The geophysical signature of terrestrial impact craters


  • M. Pilkington,

  • R. A. F. Grieve


A major tool in the initial recognition and study of terrestrial impact craters, ∼20% of which are buried beneath postimpact sediments, is geophysics. The general geophysical character of terrestrial impact craters is compiled and outlined with emphasis on its relation to the impact process and as an aid to the recognition of additional impact craters. The most common and conspicuous geophysical signature is a circular gravity low. For simple bowl-shaped craters, gravity models indicate that the anomaly is largely due to the presence of an interior allochthonous breccia lens. In complex craters, modeling indicates that the main contribution to the gravity anomaly is from fractured parautochthonous target rocks in the floor of the crater. The gravity signature of both simple and complex crater forms can be modeled well, using known morphometric parameters of impact structures. The size of the gravity anomaly generally increases with increasing crater diameter reaching a maximum of ∼20–30 mGal at diameters D of ∼20–30 km. Further increases in D have a negligible effect on the magnitude of the gravity anomaly due to lithostatic effects on deep fractures. The general gravity signature of a simple low can be modified by target rock and erosional effects, and there is a tendency for larger complex structures ( D > 30 km) to exhibit a relative gravity high restricted to the crater center and extending out to <0.5D. The magnetic signature of craters is more varied. The dominant effect is a magnetic low due to a reduction in susceptibility. Large structures (D > 40 km) tend to exhibit central high-amplitude anomalies, with dimensions of <0.5D, due to remanently magnetized bodies in the target rocks. The sources of these bodies are wide ranging and include the effects of shock, heat, and chemical alteration. The few studies over craters involving electrical methods indicate resistivity lows coinciding with the extent of the potential field anomalies and related to fracturing. Seismic techniques, particularly reflection surveys, have provided details of the subsurface structure of craters. Incoherent reflections and reduced seismic velocities due to brecciation and fracturing are expected, the degree of coherency of reflections increasing away from and below the center of the structure. From the various geophysical techniques a set of general criteria can be established that correspond to the geophysical signature of impact craters. These criteria can be used to evaluate the hypothesis that any particular set of geophysical anomalies is due to impact. Confirmation of an impact origin, however, is based on geologic evidence.