Big Boom: The Best Places to See Meteorite Impact Craters

Ancient impacts changed landscapes and perhaps even the course of evolution—here’s where to see the coolest craters this summer

Barringer Meteorite Crater
Visitors take a guided tour of the Barringer Meteorite Crater in northern Arizona. © Tony Rowell/Corbis

Early in the morning of October 6, 2008, astronomers at the University of Arizona detected an asteroid on a collision course with Earth. When other sightings cropped up across the world, the astronomers’ suspicions were confirmed—the asteroid was going to hit our planet. It was the first time in history an asteroid had been observed before impact. Within hours, the asteroid entered the Earth’s atmosphere (and thus became a meteor) and broke up into tiny pieces. These fragments—known as meteorites—landed in a remote location in northern Sudan.

Luckily for Earth, this meteor wasn’t the big one that NASA scientists are warning could one day crash into our planet (and that Bruce Willis once blew up in a movie). But throughout history, meteorites have left their beautiful—if destructive—scars upon the globe. Here are some of the best places to see meteorite impact sites this summer:

Kaali Meteorite Crater Field: Saaremaa Island, Estonia

About 7,500 hundred years ago, a meteor entered the Earth’s atmosphere and broke apart into nine pieces over present-day Saaremaa Island in Estonia. Our pre-historic ancestors must have gone into a wild panic watching these giant rocks fall from the sky—when the pieces hit the ground, they caused a combined impact comparable to an atomic bomb. Given the densely populated area where the meteorites fell, the causalties were likely severe.

All nine impact sites, now called the Kaali Meteorite Crater Field, can still be visited today, and come complete with a museum, gift shop and hotel. Several are relatively small (one measures 36 feet across and just over three feet deep), but the largest is over 360 feet and now filled with water. Archeologists believe this crater may have been the site for ancient cult activities, including animal sacrifices.

Barringer Meteorite Crater: Arizona

Right around the dawn of the human species, a massive, rocky fireball broke through the Earth’s atmosphere and crash-landed into what is now northern Arizona, igniting an explosion with the force of 2.5 million pounds of dynamite. The fireball hit the Earth so hard, most of the meteorite vaporized upon impact.

About 50,000 years later, in 1902, mining mogul Daniel Barringer Jr. staked a claim to what was then called Canyon Diablo Crater. Barringer’s claim was based on his theory that a meteorite full of iron ore had caused the massive indention in the desert; until Barringer, it was widely believed that an explosion of steam made the crater. The high levels of iron and the position of the rock strata provided evidence that a high-velocity asteroid was indeed the cause of the crater, but only after geologist George P. Merrill championed his theory was it accepted it by geologists worldwide. Soon, the crater was renamed in Barringer's honor.

Today, the crater is still owned by the Barringer family, who say it is the “the world’s best-preserved meteorite impact site.” Located near Winslow and right off of Interstate-40, the complex has a museum, movie theater and its own gift shop.

Vredefort Crater: South Africa

Over 2 billion years ago, a meteorite six miles in diameter and moving at the rate of 12.5 miles per second struck Earth about 75 miles southwest from present-day Johannesburg, South Africa. The impact of the meteorite was almost twice as big as the one that wiped out the dinosaurs. While algae was likely the only life existing on the planet before the impact, the event caused immense evolutionary and geological changes. To this day, it is thought to be the single greatest release of energy our planet has ever seen.

The Vredefort Dome is one of Earth's largest and oldest astroblemes (the scar or deformation left by an ancient, high-impact meteorite strike). The crater gets its name from the dome-shaped feature that was created when the blast pushed the rock up and out. Declared a World Heritage Site in 2005, it is promoted as a tourist attraction and a place for adventure-seekers, although some issues have arisen with the upkeep and management of the site.

Middlesboro Crater: Kentucky

(Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

The 10,000-person town of Middleboro, Kentucky was once known as the gateway to the West. More recently, it's been confirmed as a 200-million-year-old meteorite crater.

In 2003, scientists from the Kentucky Geological Survey concluded that a meteorite over 1,500 feet in diameter crashed into Earth sometime around the Permian and Triassic periods. The impact created a crater about four miles wide, with rock slopes reaching up 1,900 feet. While erosion and vegetation obscured the crater for millions of years, the shape and position of the valley told geologists that this was, in fact, an ancient impact site.

“Middlesboro is in this strangely rounded valley in the middle of Appalachia. You don’t get round valleys here. It’s not normal,” geologist William Andrews told the Tuscaloosa News in 2003. This natural distinction has allowed Middlesboro to declare itself the “only American town built inside of a meteorite crater."

Wolf Creek Meteor Crater: Australia

The 300,000-year-old Wolfe Creek Crater lies way out in the remote and desolate Western Australian outback. If it looks like it's the perfect setting for a horror movie, well, it was.

An aerial survey in 1947 may have revealed this massive crater (3,000 feet in diameter) to Europeans, but it had been known to Aboriginal communities in the region for centuries. The crater, which the Djaru people called “Kandimalal,” is often mentioned in their mythology, including in one tale involving two rainbow-colored serpents

Wolfe Creek Crater is the second-largest rimmed meteorite crater in the world (behind only the Barringer Meteorite Crater in Arizona) and an Australian National Park. Camping is encouraged, although visitors are warned to avoid Australia’s summer (November to April) due to the oppressive heat. The crater and park are also full of wildlife, including a large population of the very loud Major Mitchell’s cockatoos

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