Microstructures in shocked quartz: linking nuclear airbursts and meteorite impacts

Robert E. Hermes, Hans-Rudolf Wenk, James P. Kennett, Ted E. Bunch, Christopher R. Moore, Malcolm A. LeCompte, Gunther Kletetschka, A. Victor Adedeji, Kurt Langworthy, Joshua J. Razink, Valerie Brogden, Brian van Devener, Jesus Paulo Perez, Randy Polson, Matt Nowell, Allen West

Airbursts and Cratering Impacts, 28 September 2023


“Many studies of hypervelocity impact craters have described the characteristics of quartz grains shock-metamorphosed at high pressures of >10 GPa. In contrast, few studies have investigated shock metamorphism at lower shock pressures. In this study, we test the hypothesis that low-pressure shock metamorphism occurs in near-surface nuclear airbursts and that this process shares essential characteristics with crater-forming impact events. To investigate low-grade shock microstructures, we compared quartz grains from Meteor Crater, a 1.2-km-wide impact crater, to those from near-surface nuclear airbursts at the Alamogordo Bombing Range, New Mexico in 1945 and Kazakhstan in 1949/1953. This investigation utilized a comprehensive analytical suite of high-resolution techniques, including transmission electron microscopy (TEM) and electron backscatter diffraction (EBSD). Meteor Crater and the nuclear test sites all exhibit quartz grains with closely spaced, sub-micron-wide fractures that appear to have formed at low shock pressures. Significantly, these micro-fractures are closely associated with Dauphiné twins and are filled with amorphous silica (glass), widely considered a classic indicator of shock metamorphism. Thus, this study confirms that glass-filled shock fractures in quartz form during near-surface nuclear airbursts, as well as crater-forming impact events, and by extension, it suggests that they may form in any near-surface cosmic airbursts in which the shockwave is coupled to Earth’s surface, as has been proposed. The robust characterization of such events is crucial because of their potential catastrophic effects on the Earth’s environmental and biotic systems.”