Deforestation reveals an old scar

By Phil Plait | March 11, 2010 1:59 pm

The BBC is reporting that a previously unknown potential impact crater has surfaced in the Congo. This region was heavily forested, hiding the crater, but recent widespread deforestation has revealed the ancient impact scar.

Obviously, I’m conflicted about this.

If this is an impact crater (it has not yet been confirmed), it’s about 40 km (25 miles) across, making it one of the largest seen on the Earth. We haven’t been hit by a big asteroid in a long time, and erosion has erased most of the impact craters. There’s a picture of the crater on that link above, and the crater is obviously very old.

It’s fascinating to know that such a large feature can be hidden at all, but it’s sad indeed on how it got uncovered. I can hope no one would be so crass as to suggest we should continue to deforest our planet in hopes of finding more treasures, but I have seen far worse things suggested to support unrestrained mining, drilling, and polluting. I’m glad something good came of this horrific practice, but all things told, I think I’d rather it had remained tucked away among thousands of square kilometers of trees.

Tip o’ the Whipple Shield to Ted Judah.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: DeathfromtheSkies!, Piece of mind
MORE ABOUT: Congo, crater

Comments (43)

  1. In a way, it’s sort of like the fossil troves that are sometimes found when new construction projects are started. Sometimes, the builders are willing to halt construction for a little while to allow the paleontologists and archeologists to get in there. Like Phil said, I would never suggest that we bulldoze the entire world to get at the buried artifacts, but if a new tunnel is planned anyway, it’s nice to see what’s down there.

    Of course, the analogy fails when you consider that deforestation doesn’t benefit anyone.

  2. Cusp

    Phil – the word “Deforestation” only appears once in that report – in the opening line, and a mention of clearing a little further down.

    And clearly the local geology/topology (i.e. the flow of the river) “reveals” the same structure.

    It’s a weird story.

  3. Ward

    Well if we cut everything down then we will see all that is hidden. We’ll have a lot harder time breathing but hey, you win some you lose some.

  4. Art

    I like trees more than craters, too.

    Is the demand for lumber and pulp really so high, that we must perpetually deforest the planet? If so, shouldn’t governments mandate some form of community/regional recycling? I don’t get it.

    Single-stream recycling would be a simple solution. If only the masses could differentiate between food waste and recyclables…. Oh, most of them can. So why isn’t it being used?

    It’s the least we could do, if we’re going to continue to waste resources at an exponential rate.

    Either we can reduce our numbers (and waste,) gradually, or they’ll be reduced for us, rapidly, through starvation and competition.

  5. Ron1

    Ward says: … “You win some you lose some.”

    No! The forests are the lungs of this planet. If we lose them we loose, period.

  6. Stephan

    The article mentions, and the satellite imagery shows, that there is a river flowing around the rim of the impact crater. I’m surprised that a river flowing in a circle wouldn’t tip someone off that there is an unusual feature here, regardless of forest cover.

  7. Stephan

    By the way, you can see this feature in Google Earth at 3°37’38.00″S, 24°30’57.00″E

  8. Bryan Feir

    Art@2:

    I’m reminded of comments about Haiti from years ago.

    Seems that the only source of income for a number of families was going down and cutting down firewood, both to use themselves for cooking fires, and to sell to other people for their cooking fires. They also cut down trees to get land to plant food on.

    Few trees, of course, means no major windbreaks, which means that hurricanes tend to scour areas clean when they come by. And that means that most of the half-decent soil gets blown away as well, meaning that people will have to cut down MORE trees to get land that still has decent soil.

    Laws banning the practice of clear-cutting have been tried. When more of your population relies on cutting firewood for their income than are police officers… it can’t be enforced.

    I’ll admit I don’t know what the economic situation is like in the Congo, but it wouldn’t surprise me if a lot of that ‘clear-cutting’ was being done piecemeal by lots of little people who don’t think their contribution will really change anything…

    And having just now actually read the second article, it seems that the ‘subsistence agriculture’ is indeed a major part of the problem.

