Meteor Crater Natural Landmark

Along the south edge of the Colorado Plateau’s deep canyons, volcanic mountains and vast buttes lies the Meteor Crater Natural Landmark, a massive meteorite impact site that formed 50,000 years ago.

For centuries, the site was the subject of great debate among geologists.

Quick Facts About Meteor Crater

While the Meteor Crater Natural Landmark may not be the largest crater on earth, it’s certainly sizable, and thanks to the arid desert climate in Arizona, the crater is one of the best-preserved in North America.

  • The meteor that formed the crater had a diameter of approximately 150 feet
  • The original size of the crater was more than 4,000 feet across and 700 feet deep
  • Meteor Crater has reduced in size due to natural erosion; it’s now approximately 3,900 feet across and 560 feet deep

Historical Significance of Meteor Crater

Before Meteor Crater was proven to be a meteorite impact site, the area was known by the name Coon Butte. The name Meteor Crater, or Barringer Crater, as it’s sometimes called, was earned in the early 1900s when geologist Daniel Barringer theorized that it was formed by a meteorite. He claimed that iron from the meteorite would be found beneath the crater’s surface. In 1903, Barringer and a team of miners dug beneath the crater’s surface in search of that iron to prove his theory. His mining efforts failed when all that was discovered was rock and water. Regardless, Barringer was persistent in touting his hypothesis, and although some scientists stood behind him, the science community, in general, was skeptical.

Before Barringer’s theories about the crater were mainstream, Grove Karl Gilbert, another geologist, tested the theory that the crater could have been formed by a meteorite colliding with Earth, as well as the theory that it could have been the result of volcanic activity below Earth’s surface. The result of his tests incorrectly found the latter to be true.

Proving Barringer’s Theory

overhead view of the Barringer crater

Ultimately, proving Barringer’s theory came down to the presence of certain rocks and minerals in and around the crater. Although iron wasn’t present below the surface, as Baringer had hypothesized, what was later found in and around the crater provided conclusive evidence that his theory was, in fact, correct.

In 1960, Eugene Merle Shoemaker, a Ph.D student, discovered the presence of coesite and stishovite in the area, which are rare forms of silica formed when quartz is under high pressure and moderate to high temperatures, such as when struck by a meteorite. This finding proved Barringer’s theory right.

Further evidence of a meteorite impact has been discovered in geologic samples of the area in the years since. These samples included pulverized rock, along with sandstone and limestone, that was littered throughout the surrounding area. Additionally, fragments of the meteorite itself along with metallic spherules and shock-melted sandstone and limestone have been discovered in the crater’s ejecta blanket. These discoveries have aided advances in science and helped geologists to recognize other meteorite impact sites on earth and throughout the solar system.

Meteor Crater in the Movies

America’s fascination with outer space and meteors crashing into our planet have lead Hollywood to Meteor Crater a couple of times. In the film Damnation Alley (1977), which portrays a group of nuclear assault survivors searching for civilization, several scenes are filmed at the site. In the 1985 film Star Man, the plot focuses on an alien who’s trying to return to his home planet. In the film, he has to go to Meteor Crater to board his spaceship.

Visiting Meteor Crater

International travelers can fly into the area via the Flagstaff Airport, which offers connecting flights with international airports in several surrounding cities.

Meteor Crater is a magnificent geological site. It’s the first crater proven to be caused by a meteorite impact, and it’s one of the most well-preserved craters in the world.