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Is Canada the cradle of life?

While meteor showers are no party, the resulting damage creates a wonderful environment for microbes.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
2 min read
Meteor showers are usually associated with mass extinctions, but a new study poses that these catastrophic events also created an environment where evolution could bloom.

A study of the Haughton Impact Crater on Devon Island in the Canadian Arctic by the Canadian Space Agency has revealed the presence of a number of features associated with the emergence of microscopic life forms. These include hydrothermal systems and fissures and cracks in rocks created by the blast.

While further study will be necessary, the findings could prod scientists to begin to examine the search for life on this planet or Mars slightly differently.

Hydrothermal pipe
Credit: Gordon Osinski/Canadian
Space Agency
Eroded hydrothermal pipe structure

The Haughton meteor smacked into the icy ground of Devon Island some 23 million years ago. When it hit, it fractured the ground in such a way as to create a series of hydrothermal springs reaching up to 250 degrees Celsius. The heat dropped over the next few thousand years but, ideally, the springs could have served as an incubator for microbes.

Additionally, the fractured rock became a more hospitable home for any microbes living back then. Small pores in the rock created by the blast could have provided shelter, and the minerals would have become easier to extract. The rock shocked by the blast also became more translucent, a benefit to any photosynthetic organisms.

The "eureka" moment--the idea that meteor impacts could benefit or even create conditions suitable for the beginning of early life--occurred when CSA geologist Gordon Osinski and his colleagues were surveying the rim of the crater and saw what looked like fossilized hydrothermal pipes. Hydrothermal systems are thought of by many as favorable places for life to evolve.

Coincidentally or not, life is believed to have emerged on Earth around 3.8 billion years ago, about the same time as the heaviest meteor bombardments on the planet. The impact craters of most of these blasts have long since eroded.

"One of the most interesting aspects of the Haughton Impact Crater is that it's in a polar desert. The dry, frigid weather makes for a barren landscape that's easy to study," Osinski said in a statement. "Most people put impacts with mass extinctions. What we're trying to say is that following the impact, the impact sites are actually more favorable to life than the surrounding terrain."

The study comes amid a controversy in the United States in which educators and politicians are debating whether to teach evolution as well as a controversial theory called intelligent design, which suggests that life on Earth and all of its intricate manifestations--including connecting eyebrows, rats and the occasional set of webbed toes--are the result of some higher intelligence.