  9. Thad

    Makes me wonder, now we know these things around, if there is some way we can detect craters like this without needing to pull down trees.

  10. Sir Eccles

    Looks kinda flat for New Zealand?

  11. Cory Albrecht

    @#4 “Looks kinda flat for New Zealand?

    Who said this was New Zealand?

  12. Ray

    Pretty cool. Trees grow back, so don’t cry so much.

  13. Astrofiend

    4. Art Says:
    March 11th, 2010 at 2:50 pm

    “I like trees more than craters, too.

    Is the demand for lumber and pulp really so high, that we must perpetually deforest the planet? If so, shouldn’t governments mandate some form of community/regional recycling? I don’t get it. ”

    Apparently so. And as far as this situation is concerned, it is very difficult to simply say to local populations and governments “stop logging, you are killing off something important” when the survival of the people in these countries literally depends on this resource.

    I am dead against logging of old growth forest in any first world nation – Tasmania in Australia for example. But until I would be willing to give up all of my life of privilege and luxury and convenience and literally spend every day toiling and scrapping just to eek out an existence and survive in a country like Congo or some areas of South America (and I am most certainly not willing to do that), then I have no right to criticise anyone for using what little resources they have at their disposal, regardless of whether they cut the trees themselves or work for a major logging company…

    I don’t think it would be a stretch to say that Congo is literally the worst place on Earth at the moment. The situation really is hell on Earth. I think they have more pressing concerns than worrying about trees…

  14. Darren Garrison

    Quoting someone else:

    Been posted on Google Earth boards as a potential
    crater since 2006. It’s in a Russian crater database
    under the name Omeonga:
    http://omzg.sscc.ru/impact/index1.html
    and also on the list of Suspected Earth Impact Sites (SEIS)
    http://web.eps.utk.edu/ifsg.htm

    The location is:
    3.625 S and 24.515 E

    Proof Positive that Il Professori d’Padova can Google….

    Is that how Columbus did it?

  15. Plutonium being from Pluto

    Trees are renewable as (#13.) Ray notes they’ll grow back eventually. Rainforests aren’t the only source of oxygen either – plankton & other land plants produce heaps too. Okay we don’t want todegforest and destroy the entire ecosystem but finding hidden craters is cool & interesting and we can learn and study more so I don’t have much of a problem with this.

    @ 14. Astrofiend Says:

    I don’t think it would be a stretch to say that Congo is literally the worst place on Earth at the moment.

    Sadly, there are a lot of other possible candidates for that dubious “honour” – Haiti, Western Sahara, Gaza, Turkmenistan and Xinjiang are just a few that spring to mind – plus other African hellholes like Niger, Ethiopa, Sudan esp. Darfur and well aside from South Africa most of that continent really.

    Being born in a first world developed civilised Western nation means we have won the planetary lottery in terms of circumsatnces and quality of life. That said, there are plenty of poor, severely disadvantaged and unfortunate people even in the West. We are probably immensely lucky not to realise just how very lucky we actually are.

    I think they have more pressing concerns than worrying about trees…

    Exactly! Environmental activism and worrying about trees and critters is a luxury made possible by having a good life & good national economy. If you are fighting just to survive and don’t know where your next meal is coming from – or if it is coming at all – then you arenot goingtocare about trees and furry cuties.

    Humans making a living and surviving (ie. the “dismal science” of economics & capitalism) is always going to come first and environment away behind – that’s just reality. Environmental extremists ignore this and bang their heads against this axiomatic truth at their peril. In many cases their actions are making life much worse and harder and they are too busy being sanctimonious and holier than thou to think about the consequences of their actions on those who are already worst off. People first people!

