What Would Happen if the Ocean Took an Asteroid Impact

Shelby Rogers

Impending asteroid impact sounds like a scenario in a new J.J. Abrams film. However, NASA consistently tracks bodies close to earth as Near-Earth Objects (NEOs). They currently have 17 on their list, and nearly all of them are asteroids.

asteroid[Image Source: Los Alamos National Laboratory]

With 70 percent of Earth's surface covered in water, there's a high possibility that the asteroid would hit the ocean before hitting land. A team with Los Alamos National Laboratory recently developed a model of what that impact would look like. Don't worry; it looks nothing like Deep Impact.

The team, led by Galen Gisler, used supercomputers and advanced imaging software to predict how the high kinetic energy would be absorbed and dispersed by the ocean upon impact.

While the results aren't as terrifying as doomsday sci-fi movies, the team notes serious results. Should the asteroid hit within 10-20 km away from a coastline city, for example, would be "devastating." However, it's not for massive waves, as fans of disaster movies would predict.

You can check out the full visualization in the simulation below:

The team wanted to look at whether those massive waves could travel to populated shorelines and contribute significant damages. The initial impact could be great and create waves up to kilometers in height. However, tsunami-like waves might not happen as those shockwaves are much shorter than that of an earthquake.

It would cause flooding, shockwaves, hurricane-level winds and high temperatures. But the biggest concern, according to the LANL team, comes from water vapor.

“ The most significant effect of an impact into the ocean is the injection of water vapor into the stratosphere, with possible climate effects ” Gisler said.

Water vapor technically classifies as a greenhouse gas. That could impact global warming effects lasting for years after an asteroid's impact.

The simulations show that a rapidly moving asteroid could vaporize 250 metric megatons of water near instantaneously.

Three separate 3-D simulations were run simultaneously given the circumstances for the program. Asteroid size, angle of impact and airburst explosion elevation all contributed to the results. Asteroids don't always get to earth's surface, as smaller ones disintegrate in the sky. The team's model included airburst explosion elevation to accommodate for their effects. The models show that these bursts can produce smaller waves while "considerably" mitigating the effect on the water, Gisler said.

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You can read the entire paper, courtesy of Data Science at Scale and LANL, here. The researchers won Best Visualization and Data Analytics Showcase award at the Supercomputing 2016 conference. The team also presented the data at the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting in San Francisco. The paper has yet to be peer-reviewed. However, the LANL team sticks by their findings and simulations.

Interested in doing some of your own simulations? This Impact Calculator can help you create your own impact. It was created by the ESA, Science & Technology Facilities Council, and Faulkes Telescope. Users input the asteroid's diameter, the angle of trajectory and velocity. It also allows you to see the size and scope of craters created upon impact.

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