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A reassessment of the proposed ‘Lairg Impact Structure’ and its potential implications for the deep structure of northern Scotland


Abstract and Figures

The Lairg Gravity Low may represent a buried impact crater ∼40 km across that was the source of the 1.2 Ga Stac Fada Member ejecta deposit but the gravity anomaly is too large to represent a simple crater and there is no evidence of a central peak. Reanalysis of the point Bouguer gravity data reveals a ring of positive anomalies around the central low, suggesting that it might represent the eroded central part of a larger complex crater. The inner or peak rings of complex craters show a broadly consistent 2:1 relationship between ring diameter and total crater diameter, implying that the putative Lairg crater may be as much as 100 km across. This would place the crater rim within a few km of the Stac Fada Member outcrop, a location inconsistent with the thickness and clast size of the ejecta deposit. We propose that the putative impact crater originally lay further east, substantially further from the Stac Fada Member than today, and was translocated westwards to its present location beneath Lairg during the Caledonian Orogeny. This model requires that a deep-seated thrust fault, analogous to the Flannan and Outer Isles thrusts, exists beneath the Moine Thrust in north-central Scotland.
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Pre-peer review manuscript
A reevaluation of the proposed ‘Lairg Impact Structure’ and its potential implications for the
deep structure of northern Scotland
Michael J. Simms1 and Kord Ernstson2
1. Department of Natural Sciences, National Museums Northern Ireland, Cultra, Holywood, Co.
Down BT18 0EU, Northern Ireland.
2. Faculty of Philosophy, University of Würzburg, Germany.
It has been suggested that the Lairg Gravity Low represents a buried impact crater ~40 km across from
which the 1.2 Ga Stac Fada Member ejecta deposit originated. The structure is too large to represent a
simple crater, and there is no evidence of a central peak. Reanalysis of the point Bouguer gravity
anomaly data reveals a ring of positive anomalies around the central negative anomaly and we
interpret it as the eroded central part of a peak ring crater. Peak ring craters show a consistent 2:1
relationship between peak ring diameter and total crater diameter, implying that the putative Lairg
crater may be ~100 km across. This would place the rim of the crater within a few km of the Stac Fada
Member outcrop, a proximity that is inconsistent with the thickness and clast size of the ejecta deposit.
We propose that the impact crater was originally formed further east, at a substantially greater distance
from the Stac Fada Member than today. Subsequently it was translocated westwards, to its present
location beneath Lairg, during the Caledonian Orogeny. This suggests that a deep-seated thrust fault,
analogous to the Flannan and Outer Isles thrusts, exists beneath the Moine Thrust in north-central
The Stac Fada Member is a 4-12m thick unit exposed intermittently along the ~50km outcrop of the
fluviatile and lacustrine Stoer Group (Mesoproterozoic, ~1.2 Ga) in north-west Scotland. It contains
abundant devitrified angular melt clasts in a sandstone matrix and, for decades, was thought to be
volcanic in origin (Stewart 2002). However, the discovery of shocked mineral grains (Amor et al.
2008, Osinski et al. 2011, Reddy et al. 2015) prove that it is the product of a km-scale meteorite
impact. The near continuity of the Stac Fada Member outcrop was interpreted as evidence of its
relative proximity to the impact crater (Amor et al. 2008) yet Stoer Group strata beneath the impact
deposit are undisturbed, indicating that the present outcrop lies significantly beyond the crater rim.
Amor et al. (2008) suggested that the crater was located to the west, perhaps buried beneath a thick
cover of younger rocks in what is now the Minch Basin, but Stewart (2002) had contended previously
that the source of the Stac Fada Member, which he considered volcaniclastic in origin, actually lay to
the east. Simms (2015) similarly argued for an eastern source leading to the inference that the crater, if
it still exists, may lie beneath mainland Scotland. However, Proterozoic and Archean target rocks
across much of the region now lie buried beneath a cover of predominantly Moinian (Neoproterozoic,
~1 Ga) metasediments that were thrust westwards across northern Scotland ~430 Ma ago (McClay and
Coward 1981). As such it is unlikely that any physical manifestation of the crater will exist at the
surface, even assuming that it survived many millions of years of post-impact erosion and the effects
of subsequent tectonism associated with the Moine Thrust. However, geophysical methods offer the
potential for locating a buried impact crater (Pilkington and Grieve 1992).
Geophysical surveys (BGS map; Rollin et al. 2009; Leslie et al. 2010) have revealed a deep gravity
anomaly centred on the town of Lairg, little more than ~50 km east of the Stac Fada Member outcrop
at its closest point. There is a remarkable correspondence between the location of the Lairg Gravity
Low, as it is known, and the location of the impact crater as predicted from inferred source directions
of the Stac Fada Member impact ejecta sheet (Simms 2015). Comparing the Lairg Gravity Low with
gravity signatures of other impact structures led to the suggestion that it might represent an impact
structure in the Archean basement that now lies buried by overthrust Moinian metasediments (Simms
2015). The Moine Thrust which underlies these metasediments is considered to be near horizontal,
and at relatively shallow depth (~1 km) across much of northern Scotland.
Simms (2015) estimated the putative Lairg impact crater to have a diameter of at least 40 km based on
the original geophysical analyses of Rollin et al. (2009), although recognising that erosion and/or
tectonic effects might significantly have modified an originally larger structure (Simms 2016). This
would place it among the fifteen largest of almost 200 impact craters currently known on Earth
(Hergarten and Kenkmann 2015).
