Judson L. Ahern, School of Geology & Geophysics, University of Oklahoma Norman Oklahoma U.S.

Since 1795, with James Hutton’s publication "Theory of the Earth with Proofs and Illustrations," uniformitarianism has been a fundamental tenet of geology.  Sometimes stated simply as "the present is the key to the past," uniformitarianism, with its slowness of geological processes, combined with the enormous age of the Earth, has been a cornerstone of geological thinking.

On the other hand, catastrophists sought to explain all geological features in a few thousand years, based partly on a literal interpretation of certain Biblical events. For example, catastrophists claimed that the enormously thick layers of sediments which Hutton said required millions of years to accumulate were laid down in the great Noachian deluge - Noah's flood.

Since then, geologists have modified our concept of uniformitarianism, recognizing that geological processes take place at different rates, and generally, the greater the rate, the more rare the event (for example, the concept of the “hundred-year flood,” or the Gutenberg-Richter relationship: the log of the number of earthquakes greater than a certain magnitude decreases linearly with magnitude).

However, geologists have long been reluctant to call on extraterrestrial processes to explain terrestrial features – it smacked of the much-maligned “Deus ex Machina.” The pioneering work of Eugene Shoemaker (1928-1997), more than any other single person, changed this thinking.  Shoemaker studied Meteorite (or Barringer) Crater, AZ, USA (Figure 1), and proved that it was an impact crater, not a volcanic caldera as had been previously assumed.  Until this time, even the craters on the Moon were thought to be due to volcanism, and not impact!

Figure 1.  The Meteor, or Barringer, Crater, AZ, USA, is about 1.2 km in diameter and estimated to be about 50,000 years old. (Photo courtesy of Alan Herring.)

Since then, Earth scientists have been looking for other terrestrial impacts on Earth. Some are small and young, like the 1.2-km diameter Meteor Crater (ca. 50,000 y), or the 0.9-km Wolfe Creek Crater in Western Australia (ca. 300,000 y; Figure 2). Others are much older and bigger, like the 100-km diameter Manicougan crater in Northern Quebec (ca. 210 Ma; Figure 3). It appears that the “scale-invariant” relationship which applies to floods and earthquakes also applies to meteorites: We are bombarded by thousands of small particles every day, a few boulders per year, and occasionally a very large meteorite wreaks havoc on the Earth.

Figure 2. The Wolfe Creek crater, in Western Australia is approximately 0.9 km in diameter and about 300,000 years old.

Figure 3. Manicougan crater in Northern Quebec (ca. 210 Ma), as seen from space. It is approximately 100 km in diameter (NASA)

The tremendous “impact” that meteorite impacts could have on Earth was emphasized in 1980 when Walter and Luis Alvarez hypothesized that the major dinosaur (and other fauna) extinction event at the Cretaceous-Tertiary (KT) boundary (65 Ma) was the result of an enormous meteorite impact. Their argument was that they had found a layer of ash, deposited worldwide (they originally discovered this in Italy but similar layers have been found in many other places) at the KT boundary. This ash contained about 30 times the normal, terrestrial concentration of the element iridium. Meteorites contain abundant iridium, and could explain this anomaly.

The hunt was on for the impact crater site. North America turned out to be the most likely location, because of the large number of microtektites, shocked quartz fragments, etc. found there. The specific site was first discovered using potential field methods. During an aeromagnetic survey contracted by a petroleum company over the Yucatan Peninsula and the Gulf of Mexico, a candidate impact site was located (Figure 4). Later, gravity surveys made this crater even more obvious (Figure 5). The buried Chicxulub crater, as it has come to be known, was found.

Figure 4. Magnetic field over the Chicxulub Crater. (Intercontinental Scientific Drilling Program ICDP:

Figure 5. Illustration of the Chicxulub crater, as revealed by slight variations in Earth's  gravity, shown by shaded relief and different colors. Note the circularity of the pattern. White line is the coastline of the Yucatan Peninsula. (Figure by Virgil Sharpton, Lunar and Planetary Institute.)

At this time, there are about 150 terrestrial impact crater structures identified. Many other buried impact craters have been discovered on Earth, some found by drilling (e.g., Red Wing Creek structure, Williston Basin, USA) and some initially located using potential field methods (e.g., the Chicxulub crater).

The Ames, OK, USA, meteorite impact crater in eastern Major county (Figure 6) was first recognized as a circular structure based on drilling, as it has been the site of significant oil and gas production. It is a circular depression buried under about 3000 m of Ordovician and younger sediments (Figure 7). The age of the structure is about 470 ± 30 Ma. Its origin, however, was variously attributed to meteorite impact, volcanic activity, dissolution collapse and other causes. Arguments for an impact origin include geomorphology, rock textures, mineralogies and stratigraphic.

Figure 6. The Ames structure is located about 3 km north of Ames, Oklahoma, USA, in Major county.

Figure 7. Perspective view of Sylvan formation (Ordovician) structure as determined by extensive drilling of the Ames structure.

