White Pond, a 66-acre natural lake in Elgin, is far from a sci-fi scene; a cursory glance at the body of water reveals nothing out of the ordinary. Instead, Mother Nature timidly hides her secrets beneath the lake’s serene surface, inconspicuously preserving what geoarchaeologist Christopher Moore and his colleagues consider to be evidence of an extraterrestrial impact that occurred theoretically roughly 12,800 years ago at the onset of the Younger Dryas period.
“The Younger Dryas is a period of rapid cooling coming at the end of the last ice age,” Christopher says, “that occurred after we were beginning to warm up and continental glaciers were in retreat.” This period was marked by a dramatic climate shift in the Northern Hemisphere, if not the entire globe, which plunged the affected geographical areas into near glacial conditions.
For more than a century, scientists have sought an explanation for this major climate event. One such explanation, known as the Younger Dryas impact hypothesis, posits that the Younger Dryas period was catalyzed by a fragmented comet that came crashing into Earth, causing destabilization to Earth’s climate through the disruption of an ice sheet. According to this theory, many pieces of the comet exploded in the atmosphere, resulting in a cloud of smoke and soot. The extent of this soot shower would have blocked the sun for a period of weeks, if not months, decimating the food supply, severely affecting the population of the Clovis people, and potentially leading to the extinction of many ice age animals.
Many millennia later, possible remnants of this extraterrestrial explosion have been preserved within layer upon layer of packed sediment, commonly found in oceanic or terrestrial cores. As one of the South’s few natural lakes, White Pond stood out to Christopher and his team as a potential gold mine in their quest for evidence supporting an explosion of this nature — namely, the discovery of platinum.
“Platinum is a rare element that is common in comets and asteroids but is rare in the crust of the earth,” Christopher says. If and when the circumstances of the Younger Dryas impact hypothesis occurred, platinum-filled particles from the fragmentation of an exploding comet would have been released into the atmosphere. As gravity took its toll, platinum dust would have fallen onto the Earth’s surface, eventually becoming buried beneath newer layers of sediment in what is now referred to as the Younger Dryas boundary layer.
To reach this layer, which dates back 12,800 years, Christopher and his team set up an assemblage of tripod systems and excavation sites at White Pond. The tripod systems allow them to extract “time capsules,” Christopher’s affectionate term for mineral-rich terrestrial cores. Through a series of testing and dating, the team then develops a chronology of the layers that effectively presents a cylindrical timeline. The section of sediment from the Younger Dryas boundary layer extracted from White Pond revealed just what the team was hoping to find: elevated levels of platinum.
Christopher describes the findings at White Pond, which are consistent with a host of others that have amassed globally over the last decade, as “illuminating.” The implications of the body of evidence, he explains, are extensive. In short, an extraterrestrial explosion of the magnitude suggested by these discoveries would have affected every living thing at the time of its impact, from people to plants.
Even with this evidence, however, the work required to prove definitively the Younger Dryas impact hypothesis is not finished. In addition to their continued study of White Pond core samples, Christopher and his colleagues are actively expanding their research pool, setting up camp at sites in Florida, Maryland, and North Carolina, where they will attempt to replicate the evidence found in Elgin. White Pond, though, will remain a premiere case study in the quest to confirm the extraterrestrial explosion. “I wish I had more natural ponds to look at because the record they provide is often better than the archeological records we have,” Christopher says.