Erosion of the impact crater
A pronounced angular unconformity exists between the Stoer Group (Mesoproterozoic, ~1.2 Ga) and
the Torridon Group (Neoproterozoic, ~1 Ga) on the west coast of northern Scotland. Further east the
Stoer Group is absent and the Torridon Group rests directly on a deeply eroded surface of Lewisian
Gneiss (Archean, ~3 Ga). These observations testify to the scale of erosion that the crater may have
experienced in the almost 200 million year interval between the impact and deposition of the Torridon
Group. This is comparable with the time elapsed since the Manicouagan impact structure in eastern
Canada was formed 214 million years ago. It is estimated that 2 km or more of post-impact denudation
has occurred in this region since the late Triassic (Degeai and Peulvast 2006), reducing the crater from
an original estimated diameter of 100 km to the 72 km diameter structure currently visible. As such the
Manicouagan Crater might be considered broadly analogous with the putative Lairg crater at the onset
of Torridon Group deposition. Post-impact erosion and/or the effects of Caledonian tectonics might
have removed shallower parts of the Lairg impact crater, similarly reducing its apparent diameter to
what we see today in the published geophysical data. Although nothing of the Lairg structure is visible
at the surface, reanalysis of the gravity data may help to clarify aspects of the Archean crust beneath
the Lairg Gravity Low and ascertain if what we see today is a true reflection of the original structure.
Crater scale vs. structure
If pre-Torridon erosion removed the outer parts of the Lairg Crater, how might we determine if what
remains is a reasonable representation of the original crater or is merely part of a once larger structure?
The answer lies in identifying some of the fundamental differences in crater structure that accompany
an increase in crater size, from simple bowl-shaped craters to complex multi-ring structures (Morgan
et al. 2016), and ascertaining if any of these critical features are evident in the gravity data.
Bowl-shaped Simple Craters on Earth, such as Meteor Crater in Arizona, USA, are no more than a few
kilometres across and approximate more closely to the shape and dimensions of the original transient
crater than do larger impact structures (Melosh 1989). In larger and deeper structures the walls of the
transient crater collapse and, coupled with uplift of the central part of the floor, generate Complex
Craters that are substantially wider and shallower than the original transient cavity. Failure of the walls
along concentric fractures may produce ring-shaped troughs and terraces in the upper part of the crater
while accommodation factors associated with inward slumping commonly give rise to radial
transpressional ridges (Kenckmann and van Dalwigk 2000). Impact structures become increasingly
complex with size and at diameters greater than ~25 km the central peak is replaced by a basin
surrounded by a raised ring (Osinski and Pierazzo 2013). The very largest terrestrial structures have
multiple rings but on Earth only Sudbury, Chicxulub and Vredefort fall into this category (French
1998). It is these observed changes in crater structure with scale that have implications for reevaluating
the putative impact crater beneath Lairg.
The Lairg Gravity Low appears to represent a bowl-like structure, yet it is far too large to be a Simple
Crater. The extent and thickness of the Stac Fada Member impact deposit at outcrop also implies a
structure at least several tens of kilometres across, which is broadly consistent with the 40 km diameter
estimated for the putative Lairg crater (Simms 2015). Such a crater might be anticipated to have either
a central peak or a peak ring, yet neither can be discerned in the original analyses of the Lairg Gravity
Low by either Rollin (2009) or Leslie et al. (2010). Our reanalysis of the gravity data aims to shed
light on the some of the finer details of the structure responsible for the Lairg gravity anomaly. This
need not detract from the basic hypothesis that the Lairg Gravity Low represents an entire impact
crater since the coarseness of previous analyses may have masked critical diagnostic features or,
alternatively, that it actually represents the central basin of a substantially larger peak ring impact
Re-evaluation of the Lairg gravity field
The original gravity dataset analysed by Rollin et al (2009) is freely available from the British
Geological Survey. It is this data that has been reanalysed by one of us (KE).
1. Data and new processing
From the Bouguer gravity anomaly database of the British Geological Survey (Rollin 2009) a
rectangular field of gravity stations was selected (Fig. 2), located with respect to the negative anomaly
centred on Lairg (Fig. 3). The size of the rectangle is somewhat arbitrary and is constrained by the
presence of sea in the north-western and south-eastern corners of the region, and by the distribution of
the surrounding regional gravity anomalies that may influence the Lairg local anomaly. The window
comprises about 10,000 data, corresponding to approximately one gravity station per square kilometre.
For the Bouguer gravity field (Fig. 3) a regional trend field was computed applying strong low-pass
filtering of the data by a multifold moving average. We recognise that constructing a gravity regional
field is an ambiguous process that may preferentially accentuate long-wavelength or short-wavelength
anomalies but, after several attempts with various filters, the regional field shown in Fig. 4 is
considered a reasonable compromise. A Bouguer residual anomaly (Fig. 5) was then derived by
subtracting the regional field (Fig. 4) from the measured Bouguer field (Fig. 3). This generated a
complex picture of short-wavelength anomalies within which a ring of relatively positive anomalies
surrounds the conspicuous negative anomaly centred on Lairg.
2. Gravity profiles and model calculations
Three profiles of Bouguer data were constructed from the map of the Lairg residual anomalies, shown
in fig. 5, with each crossing the centre of the Lairg negative anomaly (Fig. 6). Their orientation was
chosen to evaluate various features of the Lairg anomaly, with the three gravity profiles compared in
Fig. 7. All three profiles have a similar shape with a somewhat structured slope towards the central
gravity minimum. The peripheral ring of positive anomalies is striking and is broken only by a gap in
the north. The NW - SE and SW - NE gravity profiles were selected for a very simple 2.5D model
calculation (Fig. 8). In the absence of more specific density data, a straightforward modelling produces
a two-layer density distribution that assumes a mass deficit responsible for the Lairg gravity anomaly.
Because of this simple assumption the shape of the negative mass follows more or less the shape of the
gravity curve and reveals a step-like slope of the central depression with a depth extending to about 3
km below the thrust plane. This is surrounded by a rim wall with a diameter of approximately 50 km,
and a peripheral shallow mass deficit.
From potential theory it is known that the integration over a gravity anomaly provides a measure of the
total mass responsible for the anomaly, regardless of the density distribution within the mass. Once a
model adaptation to a measured gravity anomaly has been performed, its mass is the same for all other
density distributions providing they fit the measured gravity. This is the basis for a very coarse
evaluation of the central mass deficit producing the Lairg central negative anomaly. Because of the
simple mass calculation for a spherical segment the geological mass of the Lairg central structure has
been replaced by such a segment with a density of 0.15 g/cm3 (Fig. 9) and a total mass defecit of 7 x
1014 kg.