    Of course overpopulation is theroot cause of many environmental issues too – in many cases the sad stark truth is we need to cut the number of people by a very serious percentage. All quite depressing but unfortunately I don’t see any way around it. :-(

    Trees are renewable as (#13.) Ray notes they’ll grow back eventually. Rainforests aren’t the only source of oxygen either – plankton & other land plants produce heaps too. Okay we don’t want to deforest and destroy the entire ecosystem but finding hidden craters is cool & interesting. We can learn and study so much more so I don’t have much of a problem with this.

    @ 14. Astrofiend Says:

    I don’t think it would be a stretch to say that Congo is literally the worst place on Earth at the moment.

    Sadly, there are a lot of other possible candidates for that dubious “honour” – Haiti, Western Sahara, Gaza, Turkmenistan and Xinjiang are just a few that spring to mind – plus other African hellholes like Niger, Ethiopa, Sudan esp. Darfur and well aside from South Africa most of that continent really.

    Being born in a first world developed civilised Western nation means we have won the planetary lottery in terms of circumsatnces and quality of life. That said, there are plenty of poor, severely disadvantaged and unfortunate people even in the West. We are probably immensely lucky not to realise just how very lucky we actually are.

    I think they have more pressing concerns than worrying about trees…

    Exactly! Environmental activism and worrying about trees and critters is a luxury made possible by having a good life & good national economy. We Wseterners can afford it -for now – sort of. The rest of the Earth’s populace cannot. We have have no right to impose it on them.

    If you are fighting just to survive and don’t know where your next meal is coming from – or if it is coming at all – then you are not going to care about trees and furry cuties. Humans making a living and surviving (ie. the “dismal science” of economics & capitalism) is always going to come first and environment away behind – that’s just reality.

    Environmental extremists ignore this and bang their heads against this axiomatic truth at their peril. In many cases their actions are making life much worse and harder and they are too busy being sanctimonious and holier than thou to think about the consequences of their actions on those who are already worst off. People first people!

    Of course, overpopulation is the root cause of many environmental issues too – in many cases the sad stark truth is we need to cut the number of people by a very serious percentage. All quite depressing but unfortunately I don’t see any way around it. :-(

  16. I have seen far worse things suggested to support unrestrained mining, drilling, and polluting.

    Don’t forget genocide.

    People are dying for your cellphones, folks.

  17. Plutonium being from Pluto

    D’oh! Sorry that wasn’t supposed to be said twice. I thought I’d deleted the “test copy in case of problems.” Ran out of editing time too. Sigh.

  18. Jess Tauber

    In the Congo pygmies (a significant percentage of the population of the forests, and outside) are slaughtered en masse by all sides in the recent wars, sometimes EATEN (because they are thought of as animals by Bantu peoples), but mostly to get at the natural resources in territories they occupy, both trees (mostly these days cut by or for big lumber companies, not for local consumption, or charcoal, or for significant mineral resources the soil covers. The bushmeat trade (most of which ends up in big city restaurants, including in Europe) then goes in and kills all the animals- there are forest remnants in West Africa where there aren’t any animals bigger than sparrows anymore.

    Just proves that no matter where you go (and there you are), people are the same everywhere.

    Despite warnings from researchers, the bulk of humanity will go blindly on over the cliff (and when things are too late I’m sure they’ll blame the researchers….).

  19. Yay, Deforestation !!!

    1. Deforestation

    2. ????

    3. Profit !!!!

  20. I can hope no one would be so crass as to suggest we should continue to deforest our planet in hopes of finding more treasures …

    Umm … Phil … what do you think is happening right now? Under your very eyes ?

    The whole world is going to be deforested in about 50 years at current deforestation rates. Just as the whole ocean is going to be rendered fish-less in about 50 years at current factory fishing rates.

    Does anyone here actually blog about science?

  21. DreamDevil

    The whole world deforested in 50 years?
    I doubt it.

  22. Astrofiend

    21. Doug Watts Says:
    March 12th, 2010 at 1:27 am

    “Does anyone here actually blog about science?”

    Nope. We just piss about a lot.

