The Gulf of Mexico, rich in oil deposits, is no stranger to offshore drilling. But for the first time ever, an expedition of scientists is set venture off the Yucatán coast to drill for core samples from the Chicxulub impact crater, where a six-mile-wide space rock collided with the Earth 66 million years ago. The ensuing ecological disaster killed half of life on Earth, including the dinosaurs, and ultimately led to the evolutionary ascendence of birds and mammals.
Considering that this ancient crater is the fulcrum of an enormously disruptive global catastrophe, scientists across many disciplines have been itching to study it up close. But the oil sector has laid claim to the region for decades, and previous attempts to extract core samples from the expansive 110-mile-wide crater have been prevented.
Even aside from these industry-related obstacles, there are numerous technological hurdles to overcome in order to attain core samples from the original crater, which has been buried under about 800 meters of sedimentary seabed over the course of millions of years.
Location and dimensions of impact crater. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/David Fuchs
Fortunately, a group led by geophysicists Sean Gulick and Joanna Morgan were able to procure $10 million in funds last year, enough to bankroll a two-month expedition to drill deep into the crater’s “peak ring,” which encircles the impact site.
Toward the end of this month, the team will position their boat a dozen miles off the coast of Progreso, where the water is about 55 feet deep. If all goes well, the researchers will begin to drill for core samples by April 1, eventually aiming to penetrate about a full mile into the seabed—or put another way, 66 million years back in time to the Mesozoic era.
These much-anticipated samples stand to reveal the larger geological story of this devastating freak collision, as well as recording the resurgence of life in its aftermath.
"We have some hypothesis of what we will find," Gulick told CNN on Thursday. "We expect to see a period of no life initially, and then life returning and getting more diverse through time."
"You can assume that at ground zero of this impact we are dealing with a sterile ocean, and over time life renewed itself,” he said. “We might learn something for the future."
For the moment, however, it’s exciting enough to know that scientists are finally on their way to collecting valuable samples from the planetary bullet hole located deep under the Gulf of Mexico, where tales of ecological collapse and hard-won recovery are written into the Earth itself.