Journal article

In plain sight: the Chesapeake Bay crater ejecta blanket

Griscom D ...see all

Solid Earth Discuss, vol. 45194, issue 10 (2012) pp. 4-363

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Abstract

The discovery nearly two decades ago of a 90-km-diameter impact crater below the lower Chesapeake Bay has gone unnoted by the general public because to date all published literature on the subject has described it as “buried.” To the contrary, evidence is presented here that the so-called “upland deposits” that blanket ~5,000 km2 of the U.S. Middle-Atlantic Coastal Plain (M-ACP) display morphologic, lithologic, and stratigraphic features consistent with their being ejecta from the 35.4-Ma Chesapeake Bay Impact Structure (CBIS) and absolutely inconsistent with the prevailing belief that they are of fluvial origin. Specifically supporting impact origin are the facts that (i) a 95%-pure iron ore endemic to the upland deposits of southern Maryland, eastern Virginia, and the District of Columbia has previously been proven to be impactoclastic in origin, (ii) this iron ore welds together a small percentage of well-rounded quartzite pebbles and cobbles of the upland deposits into brittle sheets interpretable as “spall plates” created in the interference-zone of the CBIS impact, (iii) the predominantly nonwelded upland gravels have long ago been shown to be size sorted with an extreme crater-centric gradient far too large to have been the work of rivers, but well explained as atmospheric size-sorted interference-zone ejecta, (iv) new evidence is provided here that ~60% of the non-welded quartzite pebbles and cobbles of the (lower lying) gravel member of the upland deposits display planar fractures attributable to interference-zone tensile waves, (v) the (overlying) loam member of the upland deposits is attributable to base-surge-type deposition, (vi) several exotic clasts found in a debris flow topographically below the upland deposits can only be explained as jetting-phase crater ejecta, and (vii) an allogenic granite boulder found among the upland deposits is deduced to have been launched into space and sculpted by hypervelocity air friction during reentry. An idealized calculation of the CBIS ejecta-blanket elevation profile minutes after the impact was carried out founded on well established rules for explosion and impactgenerated craters. This profile is shown here to match the volume of the upland deposits 170 km from the crater center. Closer to the crater, much of the “postdicted" ejecta blanket has clearly been removed by erosion. Nevertheless the Shirley and fossil-free Bacons Castle Formations, located between the upland deposits and the CBIS interior and veneering the present day surface with units ~10-20 m deep, are respectively identified as curtain- and excavation-phase ejecta. The neritic-fossilbearing Calvert Formation external to the crater is deduced to be of Eocene age (as opposed to early Miocene as currently believed), preserved by the armoring effects of the overlying CBIS ejecta composed of the (distal) upland deposits and the (proximal) Bacons Castle Formation. The lithofacies of the in-crater Calvert Formation can only have resulted from inward mass wasting of the postdicted ejecta blanket, vestiges of which (i.e., the Bacons Castle and Shirley Formations) still overlap the crater rim and sag into its interior, consistent with this expectation. Because there appear to be a total of ~10,000 km2 of CBIS ejecta lying on the present-day surface, future research should center the stratigraphic, lithologic, and petrologic properties of these ejecta versus both radial distance from the crater center (to identify ejecta from different ejection stages) and circumferentially at fixed radial distances (to detect possible anisotropies relating the impact angle and direction of approach of the impactor). The geological units described here may comprise the best preserved, and certainly the most accessible, ejecta blanket of a major crater on the Earth’s surface and therefore promise to be a boon to the field of impact geology. As a corollary, a major revision of the current stratigraphic column of the M-ACP will be necessary.

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Authors

  • David L Griscom

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