  23. Astrofiend

    Plutonium being from Pluto Says:

    “We are probably immensely lucky not to realise just how very lucky we actually are.”

    Well put. It reminds me of the “Total Perspective Vortex” in The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Some things are too horrible for a human mind to wrap itself fully around – a true understanding of it all would be too overwhelming.

  24. davem

    Bryan@8:

    Look at a google map of Haiti/Dominica. Turn off the labels. You can still see the border – by the deforestation. Jared Diamond’s ‘Collapse’ covers this in detail.

    Re the craters – the BBC article mentions the biggest craters found so far, including one only 36mya. Were there extinction events to match Chicxulub?

  25. Brian the Coyote

    I recommend to anyone who has the chance to go and see a crater. I regularly travel past the giant Manicouagan crater in northern Quebec. The crater is now a spectacular ring-shaped lake. One of these days I’m going to take a week or two and kayak around the whole thing.

  26. Gary Ansorge

    There are a few logging companies that own their forests and regularly replant what they cut down(ok, that’s mostly here in the USA but is also true in a few other areas). So not all companies making a living off trees are rapacious.
    It’s usually the smaller farmer who does the slash and burn technique because it’s cheap and easy.

    That’s a big crater. Wonder if the dating will place its origin somewhere around 75 thousand years ago?
    Now, THAT would be interesting,,,

    GAry 7

  27. Agency

    Will you be funneling the profits from your books and upcoming TV show to the Congo so they don’t have to clear the forests? Most of the deforestation is cause by subsistence agriculture. I’m sure the refugees would love to personally apologize to everyone in this thread for letting their struggle for life offend your pampered, Western sensibilities.

    The whole world is going to be deforested in about 50 years at current deforestation rates.

    Forests are actually increasing in many areas like Europe (and the US last I checked). You see? *This* is why you doom and gloom environmentalists lose public support. You trot out stuff like this that five minutes of investigation can debunk.

    Here’s a Mark Twain quote to illustrate what you did there: “In the space of one hundred and seventy-six years the Mississippi has shortened itself two hundred and forty-two miles. Therefore … in the Old Silurian Period the Mississippi River was upward of one million three hundred thousand miles long … seven hundred and forty-two years from now the Mississippi will be only a mile and three-quarters long. … There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesome returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.”

  28. MinusOne

    I am dead against logging of old growth forest in any first world nation

    Younger forests consume more carbon. Just sayin’. The old growth areas ain’t pullin’ their weight.

  29. howie duzzit

    #4 says …..it is very difficult to simply say to local populations and governments “stop logging, you are killing off something important” when the survival of the people in these countries literally depends on this resource.

    Have ya noticed that all the areas of the world where this is true are controlled and Governed by Brown/Black people…(it even is extended to areas within successful nations mostly populated by brown/black people…as in inner city ghettos) Why is it that all the successful Nations are controlled and mostly populated by white people….I am truly not trying to be racist….but would like to know if there is some OTHER reason for this phenomena….

  30. Pat

    Wow. Hey idiot tree huggers, trees grow back. It really is that simple.

  31. Thameron

    As far as environmental degradation goes this is just the preliminaries people. The big show is coming. If you want to see the future pick up a copy of Soylent Green.

  32. Ward

    Ward says: … “You win some you lose some.”

    Ron1 says: … “No! The forests are the lungs of this planet. If we lose them we loose, period.”

    This is why I hate text some days, sarcasm just never translates.

    To be honest though trees are not the lungs of the Earth, the algea is.