Furthermore, the gravity signature of impact craters is relatively distinctive and the relationship between impact effects and density is somewhat straightforward. In fact, it is estimated that about one fifth of the known impact craters on Earth are covered with sediments, and gravity has been the major tool for investigation of these. The amplitude, shape, and character of gravity over the Ames Structure (Figure 8), for example, are consistent with observations from other structures believed to be caused by meteorite impact. Impact craters formed in sedimentary rocks with a diameter similar to the Ames structure (~15 km) generally produce negative gravity anomalies that extend to or slightly beyond the rim of the crater. The amplitude of the Ames gravity anomaly, about 1 mgal, is similar to that of other similar-sized astroblemes, when upward continuation of the buried structure's gravity field, from 3000 m to the surface, is accounted for.

Figure 8. Perspective view of (third-order polynomial) residual Bouguer gravity anomaly, Ames structure.

The magnetic low over the Ames structure (Figure 9) is similar to negative magnetic anomalies observed over other impact craters, generally between tens to hundreds of nT, and may be due to shock demagnetization, shock remagnetization, and thermal and chemical remanent magnetization effects. However, the magnetic field associated with impact craters is more complex, and typically less diagnostic, than their gravity field.

Figure 9.  Perspective view of (third-order polynomial) residual, reduced-to-pole magnetic anomaly. Gravity anomaly contours are superimposed.

On other planets, the number of craters per unit area (crater “density”) has long been a tool for putting an approximate date on resurfacing events. For example, there is a much higher crater density in the Lunar highlands (dated at 4.6 Ga) than in the Lunar maria (dated between 3.9 to 3.2 Ga).

Mars certainly has exposed craters (e.g., Figure 10), but it has also undergone resurfacing, due to both volcanic activity (for example, in the relatively young Tharsis region), as well as due to the erosional effects of water and wind. With sufficiently detailed satellite-derived gravity and magnetic data, and even, possibly, lower elevation “aeromagnetic” data, buried or otherwise obscured meteorite craters might be detectable. This information could be valuable in unraveling the evolution of the Martian surface.

Figure 10. NASA image of frost-covered meteorite impact crater on Mars.

What can we learn from crater counts in general? (Hartmann)

Every time an asteroid or comet hits a planet, it makes an impact crater. These craters accumulate with time. The older a surface, the more impacts it has experienced. If we are clever enough, we humans can use these circular features to interpret the history of the planetary surfaces we see. For example, we can rank surfaces, or geologic units, on any planet in order of age by noting that the more impact craters it has, the older it is. If we can estimate the rate of crater production (for example by using the known rates measured for the moon from Apollo exploration), then we can count up the total number of craters and calculate the actual age of the surface in millions of years.

Dr. Hartmann has published interpretation of Mars crater statistics since the 1960's, and pioneered many aspects of this work. He shared the Nininger Mereorite prize in 1966 for using this technique to count craters in Canada and on the lunar lava plains, and then estimated that the lava plains are, on average, about 3.4 billion years old. This estimate was proven exactly correct when Apollo astronauts brought back samples a few years later -- a development that gave confidence in the technique.

At a more subtle level, Hartmann (1966) coined the term "crater retention age" to emphasize that on a geologically active planet like Mars or Earth, the crater numbers give an estimate not necessarily of the original date of formation of the surface (e.g. a lava flow) but rather of how long features of a given size survive, given the erosion/deposition conditions on that surface. For example, a 1-kilometer crater might take 100,000 years to be obliterated, due to rains, glaciers, sedimentation, etc., wheras a 10-meter crater might last only a few years. The lifetimes at different scales give us an idea of the environmental activity and processes on that planet.

An important lesson from this: flattening of the size distribution, relative to what is seen on the moon, can be an indication of some form of geologic processing that erodes or obliterate craters.

Here is an introduction to the technique.

The technique was developed in the 1960s using lunar craters. We have to count not just the total number of craters, but the numbers of craters at different sizes. Figure 1 shows a typical size distribution for crater counts in the lava plains on the moon, which are about 3400 My (million years) old. The dashed line is a fit through those data points. It turns up at small sizes because there are many more small impacts, apparently due to "secondary" fragments blown out of craters on the moon and also blown out of craters on the asteroids themselves. German researcher Gerhardt Neukum and others have shown that this turned-up "secondary branch" is present in the incoming "primary" meteorite flux falling out of space. It has been seen among fragments in the asteroid belt. The solid line is a fit to the very heavily cratered uplands of the moon. This line appears to mark approximate saturation equilibrium of craters on the surface; that is, if you added a new crater at this crater density, the new one would obliterate older craters and on average the line would stay about the same.


Summary of Moon:  Front Side Maria

Figure 1: Crater size distribution for craters on lunar lava plains. (Age approx. 3400 My).

Summary of Earth:  Original Diameter North America, Europe, Australia

Figure 2: Crater size distribution for older regions of Earth. Small craters have been lost by erosion, as measured relative to numbers seen on the moon (reference lines).

