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Developing Zircon as a Probe of Planetary Impact History

  • Author(s): Wielicki, Matthew M.
  • Advisor(s): Harrison, Mark
  • et al.

The identification of Meteor Crater in Arizona as an extraterrestrial impact by Eugene Shoemaker provided the first evidence of this geologic phenomenon and opened the door to a new field of research that has eventually lead to the identification of over ~150 terrestrial impact structures. Subsequently impacts have been evoked in the formation of the moon, delivery of volatiles and bio-precursors to early Earth, creation of habitats for the earliest life and, in more recent times, major mass extinction events. However, understanding the impact flux to the Earth-Moon system has been complicated by the constant weathering and erosion at Earth's surface and the complex nature of impactite samples such that only a hand full of terrestrial craters have been accurately and precisely dated. Currently 40Ar/39Ar step-heating analysis of impactite samples is commonly used to infer impact ages but can be problematic due to the presence of relic clasts, incomplete 40Ar outgassing or excess 40Ar, and recoil and shock effects. The work presented here attempts to develop zircon geochronology to probe planetary impact histories as an alternative to current methods and provides another tool by which to constrain the bolide flux to the Earth-Moon system.

Zircon has become the premier geo-chronometer in earth science and geochemical investigation of Hadean zircon from Western Australia has challenged the long-standing, popular conception that the near-surface Hadean Earth was an uninhabitable and hellish world; Zircons may preserve environmental information regarding their formation and thus provide a rare window into conditions on early Earth. Isotopic and petrologic analyses of these ancient grains have been interpreted to suggest that early Earth was more habitable than previously envisioned, with water oceans, continental crust, and possibly even plate tectonics. The Hadean is also suspected to be a time of major planetary bombardment however identifying impact signatures within the Hadean population remains difficult and this study hopes to develop criteria to recognize impact zircon and possibly provide constraints on the early impactor flux.

Five large terrestrial craters, Vredefort and Morokweng, South Africa, Sudbury and Manicouagan, Canada, and Popigai, Russia, are the focus of this study as smaller craters do not have the energy to produce thick melt sheets, which persist over time-scales sufficient for crystallization of zircon, permitting geochemical and geochronological analysis. Geochemical analysis of these impact-produced zircons yields similar chemical signatures to endogenic igneous zircon from crustal melts and highlights the need for well-developed criteria for discriminating impact and endogenic grains for impact geochronology. One such criterion is modeling of impact zircon crystallization temperature spectra for simulated impact events on targets of varying composition. Provided some assumptions the zircon crystallization spectra can be estimated from well established Zr systematics in crustal melts. Results for impacts into an Archean terrestrial surface (used as a proxy for the Hadean as little to no rock record exists >4.0 Ga) yields a crystallization spectra significantly higher than that reported for the Hadean zircon population and appears to rule out impacts as a dominant source for these ancient grains.

When no dateable impact melt sheet exists, either due to the lack of energy of the impact itself or from subsequent erosion at Earth's surface, loss of radiogenic lead, Pb*, has been suggested as an alternative method to date the event. Pb*-loss was investigated from target rocks from Vredefort and Morokweng and suggests that Pb* diffusion, even in zircon isolated from shocked and brecciated target rocks, is remarkably slow. This may explain the seeming lack of 'reset' zircon in terrestrial impactites. Little is known about Pb* diffusion pathways associated with shock microstructures introduced during impact cratering and future diffusion studies may provide better constraints on this problem.

Although little disturbance was identified in Pb* of target zircon, other low temperature geochronometers, zircon (U-Th)/He dating in this case, have been shown to be completely 'reset' and accurately date impacts. Zircon (U-Th)/He ages isolated from the target rock below ~850 m of well-dated impact melt at Morokweng yield ages consistent with the impact melt sheet and provide an alternative tool to dating events where such melts no longer exists. This geochronometer was also applied to impactites from Popigai, Russia and results in an age that is significantly younger than that reported in the literature and coincident with the Eocene-Oligocene boundary mass extinction event however the lack of any impact signatures at this boundary is puzzling.

Constraining the impact flux to the Earth-Moon system not only allows for a better understanding into early Earth evolution and the formation of a habitable planet but also provides constraints on the modern impactor flux, important criteria for estimating the likelihood of future impact events. Zircon geochronology offers an exciting new tool by which to date impact events and has the potential to assist understanding of complex impactite samples from terrestrial craters and future sample return missions.

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