San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

NASA Calls for Protection of Asteroid Impact Zone

MEXICO CITY – NASA is advocating that the Mexican zone of Chicxulub, struck 65 million years ago by a large meteorite believed to have changed the course of evolution on Earth, be declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

“It’s a site unique in the world” where a phenomenon occurred that “changed the evolution of the Earth,” said Dr. Isabel Hawkins, an Argentine-U.S. astronomer with the University of California at Berkeley and contracted by the U.S. space agency NASA to work in the zone.

A meteorite calculated to have been 15 kilometers in diameter created the Chicxulub crater – a feature 200 kilometers wide – when it struck the spot just at the point in time separating the Cretaceous and Tertiary periods.

The characteristics of the crater are still being investigated by scientists.

Seventeen years ago, NASA began sending missions to the zone to analyze the stratigraphy and geology there with an eye toward comparing the data with other verified meteorite impact sites, about 200 of which exist all around the globe.

The special aspect of the Chicxulub impact is that “the dinosaurs that had ruled the Earth for 250 million years really disappeared” after the blast, Hawkins said.

It was at that point that another group of vertebrates, the mammals, “who were smaller and could not compete with the dinosaurs, could gain ground, increase their strength and gain (evolutionary) importance,” she said.

Now, a scientist for NASA, Colombian Adriana Ocampo, is pushing UNESCO to declare the zone a scientific World Heritage Site to preserve the impact evidence and bring it to light. She is pushing the Mexican government to promote the initiative.

Hawkins said her colleague “as a first step, obtained the support of the Yucatan government.”

During the past week, NASA experts held open scientific-educational sessions in the zone to win the confidence of the local residents – about 3,000 of whom live in the immediate area – and make them aware “of the risk” for the area and the benefits that could result if better scientific protection is implemented there.

Authorities are also speaking about fostering tourism and building a science museum to explain the landmark event that happened here millions of years ago.


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