The lines on Figure 1 are used as reference lines on all our plots of Mars data. Figure 2 shows what happens if we apply these ideas to the Earth. As we all know, Earth has few craters. This is because Earth's surface is so geologically active that most areas are less than 500 million years old -- too young to have many impact craters! Therefore, as shown in Figure 2, the data points for Earth hover at the bottom of the diagram, far below the lunar data points. Also, note that the slope of the curve for the Earth is not as steep as for the moon. It is nearly flat, because (as common sense tells us) small craters are obliterated by geologic processes much faster than large craters. At a crater diameter of 500 km Earth has about as many craters as the lunar lava plains, because they last a long time. But notice that for 250 m diameter craters, the number visible is only around one ten-millionth of that number. Assuming the same influx of impactors on Earth and moon, the smaller craters on Earth have not survived.
Figure 3 shows the background reference lines that we use on a typical Mars plot. The dotted line is the same reference line seen in figures 1 and 2 for lunar lava plains, and the solid line is for saturation equilibrium. In addition are two short heavy lines defined by the U.S. Geological Survey to divide Martian history into three broad periods.
  • NOACHIAN PERIOD: this is the oldest period with the most impact craters, in which there may have been ancient seas, lakes, and/or rivers.


  • HESPERIAN PERIOD: a middle period. Erosive and volcanic activity may have been declining. An open question is the degree to which river channels were still active.


  • AMAZONIAN PERIOD: the most recent period, with the fewest impact craters. Many of the sparsely cratered lava plains of Mars formed during this period.
Reference Plot

Figure 3: Basic background reference lines for mars crater count plots.

What do Martian impact craters tell us about Mars?

The goal of crater-count studies on Mars is to characterize relative age relations, make absolute age estimates, and to characterize the erosion regime as far as it can be judged from the loss of small craters.

Mars: Tharsis Central Desert

Figure 4: Crater size distribution for young lava plains on Mars. Shape of distribution at larger sizes matches the shape found on the moon.

Figure 4 shows a typical set of crater counts from the Mariner 9 era (1972), on the young (Amazonian) lava plains of the broad Tharsis region and other lava plain regions of Mars. Large-diameter craters were counted over a large region; smaller diameter craters were counted in a sampling of smaller regions and averaged to characterize the area. The main point is that in this young area, the crater populations (at least at larger diameters above D = 2 km) are a very good match to the general shape, or slope of the size distribution of the lunar lava plains. This means that the same size distribution of impactors is hitting both areas (as expected from the inner solar system's population of asteroids and comets). In recent, Amazonian Martian history, there has not been enough erosion on Mars to obliterate craters larger than 2 km. This is why the two curves are parallel.


Can we see effects of erosion in older Martian regions?

Yes. Figure 5 shows our new results from our counts of craters on one of the first MGS images -- showing the old cratered plains around Nirgal Vallis. Hartmann (1971 and current work in preparation) has used a simple theoretical model of crater obliteration to predict the steady state distribution of craters on Mars. The model assumption is simply that craters act as holes, or potential wells, that preferentially fill with windblown dust (or any other assumed material) faster than the surroundings. The key assumption in the model used here is that the rate of net infill is a constant. (Time varying rates could also be assumed in order to make other predicted curves.) Under this model, craters have a lifetime proportional to their depth. The solid curve shown here is for a net infill rate of about 0.0004 cm/y. This rate was derived using this technique in its early stages, as far back as our early analysis of Mariner 4 data in 1966 (Icarus, 5:565-567). The first suggestion that small craters have been obliterated on Mars due to dust infill was made by Ernst Öpik in 1965 when he wrote about the Mariner 4 pictures. For this reason, we have begun to call this loss, and the flattening of the crater size-distribution, the Öpik Effect. Mars:  Plains Adjacent to Nirgal Vallis

Figure 5: New crater count data for one of the first MGS images. Crater counts on old lava plains near Nirgal Vallis show losses of small and mid-size craters and fit a steady-state due to net dust deposition in craters of about 0.0004 cm/year.

The high resolution MGS pictures give good evidence in support of this model. They show drifts of windblown dust engulfing many older, smaller craters, and deposits of dunes or smooth dust on the floors of many larger craters. We can confirm that the depositional-obliteration process is actually occurring on Mars.

The interpretation of Figure 5 is that the craters are indeed giving evidence of progressive loss of smaller craters -- an environment different from the moon. Probably the agent is infill by windblown dust, which obliterates smaller craters. The fit to the predicted line suggests net deposition rates of the order 0.0004 cm/y, which may be enough to obliterate the oldest craters up to tens of kilometers across. We will be able to use these techniques to search for variations in obliteration rate, or net deposition rate, in different locations on Mars.

Note: A good review of terrestrial impact craters is contained in Pilkington, M.; and Grieve, R. A., 1992, The geophysical signature of terrestrial impact craters: Reviews of Geophysics, v. 30, p. 161-181. For more information on the Ames structure, see Johnson, K. S.; and Campbell, J. A. (eds.), 1996, Ames structure in northwest Oklahoma and similar features: origin and petroleum production: Oklahoma Geological Survey Circular 100, p. 330-333.