3. The Lairg Gravity Low as an impact structure
Gravity surveys across terrestrial impact craters have contributed to understanding their specific
structure and impact cratering processes in general (Pilkington and Grieve 1992, Sharpton et al. 1993,
Pohl 2015, and others).
The Lairg Gravity Low lacks any evidence of a central uplift but our reanalysis of the gravity data
does reveal a ring of relatively positive anomalies surrounding the central negative anomaly. We
interpret this circle of positive anomalies as an Inner Peak Ring, developed through elastic rebound
and slumping of the transient crater walls at the end of the excavation stage (Melosh 1989, Kenkmann
et al. 2013). Rock from greater depths may be uplifted in these ring structures which, because of the
general increase in density with depth, can account for the positive gravity anomalies. It is not
uncommon for the inner ring of a peak ring crater to be incomplete (Morgan 2016) and hence the
presence of gaps in the ring-like structure that we have identified does not detract from our
interpretation of it as an impact crater. On the contrary, the existence of a ring of negative gravity
anomalies beyond the ring of positive anomalies (Fig. 7) supports our model of a peak ring crater. To
interpret the ring of positive anomalies as representing the rim of a smaller 50 km-diameter impact
structure is inconsistent with density reduction that might be expected in the rim region through
deposition of low-density ejecta and slumping in the modification stage.
We have compared the gravity profiles across the Lairg anomaly with gravity profiles for several
proven impact structures of diameters ranging between 25 km (Ries crater) and ~180 km (Chicxulub
impact structure) (Fig. 10). Craters comparable in size to that postulated for Lairg are Manicouagan
(~100 km), Popigai (100 km) and Chesapeake (85 km), but there is not a standard gravity profile for
these large complex impact structures. This is underlined by the statement of Wünnemann et al. (2005)
that pre-impact target properties may exert a considerable influence on the structure of complex craters
on Earth. This is reflected in considerable variations in gravity signature even among structures of
similar size, such as the Manicouagan and Popigai impact structures (Fig. 11). From this it is evident
that the Lairg gravity anomaly has most in common with the 100-km diameter Popigai impact
structure but also bears similarities to smaller complex craters, particularly the Rochechouart impact
structure in south-west France. The Rochechouart crater has experienced significant erosion such that
clear morphological features of a crater structure are no longer evident at the surface. Nonetheless
there is clear lithological evidence at the surface for its impact origin, in the form of impact melt rocks,
suevites, breccias and breccia dikes. Originally thought to have a diameter of between 20 and 35 km
(e.g., Pohl 2015), others have considered a diameter of 40 or 50 km to be more realistic (Sapers et al.
2014). This larger estimate corresponds more closely to the pronounced gravity signature shown in
Fig. 10, although not actually referred to by Sapers et al. (2014). In less eroded impact structures in
sedimentary or mixed lithology targets, peak ring uplift may be recognized through lithological
contrasts, but this has proven difficult for the deeply eroded Rochechouart structure where the target is
entirely crystalline. Hence, although the Rochechouart gravity signature suggest a peak-ring uplift
there is, as yet, no direct lithological evidence to confirm this (Fig. 10). At the Ries crater, in southern
Germany, low-density, post-impact, lake sediments up to 400 metres thick occur within the central part
of the crater and contribute significantly to the magnitude of the negative gravity anomaly. The
presence of an inner peak ring at Ries is proven by inliers of uplifted crystalline basement rock
projecting through the post-impact lake sediments, and also indicated by various geophysical
measurements (e.g. Pohl et al. 1977). After subtracting the lake sediment contribution from the overall
Ries gravity anomaly the resultant gravity curve closely resembles the Rochechouart and Lairg
anomalies. The results from our reanalysis of gravity data across the Lairg region compare favourably
with gravity signatures across proven impact structures. Although it does not prove conclusively that
an impact crater exists at this location, it does lend support to our hypothesis that the Lairg Gravity
Low may represent part of a once much larger impact structure.
4. Extrapolating crater size from peak-ring diameter
A consistent relationship has been observed for the relative dimensions of peak ring craters, with total
crater diameter approximately twice that of peak ring diameter (Fig 11). Although there are relatively
few well-documented examples on Earth, many others are known from rocky bodies elsewhere in the
Solar System and this relationship appears to be independent of both crater size and location on other
Solar System bodies (Melosh 2015). This ‘Factor 2’ rule for complex impact craters with inner peak
rings has significant implications for interpreting the gravity signature of the Lairg structure. If our
estimate of 50 km diameter for the Lairg Gravity Low represents the full crater diameter, then we
might anticipate a peak ring 25 km across. By comparison with other impact crater gravity signatures,
previously discussed, then we would expect to recognize this in the Lairg gravity data as at least a
subtle inflexion or change of gravity gradientsuggesting a diameter of roughly 100 km for the
complete Lairg impact crater.
Applying this estimated figure to the approximate mass deficit calculated from the gravity anomaly
indicates that the Lairg structure is comparable with the mass deficit associated with many other
terrestrial impact structures (Fig. 12) and, as such, this would make Lairg the largest impact structure
yet discovered in Europe.
Constraints on the size of the Lairg impact structure
The Stac Fada Member impact deposit was described as a 'proximal ejecta blanket' on account of its
near continuous outcrop (notwithstanding recent erosion) (Amor et al. 2008). The absence of large
scale disruption of strata or significant soft-sediment deformation in the pre-impact Stoer Group
succession indicates that the present outcrop, which at its closest point is just 55 km from the centre of
the Lairg Gravity Low, lay beyond the area materially affected by seismic shocks associated with the
impact and ensuing crater formation. Claims have been made for impact-induced seismites associated
with, but hundreds of kilometres from, several large impact craters, among them Chicxulub (Renne et
al. 2018), Manicouagan (Clutson et al. 2018) and Sudbury Addison et al. 2005). For many other craters
no such claims have been made, although this may reflect an absence of appropriate strata in which
they might be preserved. However, the absence of any impact-induced seismite in the Stoer Group,
among sediments that demonstrably are prone to soft sediment deformation (Stewart 2002) remains
enigmatic and suggests that the impact was a considerable distance from the present outcrop of the
impact deposit.
