When I read about Lonar in an English-language Indian magazine, I knew I had to go there.
Lonar was a small, remote town in the state of Maharashtra (situated in the west of India and including Mumbai).
Just outside of Lonar was a meteor impact crater.
At two kilometres in diameter and 180 meters deep, the Lonar meteor impact crater was the third largest in the world (the biggest one being in Arizona in the U.S.). Whilst there were 50 sizeable meteor impact craters in existence, few of them were visible to the human eye. Some of them were very old and had been eroded to the point where they were only identifiable from the air – e.g. Australia; others were filled to the brim with water and formed lakes – e.g., Africa; and still others were buried under ice – e.g., Canada and Russia. The Lonar meteor impact crater was one of the few which was immediately identifiable as such. This had a lot to do with its age: formed about 50,000 years ago, a short period of time by geological standards, it was a ‘new’ crater.
My wish to visit a meteor impact crater and see it up close up had a bit of a history to it – starting from when I was a kid and read up everything I could about dinosaurs. In those days (the 1960’s), there were, in comparison with today, many gaps in the body of information known about the Earth’s past. There were no computers and no satellite surveillance technology. One of the greatest puzzles at the time concerned the disappearance of the dinosaurs: it was known that they had inhabited the earth for 200 million years and then suddenly vanished, but it was not known why.
The story of their sudden extinction was portrayed graphically in the geological strata: the layers of rocks with dinosaur fossils were replaced by other rocks with the successors of the dinosaurs, the mammals, but there was nothing in between – no layers of rocks recording the gradual disappearance of the dinosaurs and accordingly, an increasing number of mammals. The time of the dinosaurs’ disappearance could be accurately fixed – 65 million years ago – but the reasons for their disappearance could not. All sorts of explanations were offered including: a disease, an upsurge in volcanic activity and a change in climate. But everything was conjecture.
When I first became interested in the dinosaurs, I believed in God.
Whilst the reasons for the disappearance of the dinosaurs intrigued me, I put it down to the hand of God. My Sunday school teacher suggested that when He created the dinosaurs, He was experimenting with life forms. He was moving towards a higher life form, the ultimate of which was of course, the human race.
This of course made no sense what so ever.
If God was omnipotent – and I was assured that He most definitely was – then why should He mess around for 200 million years with dinosaurs when he could have put the perfect product on the earth in the first place?
And then why remove the dinosaurs so quickly?
Seemed like a raw deal to me.
Dinosaurs were cool, they were really interesting and as far as I could see, they didn’t deserve to be wiped out. Kind of like someone being sacked from their job because the boss was in a bad mood.
Why didn’t God at least phase the dinosaurs out?
It never occurred to me that my Sunday school teacher might have had a few doubts herself. I thought she knew everything and that feeble minded me couldn’t grasp the essentials.
By the time I did grasp the essentials, I had also rejected God and what’s more, lost all interest in the dinosaurs.
Girls were more interesting. And so was surfing and drinking and smoking dope and taking L.S.D and doing lines of speed.
Then one day, 30 years later (I managed to survive my youth), when I was surfing the net rather than big waves, I stumbled upon the answer to the puzzle which as a kid I had so often wondered about:
The reign of the dinosaurs was brought to an abrupt end by a meteor.
I knew a bit about meteors.
I found one once in the mountains of Macedonia and still have it.
The Earth was constantly being bombarded by meteors, but by and large, they burnt up when they entered the Earth’s atmosphere and all they left behind them was a brilliant flash in the sky – which we saw as ‘shooting stars’. Sometimes, however, a meteor was large enough that even after entering the earth’s atmosphere and melting and vaporizing, it was still big enough to land on the earth as a small molten blob. The blob cooled and solidified and was usually found as a button sized stone, sometimes dark and full of iron (like the one I found) and other times translucent, like murky glass.
From the billions of meteors which had entered the Earth’s atmosphere in the course of its history, very few of them had been big enough to leave an impact crater.
