The supercomputing community has cataclysms on the mind. Hot on the heels of supercomputer-powered research delving into the fate of the neanderthals, a team of researchers used supercomputers at the DiRAC (Distributed Research using Advanced Computing) high-performance computing facility to simulate a different extinction event: the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs.
Over the last half-century, researchers have become increasingly confident that a massive asteroid impact killed off the vast majority of the dinosaurs, causing vast climatic changes that rendered much of life on Earth impossible. Scientists believe that the impact occurred around what is now the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico, creating a 93 mile-wide, 12-mile deep crater (the “Chicxulub crater”) that remains gouged into the continental crust to this day.
Rewinding 66 million years is no easy task. The researchers – hailing from Imperial College London, the University of Freiburg and the University of Texas at Austin – said that they used supercomputing resources at DiRAC to run “the first ever 3D numerical simulations to reproduce the whole Chicxulub impact event, from the moment the asteroid struck the ground until the final crater was formed.” Previous simulations, they said, had only covered the first few seconds of the impact – and worse, had operated on a 2D plane, and thus were only able to consider head-on collisions by the asteroid.
Thankfully, the DiRAC resources allowed for a much more robust analysis. The simulations revealed that the asteroid likely struck Earth at an angle of around 60 degrees, at which point billions of tons of sulfur exploded into the atmosphere, blocking the sun. According to the researchers, this was more or less the worst-case scenario for the dinosaurs, causing the “maximum negative effect possible.” The researchers also gathered new insights about the formation of the ring of mountains within the crater and the uplift of dense mantle rocks miles beneath the Earth’s surface.
“When you study a complex problem such as crater formation, a key challenge is the number of variables you have to consider,” said Mark Wilkinson, director of DiRAC and a professor at the University of Leicester. “DiRAC’s computing services allow researchers to reduce the ‘time-to-science’ – the time it takes to make a breakthrough – by providing access to both the computers themselves and technical support teams who give guidance on how to use them. To date, DiRAC has provided about two million core hours of computing time to this project and it’s great to see that they have already made such exciting new discoveries.”
To read the study, which was published as “A steeply-inclined trajectory for the Chicxulub impact” in the May 2020 issue of Nature Communications, click here.
Header image: a painting by Donald E. Davis depicting the devastating asteroid impact via Wikimedia Commons.