But what other constraints might be placed on the original extent of the Lairg impact structure? In
particular, how might a potentially 100 km diameter impact crater be accommodated in the gap
between Lairg, at the approximate centre of the structure, and the present outcrop of the Stac Fada
Member on the coast to the west? A crater of 50 km diameter centred on Lairg would not impinge on
the main Lewisian outcrop west of the Moine Thrust, which is consistent with the absence of any
impact related structures there. However, this apparent absence of evidence need not necessarily
discount the possibility that the crater was originally twice this size, at ~100 km across, extending
significantly beyond the present limit of the Moine Thrust.
The scale of post-impact erosion experienced by the crater can be inferred from the angular
unconformity between the Stoer Group, dipping at 23o to the west, and the near horizontal Torridon
Group that truncates it. This may be significant for delimiting the original extent of the crater.
Hundreds of metres, and perhaps even 2 km or more, of Stoer Group strata were removed from areas
to the east of its present outcrop where Torridon Group strata now rest directly on the Lewisian
basement. No direct evidence of impact, in the form of shatter cones, pseudotachylite, or large-scale
brecciation, has been identified in any of the Lewisian outcrops between the Moine Thrust and the
Stoer Group outcrop, while published geological maps do not reveal any pattern of large-scale
fractures that might reflect the existence of an impact crater. However, if we consider the processes of
complex crater formation it is possible that the outer edge of the crater, once extending into this
foreland region, might have been removed by erosion.
During the initial moments of the impact process a deep transient crater is formed, of the order of 8 km
for a final crater width of ~50 km. Gravity-driven collapse processes rapidly transform this transient
cavity into a wider, and shallower, complex crater in which shallow structures, such as listric faults
and subhorizontal basement detachments, develop towards the margins (Kenkmann and Dalwigk
2000). Inevitably these shallow marginal structures are more vulnerable to erosion than the deeper
more central parts of the crater. The potential scale of erosion already described may then have
removed the shallow outer edges of the crater across the current Lewisian outcrop before deposition of
the Torridon Group commenced. The westward dip of the Stoer Group beneath the basal Torridon
Group unconformity (Stewart 2002) has further implications for the potential destruction of any
westward extension of the crater. It implies that the Lewisian basement, on which the Stoer Group
rests, was similarly tilted for an unknown distance east of the present Stoer Group outcrop. By
inference, the sub-horizontal basal Torridonian unconformity, passing as it does onto successively
older Stoer Group strata and then onto the underlying Lewisian, reflects an eastward increase in the
scale of erosion. Assuming that the westward tilt evident in the Stoer Group did not extend across the
entire outcrop/subcrop of the Lewisian basement then some sort of 'hinge' structure, or perhaps a series
of rotational blocks tilted to the west, must exist to the east of the present Stoer Group outcrop. Were
this not the case then simple geometry would necessitate more than 30km depth of pre-Torridonian
erosion towards the eastern side of the subcrop. Cambrian strata rest uncomformably upon the
Torridon Group and today dip eastwards (Peach et al. 1907). This implies a still steeper westward
tilting of the Stoer Group during the early Palaeozoic and, as such, the depth of erosion of a
hypothetical ‘unhinged’ basement would be greater still.
Resolving the paradox
It is impossible to accommodate a 50 km radius impact crater between the Stoer Group outcrop and its
centre at Lairg solely by invoking post-impact erosion of the outer parts of the crater. Our upper
estimate of crater size, approximately 100 km, reduces the distance between the original crater edge
and the current Stoer Group outcrop to a minimum of just a few kilometres. This is incompatible with
what is, or rather what is not, observed within the Stac Fada Member and contiguous strata. The
absence of any impact-generated seismite within the sandstones of the immediately pre-impact Stoer
Group, sediments that demonstrably are prone to soft-sediment deformation (Stewart 2002), has
already been alluded to. Furthermore, the Earth Impact Effects programme (Collins et al. 2005)
predicts that an ejecta deposit in such close proximity would be several hundred metres thick and
would incorporate very much coarser debris than is found in the Stac Fada Member ejecta deposit. The
inevitable conclusion is that if the putative Lairg impact crater is as large as our interpretation of the
gravity data suggests, then the spatial relationship between the crater and the Stac Fada Member
outcrop must have changed since they formed.
The original interpretion of the Lairg Gravity Low as an impact crater (Simms 2015) followed the
consensus view that the Moine Thrust did not descend significantly into the Archean basement. As
such the relationship between the crater and the present Stoer Group outcrop would not have changed
significantly. With an estimated crater diameter of just 40 km this did not present a major issue, since
the closest approach of the Stoer Group outcrop was more than 30 km beyond the supposed rim of the
crater. However, to reconcile a 100 km diameter crater centred on Lairg with an impact ejecta deposit
only ~10 metres thick and just 60-70 km to the west of Lairg, it would be necessary to invoke crustal
shortening of the Archean basement sufficient to translocate the crater westwards for at least several
tens of kilometres from its original position. Is this possible and, if so, is there any evidence that might
support such a model?
The Moine Thrust has been the focus of geological research for more than a century (Law et al. 2010).
Its outcrop has been mapped in extraordinary detail and is the subject of numerous papers interpreting
its structure. The current prevailing view is that the Moine Thrust is part of a thin-skinned thrust belt in
which movement is located largely above the Archean basement (in which the putative crater is
located) and extends east at relatively shallow depth for tens of kilometres from its present surface
trace (Coward 1980, 1983, Elliott and Johnson 1980, Butler and Coward 1984, Butler 2010).
Interpretation of the deep crustal structure further east in northern Scotland remains far from resolved
(Butler 2007) and is based to a significant extent on extrapolation from observations at outcrop to the
west and from direct observations of basement inliers and shallow structures within the Moinian
further east. However, Brewer and Smythe (1984) specifically state that "surface mapping
incapable of revealing all the fundamental structures of an orogenic belt".
