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“Sudbury is, in the final analysis, the slow unfolding of a cosmic accident. The nickel ore that fueled the city’s development was deposited in a vast cataclysm, the impact of a meteorite that would have destroyed all life on earth—had there been any. But this occurred so long ago that life did not yet exist on earth. The shock was so great that seismologists can still detect its faint reverberation—planet Earth literally quivers with the pangs of Sudbury’s birth.” – from “Be Not Afraid of Greatness, or Sudbury: A Cosmic Accident” by Kenneth Hayes
composite of Perseid Meteor shower, 8/11/10, image NASA/MSFC/D. Moser, NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office
Two hundred tons of extraterrestrial particles fall through the Earth’s porous atmosphere each day. Most are merely the size of dust particles. More rarely, objects the size of small mountains fall through space, enter our world and trigger massive geo-cosmological events such as species extinction or ice ages. Such collisions leave an astrobleme in their wake. Astrobleme comes from the Greek astron and blema, meaning “star wound.” It is technically defined as the “remains of an ancient meteorite-impact structure on the Earth’s surface, generally in the form of a circular scar of crushed and deformed bedrock. Identification of astroblemes is based chiefly on the presence of subsurface shock structures known as shatter cones.”
The second largest collision between our planet and a meteorite occurred 1.85 billion years ago in what is now Northern Ontario. The resulting astrobleme is known as the Sudbury Basin or the Sudbury Nickel Irruptive. During the time of the encounter, the Paleoproterozoic era (1.6-2.5 billion years ago) the planet was a very different place. At that time, in many ways, things were still just getting started here on Earth. Continents were only beginning to stabilize after the volcanism of the Archean. Oxygen was in very short supply. And, the planet rotated in such as way that a year consisted of 450, 20 hour days.
When the meteor, approximately 10 kilometers wide and traveling at speeds over 89,000 miles per hour, impacted Sudbury, things changed globally. Some attempts to quantify the effects of this collision say it would have registered 10.2 on the Richter scale. Others say it equaled the magnitude of 10 billion Hiroshima bombs. Historian Kenneth Hayes writes of the event, “the force of the collision is incalculable…The Precambrian Shield was punctured so deeply—to a depth of at least 15 kilometres—that it has not yet been learned whether the nickel found in Sudbury was present in the meteorite, or whether is was splashed up from the molten bowels of the earth.”
Though many of the details surrounding the nearly two billion year-old event still escape humans, there is scientific agreement that the effects it catalyzed were monumental. The meteorite vaporized upon contact. It triggered tsunamis and sent scatter cone shards over a mind-boggling area of 620,000 square miles—extending as far as west as Minnesota [pdf]. Modeling suggests that debris was dispersed planet-wide. After this event, iron banded formations in the Earth’s geologic record suddenly ceased. Massive waves created by the collision, estimated to be 1 kilometer in height at the site of impact, are thought to have stirred the oceans, helping to introduce oxygen to the deep environments near the ocean floor. A strata layer within the Rove Formation near Sudbury is 25 feet thick and composed of hypervelocity impact ejecta. It is thought to have formed on the single day of the event.
The Sudbury meteor dug deep into the Canadian Shield, which is composed of some of the oldest Precambrian rock on earth, and created a crater that filled with magma. The Basin has been found to contain a variety of metals, including iridium, a rare element found mainly in the Earth’s mantle and in meteorites. It’s likely that when the meteorite vaporized, its components, including iridium, condensed and rained back down. In the late 1850s, geologists found “magnetic abnormalities” in the Sudbury area. Nickel and copper were discovered there shortly after, and the first mines opened in the early 1880s. Presently, Sudbury is home to one of the largest nickel mines in the world.
The Canadian Shield was originally an area of very large mountains reaching heights of 39,000 feet. They have eroded to a much less mountainous topology over hundreds of millions of years. The astrobleme has also weathered through time, though the remnant of the initial 160 mile wide impact crater can still be seen today.
For comparison, Barringer/Meteor Crater in Arizona, FOP 2009, 50,000 years since impact, 1.2 miles in diameter: 130 times smaller and 37,000 times younger than the initial Sudbury impact crater
Though it’s likely most people will not make it to Northern Ontario to visit the site, many may actually be familiar with the area after seeing it in images by landscape photographer Edward Burtynsky. The signature image of Burtynsky’s Manufactured Landscapes series, is a photograph of brilliant red run-off from nickel tailings snaking through a blackened landscape. It was taken in Sudbury.
It seems the more we learn about Sudbury, the more questions and imaginative wonderings result. Take for instance the seemingly anomalous presence of SNOLAB, also known as the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory, nested within the Sudbury’s nickel mine and dedicated to studying neutrinos and physics of dark matter.
According to Hayes, the SNO,
“located at the 6,800-foot level of Inco’s Creighton mine, . . . is the deepest underground observatory currently in use. Now the site of many long-term physics experiments, it was inaugurated with a twelve metre diameter geodesic sphere made of acrylic and stainless steel, and suspended in a ten-storey, water-filled cavern cut directly into the rock. This giant vessel contained 1,000 tonnes of heavy water and it was lined with 9600 photomultiplier tubes to detect flashes of light known as Cherenkov radiation. The earth’s mantle shields the observatory from random cosmic particles, allowing only neutrinos to penetrate it. Curiously, the inversion of an observatory located deep underground mirrors the inversion of a detector for evanescent neutrinos located at the site of a massive meteor’s impact.”
Sudbury Neutrino detector, wikicommons
Given our growing fascination with and awe of Sudbury, we’re excited to announce that FOP has been invited to visit the site of the astrobleme this September. We will participate in a series of events engaging the complex geologic and cultural realities at play in the Sudbury Basin. During our time in Ontario we’ll be guests of the Musagetes Foundation, an organization engaged in a multi-year collaboration with the surrounding city and community. Musagetes describes its work as being a “catalyst and enabler” for the programs, actions and dialogues of artists who work in the communities in which they are based. FOP will be a part of the events and dialogues that composes the “September Cafe,” which will bring together around 30 people, including artists, architects, activists, public intellectuals, scientists, environmentalists, community leaders, cultural professionals and local residents.
In many ways, we sense the collision in Sudbury has not yet ended. The materials of the basin haven’t stopped moving. In the space of this impact crater there continues to be a constant and ongoing exchange between the biology of this world, former geologic worlds, and universes far outside and beyond our own. The materials within the Sudbury astrobleme have weathered eons of geologic time and force. They are the remixed detritus of the Earth itself, yet imprinted forever with material that predates the planet’s very existence. We wonder: What do the highly specific and particular assemblies of these materials—their vitality of having come from so far and so long ago—offer when assembled with—us? As space and time travelers participating in a vast cosmological process independently of humans, what information or “intelligence” might these materials offer humans living in the area today? We’ll be heading to Sudbury with these questions in mind. We look forward to sharing additional details about the September Cafe as they become available.
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