is, from the Pliocene to Pleistocene—Eltanin may have been overall as significant as the meteor that took out the non-flying dinosaurs 65 million years ago,” said study co-author Mike Archer, also at UNSW, in the release.
The results were published online in the Journal of Quaternary Science on Sept. 3.
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