In contrast to the thin-skinned models, others have used essentially the same field observations, often
coupled with geophysical data, to argue for a much steeper thrust extending down to the Moho
(Watson and Dunning 1979, Stewart 1982, Soper and Barber 1982), with some of these models not far
removed from current thinking on the nature of thick-skinned tectonics (e.g. Soper and Barber 1982).
Significantly in this respect, geophysical evidence does suggest that a component of thick-skinned
Caledonian thrusting may exist beneath northern Scotland.
Several large-scale geophysical surveys of parts of northern Britain, including LISPB (Lithospheric
Seismic Profile in Britain; Barton 1992), MOIST (Moine and Outer Isles Seismic Traverse; Blundell et
al. 1985) and BIRPS (British Institutions Reflection Profiling Syndicate; Brewer et al. 1983, Brewer
and Smythe, 1984), have identified prominent reflectors broadly parallel to the Moine Thrust and
descending eastwards at angles between about 20o and 45o. Some flatten out at 17-20 km depth while
others penetrate a conspicuous reflector that has been interpreted as the Moho. At least one of these
inclined reflectors can be attributed to a known thrust fault, the Outer Isles Thrust, that is developed
entirely in Lewisian basement. The others are assumed to represent similar structures. McBride and
England (1994) interpreted them as evidence for thick-skinned thrusting associated with the Moine
Thrust, which suggests that additional thrusts might exist within the Lewisian basement beneath the
Moine Thrust itself. This view is broadly in accordance with that previously suggested by Butler and
Coward (1984) who envisaged that thrust imbrication was developed within the Lewisian along ductile
shear zones.
The scale of crustal shortening attributable to the Moine Thrust has been a key aspect of many
publications, with estimates of between 25 km and 100 km suggested (Elliott and Johnson 1980, Butler
and Coward 1984, Barr et al. 1986, Butler et al. 2006). Many of these figures are based on thin-
skinned models, in which movement has occurred predominantly in the cover rocks (Moine
metasediments and Proterozoic to Lower Palaeozoic sediments) rather than in the Lewisian basement
and, as such, they have little relevance to the question we raise here of how the Lairg crater might have
been translocated westwards.
However, the Crustal Duplex model of Soper and Barber (1982), based on the LISPB data, envisaged a
sigmoidal form in which the Moine Thrust steepened eastward to a maximum of 40o to 45o before
flattening out at a depth of perhaps 10 km where it joined a floor thrust in the lower crust. This is more
akin to current thinking on thick-skinned tectonics than the steep structure envisaged by Watson and
Dunning (1979), with the latter model rendered untenable if the substantial displacements measured on
the Moine Thrust Zone are accepted. Significantly, Soper and Barber (1982) cited a value of 66% for
Caledonian crustal shortening across the northern Highlands. As such a thick-skinned model such as
this might provide a mechanism by which the crater, or at least its eroded remnant, could be moved
westwards towards the Stoer Group outcrop.
Our suggestion that the Lairg Gravity Low represents the central part of a complex peak ring crater has
come from a reanalysis of the gravity data. The most parsimonious interpretation might be that the
Lairg Gravity Low represents a 50 km crater with the outer rim represented by the ring of positive
anomalies surrounding the central negative anomaly, and the peak ring perhaps represented by subtle
changes in the gravity gradients within the central low. However, this is consistent neither with the
gravity signatures for known peak ring craters nor with the specific gravity signature of the Lairg
Gravity Low where a ring of positive anomalies is itself surrounded by slight negative anomalies.
Instead the Lairg Gravity Low compares more closely with the peak ring and central low of a
substantially larger complex crater. In this respect it is interesting to note that Schedl (2015) used the
thickness of the Stac Fada Member and the size of accretionary lapilli within it to arrive at an estimate
of 80 to 160 km for crater diameter and a location 225 to 325 km away.
Meteorite impacts on the scale of that suggested by the extent of the Stac Fada Member will cause
extensive and deep fracturing of the lithosphere. These fractures potentially may persist as major
crustal weaknesses for hundreds of millions of years (Norman 1984). Substantial erosion of the
putative 'Lairg Crater', between its formation in the Mesoproterozoic and its burial in the
Neoproterozoic, may have reduced it from 100 km across to the 50 km diameter remnant now evident
from the gravity data but deep fracturing associated with the impact may have extended significantly
beyond this eroded remnant. These fractures may have acted subsequently as foci for deep-seated
thrust movements during the Caledonian Orogeny. As such a 100 km diameter Mesoproterozoic
impact crater may have been the architect of its own translocation from a site substantially further east
to its current resting place beneath Lairg. This process may have further truncated the outer parts of the
crater, perhaps accounting for the markedly straight western flank of the Lairg Gravity Low that runs
virtually parallel to the strike of the Moine Thrust.
The deep structure of the crust to the east of the Moine Thrust Belt remains unclear. Present consensus,
based on structures seen at outcrop in the west, favours a thin-skinned model. However, steep thrust
planes descend deep into the crust to the north and west of the mainland outcrop of the Moine Thrust
and demonstrate that thick-skinned tectonics have played an equally significant role in crustal
shortening across this region during the Caledonian Orogeny. As such we suggest that movement on a
similar deep structure, or structures, further east could accommodate an impact structure on this scale
and might account for the seeming mismatch between the inferred scale of the impact, as deduced
from the Lairg Gravity Low, and its proximity to the Stac Fada Member impact deposit.
Other types of geophysical survey across the region have proven inconclusive in understanding the
nature of the Lairg Gravity Low. There is a minor magnetic anomaly in the same area, but it covers a
substantially smaller area than the gravity low and has been attributed to the Rogart-Grudie granite
pluton (Rollin 2009). At sites of proven impact structures magnetic surveys generally have proven less
useful than gravity surveys. For some, such as Chicxulub, there is a distinct magnetic signature
(Rebolledo-Vieyra and Urrutia-Fucugauchi 2004) but for many others the signal is at best equivocal
and varies greatly according to target rock composition, impact-related magnetization, and the effects
of subsequent crater fill (Cowan and Cooper 2005).
Ultimately answers to these various questions, concerning the scale and even the very existence of the
proposed ‘Lairg impact structure’, and the postulated existence of deep-seated thrust faults passing
beneath it, must await a programme of deep drilling. Even if ultimately the ‘Lairg impact hypothesis’
proves to be unfounded, such an investigation could nonetheless throw considerable light on the
structure of northern Scotland east of the Moine Thrust Belt
We thank Renegade Pictures and Lairg & District Community Initiatives for their support of fieldwork
associated with this project.
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Figure captions
Fig 1. Regional geology of northern Scotland showing the outcrop of the Stoer Group and its
relationship to the residual gravity field (contoured at 2mGal intervals) for the Lairg Gravity Low
(from Rollin, 2009). Arrows indicate directional azimuths within the Stac Fada Member.
Fig. 2. Gravity stations of the British Geological Survey in northern Scotland. The rectangle centred
with respect to the Lairg Gravity Low (cross) frames the station used for the re-evaluation of the Lairg
gravity field.
Fig. 3. Bouguer anomaly map for the framed gravity stations in Fig. #1 displaying the roughly circular
Lairg negative anomaly. Please note that because of the sea the most northwesterly and southeasterly
parts of the Bouguer map lack any gravity stations.
Fig. 4. A regional trend field computed from the Bouguer anomalies in Fig. #2 by radical moving
average low-pass filtering.
Fig. 5. Bouguer residual anomalies for the Lairg gravity field, with contours at 1 mgal intervals. The
residual field results from subtracting the regional field (Fig. #3) from the measured Bouguer field
(Fig. #2). Note that in the residual field the central negative anomaly is enclosed by a roughly circular
ring of relatively positive anomalies. Dashed red line is circle of radius 25 km centred on the gravity
Fig. 6. Three dashed lines selected for diametric gravity profiles across the Lairg gravity minimum
(see Fig. #6). From the circle a diameter of nearly 50 km for the ring of positive anomalies can be
Fig. 7. The Bouguer gravity profiles taken from the Bouguer map in Fig. #5 revealing roughly similar
shape with regard to the central negative anomaly and the surrounding ring of relatively positive
anomalies that are only faintly developed on the NNW - SSE profile. Also note the ring of continued
gravity lows beyond the suggested peak ring (arrowed) strongly supporting the peak ring character of a
much larger Lairg impact structure.
Fig. 8. Results of 2.5D model calculation of a very simple two-layer density model for the NW - SE
and the SW - NE gravity profiles. For reasons of simplicity, and because effectively the gravity
evaluation lacks any "true" zero level, a constant regional shift of -10 mgal has been applied to the
curves in Fig. 7.
Fig. 9. Rough approximation of the mass deficit related to the central anomaly by a spherical segment
of -0.15 g/cm3 density defecit. Model without vertical exaggeration.
Fig. 10. Gravity residual anomalies of impact structures of various sizes compared with the Lairg
residual anomaly. Note the different scales. Sources: Chicxulub (modified from Hildebrand et al.
1998), Manicouagan (modified from Sweeny 1978), Popigai (modified from Pilkington 2002), Lairg
(this paper), Chesapeake (digitised from Gravity Map, Earth Impact Database), Rochechouart
(modified from Schmidt 1984), Ries (digitised from gravity map in Kahle 1969).
Fig 11. Some peak-ring impact structures with an approximate double ratio of crater/peak-ring
Fig. 12. Gravity-derived mass deficits of terrestrial impact structures as a function of diameter.
Modified and supplemented from Ernstson and Fiebag (1992; with data from Pohl et al. [1978] and
references therein; Ernstson [1984]).
Fig. 13. Schematic sequence of the main events allowing accommodation of a 100 km diameter impact
crater centred upon the Lairg Gravity Low.
1170 Ma ago. A recently formed ~100 km diameter peak ring impact crater, surrounded by a thick and
extensive ejecta deposit blanketing the sediments of the Stoer Group, is filled with lake sediments
above a primary fill of impact breccia and impact melt.
1000 Ma ago. Prolonged erosion, prior to deposition of the Diabaig Formation (Neoproterozoic,
Torridon Group), removes the outer rim of the crater and much of the ejecta deposit and Stoer Group.
Just a remnant survives in a downfaulted block far to the west.
400 Ma ago. During the Caledonian Orogeny thin-skinned thrusting emplaces westwards a thick cover
of Moinian metasediments across the region. Thick-skinned thrusts extend deep into the Lewisian
basement, perhaps nucleated on fractures associated with the original impact, and translocate the
impact crater tens of kilometres westwards to its present position relative to the Stoer Group outcrop.
Today. Post-Caledonian erosion has stripped away the Moinian metasediments in the west to expose
the Stoer Group. The impact crater remains deeply buried beneath Lairg.
... The discovery of reidite (ZrSiO 4 ) provided further evidence of an impact origin (Reddy et al. 2015). The location of the source crater remains unresolved: one suggestion is The Minch (Fig. 1), northwest of the outcrop belt (Amor et al. 2019), and the other is the Lairg Gravity Low (Fig. 1) (Simms 2015;Simms and Ernstson 2019), which, if correct, has significant implications for the deep crustal structure of northern Scotland (Butler and Alsop 2019;Simms 2019;Simms and Ernstson 2019). ...
... The discovery of reidite (ZrSiO 4 ) provided further evidence of an impact origin (Reddy et al. 2015). The location of the source crater remains unresolved: one suggestion is The Minch (Fig. 1), northwest of the outcrop belt (Amor et al. 2019), and the other is the Lairg Gravity Low (Fig. 1) (Simms 2015;Simms and Ernstson 2019), which, if correct, has significant implications for the deep crustal structure of northern Scotland (Butler and Alsop 2019;Simms 2019;Simms and Ernstson 2019). ...
