Buried beneath the Yucatán Peninsula in southeastern Mexico is an impact crater, formed when an asteroid between 7 and 9 miles in diameter struck the Earth more than 66 million years ago. It is widely accepted that this event, which caused a crater more than 93-miles wide, kicking up enough dust to blot out the Sun for more than a year and that caused the Earth’s surface temperature to plummet by as much as 50 degrees Fahrenheit, created a tsunami approximately a mile high, followed by storms of acid rain.
Known as the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event, it was responsible for the destruction of more than 75 percent of plants and animals on the planet, including – and this, as you’ll see, is the money shot – all non-avian dinosaurs.
This theory of that one great cataclysmic event – and, specifically, one man’s journey to explain it to and convince a skeptical world – should be familiar, especially to regular readers of the EXPLORER. AAPG Member Glen Penfield told his story in the December 2019 installment of Historical Highlights, in a piece entitled, “Unlikely Impact.”
Now, Penfield’s story is the subject of a new movie, still in pre-production, with a working title of “Asteroid! The Chicxulub Crater Story.”
Restoring the Luster of Discovery
The story begins in 1978 when Penfield, while exploring the Gulf of Mexico for Pemex, saw something intriguing and spectacular off the coast near Chicxulub Pueblo. His rubidium-based magnetometer, which was used to measure the magnetic field of rocks on the Gulf floor and which, he said, is responsible for so many scientific advancements, was going kablooey. It showed a double-ringed saucer-shaped underground structure with a magnetic field different from that of any known volcanic terrain. He theorized this could not have been the result of a volcano – the structure indicated it was ten times the size of any volcano – but more likely an impact crater.
The problem was proving it, which meant he had to overcome governmental (Mexican) obstacles, including the erasure of the original data tapes, and commercial (Pemex) ones, including the company’s focus on other matters it found more important.
The film traces Penfield’s journey to prove his thesis, but its producer, James Guyer, said the film is not just about science, nor even discovery, but something more cosmic and personal.
“At its heart,” Guyer said, “this film is a love story and spiritual journey for both Glen and his wife Erendira (the woman, now his wife, he met during the exploration).”
Penfield said he also hopes the film will put some of the luster back in scientific discovery.
“I want it to convey the value of the science that is done in the petroleum science industry,” he said, juxtaposing what he said is the “ragging” being done on the industry lately.
Extinction and Rebirth
Penfield and Guyer said the unlocking of the great geologic mystery – what killed the dinosaurs – has a spiritual component.
“The asteroid destroyed the dinosaurs and much of life on Earth, but it also laid the path for the creation of new life forms to evolve and thrive, including mammals and humans that continue to evolve to this very day,” said Guyer. “This would not have been able to happen without the demise of the dinosaurs, strictly from a practical predator standpoint. Likewise, Glen – a devout agnostic – was hit with a sequence of life-changing spiritual experiences over a short period of time that had the immediate effect of profound foundational spiritual, psychological and emotional changes, leaving behind much of his old way, showing a new way and ushering in new ways of thinking, approaching and living life, that continues to evolve for him and also Erendira to this day.”
For Penfield, he described his movement from agnosticism as a “Paul on the road to Damascus experience,” culminating at the 1991 AAPG International Conference and Exhibition in London “when I became a believer.”
Dogma and Denial
As for the science, what exactly killed the dinosaurs had been debated for centuries, including theories about the warming and cooling of the Earth during the Mesozoic Era, volcanoes and even the dinosaurs own size proving ultimately to be unsustainable. What those theories all have in common is that they are forces and processes that are constant and occur at extremely slow rates.
This doctrine, Penfield said, is called “uniformitarianism” and it starts from the belief “that the present is the only key to the past.”
“(The doctrine is) that the processes on Earth are just those you see around you and there is no evidence of a tremendous catastrophe that can rearrange millions of years of world history in a matter of days or weeks. It was an anathema to most scientists,” he said.
In short, in this case, he said, “The scientific community all thought it was volcanism.”
“The idea of a massive change in the Earth and the swift decline of the dinosaurs by an abrupt event such as an asteroid was heresy to the idea of uniformitarianism,” he said, adding that scientists, educators and academics, having built their careers and lives around these principles, were not always willing to accept this one grand event as the main cause.
“For Glen, the fact that he was a young 27-year-old field geologist with only a bachelor’s degree, rather than a doctored academic, added to his struggle. So who was he to tell them – the credentialed, educationally-proven experts, anything different? Further, the bible of Mexican geology stated the underground structure was volcanic in origin and could not be an impact crater. Glen had volcanic experience and because of its near-perfect symmetry, he knew differently – its pristine magnetic feature on a nearly completely non-magnetic background of the Yucatan carbonate platform, only 1,000-meters deep and covered by 65 million years of slowly accumulating carbonate sediments,” related Guyer.
“So on top of the basic heresy, he was dismissed simply because he was not one of them,” he added.
Penfield, who is a consulting technical adviser on the film, paid an emotional price.
“The struggle got pretty deep and challenging for Glen. Intertwined with his frustrations of dismissal, the effect upon his marriage, along with a lot of travel, began to take its toll on his marriage and family. It all hit a low point. Near the end, Glen was literally elbow-deep digging through pig manure at an old capped-off well head left by PEMEX searching for a piece of shocked quartz and breccia, a mixture of rock thrown up from deep within the planet amid the pure limestone strata,” Guyer continued.
A Film About What’s There
With the competing dynamics in play, Guyer, who has produced “A Dangerous Practice” and “Ping Pong Summer,” said the film couldn’t just be about the science.
“A documentary could focus, as some have, entirely on the geology. A feature film has to be different and it has to be about the human struggle, relationship, success and failure, and – in our case – forgiveness and love.”
Guyer hopes the film, which is now in fundraising stage, will be a story not just for geologists, not just those concerned with the end of dinosaurs, but for those who look outside the box – or in this case, the crater. And here he quotes Einstein.
“A man should look for what is, and not for what he thinks should be.”
When asked if that flight four decades ago over the GOM, and the years that followed, were the defining moment of his geologic career, Penfield hesitated, and then said, owing to the interconnectedness of it all, “Meeting my wife was more of a turning point.”
For more information, visit Asteroid! The Chicxulub Crater Story at Film Independent.