  33. Regner Trampedach

    Ray@13 and Pat@28: You obviously don’t understand the problem, if you can sweep it away with a “trees grow back”. In most of these places, the only thing that keeps the soil in place, is the trees. I don’t know if any of you have seen the site of a clear-cutting, but it is completely demolished; The soil is turned up and with it, all the vegetation. The next good rainfall will wash a lot of that away, causing flash-floods and mud-slides, that have been pretty effective at killing people too – regardless of the huge loss of fertile top-soil washed to sea. Only recently have (a few) scientists started to recognize top-soil as a resource that isn’t unlimited, but is rapidly disappearing (by our hands). I hope I don’t need to spell out that trees need soil to grow. On top of that many of these forests, especially in mountains, grow exceedingly slowly, which means plant growth has no chance of catching up with soil depletion.
    Among other places, I have been to the Tarkine in Tasmania, Australia, and I fail to see why the Japanese needs toothpicks made out of (largely useless) wood from old growth forest. And they are NOT replanting, by the way! Plantations should be used for that and wood-chips and paper.
    – Regner

  34. ND

    Gary 7,

    What happened 75k years ago that requires a crater impact?

  35. Astrofiend

    Yep – dismissing logging with ‘trees grow back’ is moronic.

    1 – yes they do. It will just take hundreds of years to do so if the forest in question is old growth.
    2- when trees are felled, it kills the entire ecosystem in the area. These are unique – taking millennia to evolve to their current state. They don’t just ‘grow back’, at least not to their former glory.
    3- logged areas are usually claimed for human settlements/activity/farming practices, meaning the trees most certainly WILL NOT grow back.
    4- even if humans don’t claim the land, the soil is usually rooted after an area is logged, and this hinders regrowth.

    As you can see from my previous posts, I am not completely against logging. But logging of old-growth forests in nations where it is not a critical resource is madness. Take a trip to Tasmania in Australia – go to visit some of the most beautiful and wild areas remaining in the world. Then realise that these areas used to cover the whole island, and they have now been logged back to a tiny remaining bastion. Realise that the government wants to keep logging these areas. Travel around the rest of Tasmania and see for yourself how hideously ugly the place now is – you can literally drive for hours and see nothing but logged land – scorched Earth.

    Only old people can’t see how self evident it is that once these things are gone, they don’t just ‘grow back’ like the pot plants on their window sill. Then again, maybe they just don’t give a ___.

  36. Maybe we should simply deforest the rest of them and then find all the stuff we lost/forgot. Evidence states we’ll find some dinosaurs and rare gem stones. Don’t worry about replanting them either. We’ve got enough air for another – *gasp* /dies.

  37. Barrett808
  38. Grant M.

    After taking a look at this crater on Google Earth, I was struck by how similar it is to the Manicouagan Crater and reservoir seen here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manicouagan_Reservoir#Manicouagan_impact_crater

    It seems that this big boy has been visible all along, but no one noticed it yet. The circular fault of the crater has eroded to form a river valley that is way too big to be hidden by any jungle. It’s just that the deforestation of the surounding area makes it stand out.

    Time to start scanning through all the Google Earth imagery and discover some more craters. There’s a whole bunch of apparent craters visible in the Arctic as well. Has anyone cataloged all of these? Look at the SE shore of Hudson Bay. It’s never been confirmed as a crater, but it sure looks like one. If so, it’s the biggest on earth.

  39. Gary Ansorge

    36. ND

    Approximately 75,ooo years ago, our human ancestors experienced a “bottleneck” that nearly wiped out the species. There are numerous theories as to what caused this bottleneck, such as a super volcano in India which exploded around this time however, India is a far piece from Africa and I wonder why it affected humans so drastically but left the Neanderthal unaffected. Thus a local, African meteorite impact offers a more viable explanation. Unfortunately, this will probably be a very old crater. Bummer!

    The main thing about old growth timber is that it provides a stable eco-system(well, stable until We came along) for millions of species, many of which perish when those old trees are terminated. New growth supplements those old growth trees, but that takes time, a commodity in short supply for starving indigents.

    I suppose we, in the industrialized world, should just transplant those old growth trees to Europe and the USA, along with their indigenous species.

    Oh, Wait, our lands aren’t tropical, you say? ,,,and most of these trees won’t grow here? Well, I guess we’ll just have to wait until the planet heats up some more.

    GAry 7

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