The origin of the Stac Fada Member has been debated for decades with several early hypotheses being proposed, but all invoking some connection to volcanic activity. In 2008, the discovery of shocked quartz led to the hypothesis that the Stac Fada Member represents part the continuous ejecta blanket of a meteorite impact crater, the location of which was, and remains, unknown. In this paper, we confirm the presence of shock-metamorphosed and -melted material in the Stac Fada Member; however, we also show that its properties are unlike any other confirmed and well documented proximal impact ejecta deposits on Earth. Instead, the properties of the Stac Fada Member are most similar to the Onaping Formation of the Sudbury impact structure (Canada) and impact melt-bearing breccias from the Chicxulub impact structure (Mexico). We thus propose that, like the Sudbury and Chicxulub deposits, Melt Fuel Coolant Interactions – akin to what occur during phreatomagmatic volcanic eruptions – played a fundamental role in the origin of the Stac Fada Member. We conclude that these rocks are not primary impact ejecta but instead were deposited beyond the extent of the continuous ejecta blanket as high-energy ground-hugging sediment gravity flows.
... Although no clear field or microstructural evidence for shock deformation has been found around the Outer Hebrides, there is mounting evidence that the 1.18 Ga Stac Fada Member of the Stoer Group, which crops out on the west coast of the Scottish mainland, represents an ejecta deposit (Amor et al. 2008;Reddy et al. 2015). Transport direction indicators have promoted the idea that the impact site probably lies offshore in the Minch Basin, between the mainland and the Outer Hebrides (Amor et al. 2019) and, although this interpretation is contested (Simms 2020), alternative impact sites have proved difficult to reconcile in terms of size and location (Simms and Ernstson 2019). The proposed site lies c. 40 km from Stornoway in eastern Lewis (see fig. 14 of Amor et al. 2019). ...
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Heterogeneous sequences of exhumed fault rocks preserve a record of the long-term evolution of fault strength and deformation behaviour during prolonged tectonic activity. Along the Outer Hebrides Fault Zone (OHFZ) in NW Scotland, numerous pseudotachylytes record palaeoseismic slip events within sequences of mylonites, cataclasites and phyllonites. To date, the kinematics and controls on seismicity within the long active history of the OHFZ have been poorly constrained. Additional uncertainties over the relative location of a meteorite impact and possible pre-OHFZ brittle faulting also complicate interpretation of the diffuse seismic record. We present kinematic analyses of seismicity in the OHFZ, combining observations of offset markers, en echelon injection veins and injection vein geometry to reconstruct slip directions and stress fields. This new dataset indicates that a range of fault orientations, slip directions and slip senses hosted seismicity in the OHFZ. Such complexity requires several stress field orientations, in contrast with the NW–SE Caledonian compression traditionally attributed to frictional melting along the OHFZ, indicating that seismicity had a long-term presence across the fault zone. Persistence of strong frictional failure alongside the simultaneous development of weak fault rocks and phyllonitic shear zones in parts of the OHFZ has significant implications for understanding seismic hazard along mature continental faults. Supplementary material: Tables listing analysed orientation measurements plus further information and sensitivity testing of palaeostress analysis parameters are available at
... 50 km diameter has also been discussed for the Lairg impact, but only the inner ring has been considered. The comparison profiles were taken from [5] in a slightly modified form. ...
Full-text available
A Google Earth-based morphological analysis of the Taklamakan Desert in the north of the Himalayas shows characteristics of a 1000 km mega-sized impact structure with an elliptical basin and a pronounced elliptical morphological rim. The elliptical structure may possibly have originated from the thrust of the Indian plate and the Himalayas. A gravity anomaly corresponds with the structure. More impact evidence is not known so far.
... All geological and plate reconstructions for this time place the deposition of the Stoer Group sediments in a rift valley on the eastern or southeastern margin of Laurentia (Kinnaird et al. 2007;Dalziel 2010). Furthermore, Nicholson (1993), Rainbird et al. (2001), Williams & Foden (2011), Kinnaird et al. (2007), Krabbendam & Rainbird (2012) and Lelpi et al. (2016) agree that this was a discrete and isolated rift, with significant high ground of Lewisian gneiss to the east as evidenced by deeply cut canyons and current direction towards the west (Stewart 2002), although Simms & Ernstson (2019) infer an extension of the Stoer Group deposits much further to the east. While absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, there is no structural or geological indication of a similar, separate rift valley further to the east, and the palaeogeography described by Stewart (2002) suggests that the eastern margin of the rift lay close to the present-day outcrop. ...
Britain's geology is perhaps more diverse than any equivalent area in the world, spans almost 3 billion years, and has been studied for more than two centuries yet, for too long, it seemed that we could find no evidence here for one of the most spectacular events on the Earth—a giant meteorite impact. Perhaps, the only evidence might be localized and easily overlooked, like the thin layer of millimetre‐scale microtektites, once molten beads of rock blasted out by an impact, found near Bristol in 2001. Alas, these proved actually to have originated more than a thousand kilometres from Britain, in the 100 km Manicouagan Crater in eastern Canada. However, just a few years later, a spectacular discovery revealed that a world‐class impact deposit, metres thick and extending for tens of kilometres, had been hiding in plain sight at a location visited by countless geology students and their teachers. For decades, the Assynt region in northwest Scotland has been a training ground for geologists, drawn by the immensely old Lewisian Gneiss, the spectacular hills of Torridon sandstone that overlie it, and the structural complexity of the Moine Thrust Zone. How could this remarkable impact deposit have gone unnoticed for so long?
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A 40 m stratigraphic section at Gorgonilla Island, Colombia, provides a unique deep-marine, low-latitude, Southern Hemisphere record of events related to the end-Cretaceous Chicxulub impact and the global Cretaceous/Paleogene boundary (KPB). The KPB is marked by a 20-mm-thick, densely packed spherule bed as defined by planktic foraminifera, in contrast to complex relationships found in high-energy, impact-proximal sites in the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean basins. The absence of basal Danian foraminiferal Zone P0 may indicate a possible hiatus of <10 ka immediately above the spherule bed, but is most probably an artifact of deposition below the calcite compensation depth as suggested by the nearly complete absence of calcareous fossils for 20 m below the Zone Pα. A weighted mean 40 Ar/ 39 Ar age of 66.051 ± 0.031 Ma for 25 fresh glassy spherules unequivocally establishes both their derivation from Chicxulub, and the association between the impact and the KPB. The spherule bed, and Maastrichtian strata below it, display soft-sediment deformation features consistent with strong seismic motion, suggesting that seismic activity in the immediate aftermath of the Chicxulub impact continued for weeks. We discovered a fern-spike immediately above the spherule bed, representing the first record of this pioneer vegetation from the South American continent, and from a low-latitude (tropical) environment.
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The Late Triassic (Carnian to Rhaetian Stages: ca. 237–201 Ma) has a long history of geological research, although controversy remains over the precise definition of key sub-unit boundaries, including those defining the three constituent stages. Within this context, at least five terrestrial bolide impact structures ranging from 9 to 85 km in diameter have been identified at present-day northern latitudes, the proximal remnant crater aspects of which have been studied in increasing detail over the last few decades. The more elusive distal sedimentary expressions of these multi-sized hypervelocity events remain largely unknown, although if preserved, identified and interpreted correctly, may (as precisely dateable event horizons) help to address certain existing stratigraphic uncertainties, particularly pertaining to the (longest) Norian Stage. Detailed absolute age-dating using a range of radioisotopic methods (e.g. U-Pb and 40Ar/39Ar) currently indicates that at least three of the confirmed Late Triassic impact craters formed prior to commencement of the major Rhaetian Central Atlantic Magmatic Province (CAMP) volcanic episode by several million years. Impact research efforts to date have focused mainly on describing and process modeling the relatively well-preserved largest impact structure, Manicouagan (215.5 Ma; 85 km diameter) located in northeastern Quebec, Canada and, to a lesser extent, the Saint Martin (227.8 Ma; 40 km) and Rochechouart (ca. 207–201 Ma; ca. 23–50 km) structures in central Manitoba, Canada and west-central France respectively. The smaller, subsurface Red Wing structure (ca. 200 Ma; 9 km diameter, ca. 2.5 km burial depth) located in South Dakota, USA, also has attracted significant economic interest. Unlike the well-documented End Cretaceous Chicxulub impact (66 Ma; ca. 180 Km), attempts to establish a globally significant causal extinction connection between the larger impacts (e.g. Manicouagan and Rochechouart) and Late Triassic marine and terrestrial bioevents, culminating with the ‘End Triassic Extinction’ (ETE), have essentially proved unsuccessful.
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Drilling into Chicxulub's formation The Chicxulub impact crater, known for its link to the demise of the dinosaurs, also provides an opportunity to study rocks from a large impact structure. Large impact craters have “peak rings” that define a complex crater morphology. Morgan et al. looked at rocks from a drilling expedition through the peak rings of the Chicxulub impact crater (see the Perspective by Barton). The drill cores have features consistent with a model that postulates that a single over-heightened central peak collapsed into the multiple-peak-ring structure. The validity of this model has implications for far-ranging subjects, from how giant impacts alter the climate on Earth to the morphology of crater-dominated planetary surfaces. Science , this issue p. 878 ; see also p. 836
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The 100-km-diameter Popigai structure was formed 35.7 Ma ago in a target consisting of ~1–1.5 km of Proterozoic, Cambrian and Permian sedimentary rocks overlying Archean crystalline basement. The structure is characterized by a gravity anomaly low of −35 mGal amplitude, one of the largest magnitude gravity anomalies associated with a terrestrial impact structure. Superimposed on the gravity low is a concentric ring-shaped high, ~45 km in diameter, that coincides with uplifted Archean basement. Magnetic data indicate a −300 nT amplitude simple anomaly low over the structure. Both the gravity and magnetic signatures of Popigai differ from those of most other impact structures of comparable size, being distinguished by the lack of a central circular gravity high related to a central structural uplift or high-amplitude magnetic anomalies caused by thick melt/suevite deposits. Two-dimensional forward modelling of an E-W profile through the crater is initialized using existing and recently-acquired petrophysical data and a structural cross-section based on geologic mapping and drill hole information. Petrophysical measurements indicate that lithologies making up the crater fill have susceptibilities nearly two orders of magnitude less than those determined for the basement. Crater fill densities are also considerably lower, with values up to 0.4 gcm−3 less than the surrounding target rocks. Gravity data modelling indicates the presence of low-density crater fill plus an extensive region of reduced-density fractured basement. The magnetic data also suggest a significant volume (down to ~5 km depth) of fractured basement below the true crater floor.
Impact cratering is arguably the most ubiquitous geological process in the Solar System. It has played an important role in Earth's history, shaping the geological landscape, affecting the evolution of life, and generating economic resources. However, it was only in the latter half of the 20th century that the importance of impact cratering as a geological process was recognized and only during the past couple of decades that the study of meteorite impact structures has moved into the mainstream. This book seeks to fill a critical gap in the literature by providing an overview text covering broad aspects of the impact cratering process and aimed at graduate students, professionals and researchers alike. It introduces readers to the threat and nature of impactors, the impact cratering process, the products, and the effects - both destructive and beneficial. A series of chapters on the various techniques used to study impact craters provide a foundation for anyone studying impact craters for the first time.
Impact basins provide windows into the crustal structure and stratigraphy of planetary bodies; however, interpreting the stratigraphic origin of basin materials requires an understanding of the processes controlling basin formation and morphology. Peak-ring basins (exhibiting a rim crest and single interior ring of peaks) provide important insight into the basin-formation process, as they are transitional between complex craters with central peaks and larger multi-ring basins. New image and altimetry data from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter as well as a suite of remote sensing datasets have permitted a reassessment of the origin of lunar peak-ring basins. We synthesize morphometric, spectroscopic, and gravity observations of lunar peak-ring basins and describe two working hypotheses for the formation of peak rings that involve interactions between inward collapsing walls of the transient cavity and large central uplifts of the crust and mantle. Major facets of our observations are then compared and discussed in the context of numerical simulations of peak-ring basin formation in order to plot a course for future model refinement and development.