In an article on BBC World News (under the ‘science and technology’ section) I read about the meteor which exterminated the dinosaurs with a mixture of amazement and excitement. I printed it off and read it several times. In the 1970’s an American geologist involved in looking for oil on the ocean floor, discovered evidence of a huge crater off the coast of Yucatan in Mexico. With a diameter of 180 kilometres, it dwarfed any of the meteor impact craters elsewhere in the world. For many years, it was thought that this crater was the remains of an ancient volcano. Modern seismic equipment for mapping the ocean floor, however, had allowed scientists to reach a very different conclusion. The crater was, in fact, a geological scar left over by what was probably the biggest meteor ever to have hit the earth (65 million years ago, incidentally this area was on dry land and not under water).
Amongst other things, I read the following:
The meteor, described as a ‘space rock’, was somewhere between 10 and 15 kilometres long; it had hit the Earth at 20 times faster than a speeding bullet and created an explosion over a billion times more explosive than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. One scientist was quoted as saying:
‘The explosion of hot rock and gas would have looked like a huge ball of fire on the horizon, grilling any living creature in the immediate vicinity that couldn’t find shelter. The initial impact would have triggered off large scale fires, huge earthquakes, and continental landslides which generated tsunamis. The final nail in the coffin for the dinosaurs happened when blasted material was ejected at high velocity into the atmosphere. This shrouded the planet in darkness and caused a global winter, killing off many species that couldn’t adapt to this hellish environment. Today you can actually trace debris to the rim of the crater from across the world. You can start in Europe, cross the Atlantic, and it just thickens as you approach the Yutacan impact crater.’
In another BBC article, I read that scientists even knew where this giant meteor had originated in the universe and could determine when it began travelling inexorably towards earth. This was well before the dinosaurs had evolved. In other words: the dinosaurs’ future extinction had been already a fact long before they even appeared on earth. It took that meteor hundreds of millions of years to reach our planet, but reach it did – with devastating results.
It was the larger consequences of the Yutacan meteor which fascinated me and fascinated me endlessly. Small mammals were able to survive the ‘hellish environment’ created by the Yucatan meteor because they could burrow down deep into the ground. The dinosaurs could not. Because of something as simple as this, one species vanished and the other survived – and went on to rule the earth and eventually evolve into a myriad of life forms including the human race. If there’d been no Yutacan meteor, there would have been no human race (humans being the most evolved form of a mammal, though I sometimes wonder).
The Yucatan meteor then, played a pretty basic sort of role in the appearance of the human race.
After reading about the Yucatan meteor, I began compulsively looking up everything I could about meteors.
And it didn’t take long before I discovered that besides the Yucatan meteor, there was mounting evidence that meteors might have had other profound effects on the history of life on our planet. One example: thirteen thousand years ago, much of the wildlife and the first human inhabitants of North America suddenly disappeared. This occurred at the end of an ice age – a time when they should have been flourishing, instead of vanishing. For many years it was another vexing puzzle for scientists until it was conclusively proved that once again, a giant meteor was involved.
Yet another example: it was hypothesized that the very creation of life on earth could have come about because of meteors. Scientists had found meteors which contained organic compounds necessary for the creation of life and the construction of DNA molecules. It was known that life first appeared on earth about 3.5 billion years ago when the world was covered in water (some scientists believe that the oceans were the result of the earth colliding with a comet). At around the same time, the earth was being blitzed by meteors in what was known as a ‘meteor rain.’ It was hypothesized that the meteors ‘seeded’ life by bringing organic compounds with them, which then reacted with the water. One thing was certain: the building blocks for life could be found in outer space.
Meteors then, had not only destroyed life forms on Earth, they may well have created life in the first place. It was a strange idea: meteors created life, set the stage for the evolution of the dinosaurs, wiped them out and made way for the evolution of the mammals – and Homo Sapiens. If the hand of God was involved in the appearance of Homo Sapiens on our planet, then it seems as if the random invasion of the skies by meteors was His – or Her – method. One could draw many implications from this, but the main one for me was simply: I wanted to see a meteor impact crater close up, but I had never got the chance.
Then suddenly, out of the blue, whilst reading a magazine in India, of all places, my chance loomed up before me, as beautifully random as the arrival of a rock from outer space.
All I had to do was get to Lonar.
Well, this proved to be a bit of a adventure in itself.
In February, 2012, Siberia experienced a ‘meteor rain’ – nothing in comparison with meteor rains in the past, but enough to enable dramatic photographs to be taken.
See also ‘The Space Rock Part 2’: