Discover the Biggest Impact Crater in Kentucky

Written by Niccoy Walker
Updated: May 26, 2023
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Meteors collide with Earth every day. But most of them are only the size of a speck of dust. The planet’s orbit is stable, so large meteors are very rare in modern times. But Earth experienced many significantly sized impacts millions of years ago. The most notable was the comet or asteroid that hit the Yucatan Peninsula 65 million years ago, wiping out 70% of Earth’s species, including the dinosaurs. If you live in Kentucky, you may be wondering if there was ever a massive object that collided with the state. Indeed, there was. Discover the biggest impact crater in Kentucky, including its size, when it hit, and the devastation left behind.

Biggest Impact Crater in Kentucky: Middlesboro Crater

Comet, asteroid, meteorite flying to the planet Earth

The Middlesboro crater is three miles wide. The meteor that hit the site would have been 700 feet in diameter, about the size of two football fields.

©Triff/Shutterstock.com

The biggest impact crater in Kentucky is the Middlesboro crater. The crater was formed less than 300 million years ago during the Permian period, around the time reptiles arose. The meteorite that made the impact would have been 700 feet in diameter, which is a little bigger than two football fields. The crater left behind is three miles wide and is located in Middlesboro, Kentucky. 

Middlesboro is within the Appalachian Mountains, situated between the Cumberland Mountains and Pine Mountain. The depression from the crater is circular and comprises the Middlesboro Basin, which forms parts of the geologic features of the Cumberland Gap. The Cumberland Gap is a passage that was essential for early settlers in the region.

Native Americans would have traveled through the gap without realizing what they were walking on. And the settlers that founded the town of Middlesboro in 1886 also had no clue that they were residing inside a massive crater. But they picked the location to exploit iron and coal. In fact, Middlesboro is the only place in the world where people mine for coal inside of a crater.

The crater’s extraterrestrial origin was not revealed until 1962, when two geologists made the discovery as they were working for the US Geological Survey.

Middlesboro Crater Significance

Middlesboro View from Pinnacle Overlook in Kentucky

The amount of energy the crater produced as it made impact would have been 5,000 times more than the Hiroshima bomb.

©Jill Lang/Shutterstock.com

Picture a rock the size of two football fields hurling itself to earth and smashing into the Appalachian Mountains. The amount of energy it produced as it made an impact would have been 5,000 times more than the Hiroshima bomb. Every living creature within 20 miles in every direction would have been instantly destroyed. And every animal outside of that radius within the region would have felt intense earthquakes.

But what’s interesting is that without the crater, early settlements in this area would have been very improbable due to the terrain.

If you were to get a bird’s-eye view of Middlesboro, you would see that the city sits in a bowl-shaped depression. The city is in the Middlesboro Basin, exactly where the enormous crater hit 300 million years ago. The Shawnee indigenous people would have been the first humans to inhabit the crater. Followed by European as early as the mid-1600s. Alexander Arthur, a Scottish-born engineer, established the town of Middlesboro in 1888. By 1950, the town had 15,000 residents and was nicknamed “the Athens of the mountains,” due to its strong support of fine art. Today it is the largest city in Southeastern Kentucky, featuring over 69,000 people in its micropolitan area.

Where Is the Middlesboro Crater Located on a Map?

Animals That Live in the Middlesboro Crater

Appalachian Mountains, Kentucky and Virginia State Line, scenic sunset

You are likely to see a wide variety of wildlife in Middlesboro’s nearby national parks and hiking trails, including mammals, birds, and reptiles.

©anthony heflin/Shutterstock.com

The Southern Appalachian Mountains are rife with plants and animals. These ancient mountains feature an Alpine ecosystem and a temperate forest habitat. There are over 2,000 plant species, and 200 are only found in the southern region of the mountain range. You are likely to see a wide variety of wildlife in Middlesboro’s nearby national parks and hiking trails, including mammals, birds, and reptiles. Some of the mammals you may come across include white-tailed deer, moose, black bears, minks, bats, foxes, groundhogs, opossums, and raccoons. There are many bird species, like hawks, flycatchers, woodpeckers, warblers, and other songbirds. And the reptiles include everything from frogs and turtles to rattlesnakes and copperheads.

Check out the Cumberland Gap National Historical Park for scenic trails, camping, and plenty of opportunities to witness the diverse wildlife in the area.

The photo featured at the top of this post is © Marti Bug Catcher/Shutterstock.com


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About the Author

Niccoy is a professional writer for A-Z Animals, and her primary focus is on birds, travel, and interesting facts of all kinds. Niccoy has been writing and researching about travel, nature, wildlife, and business for several years and holds a business degree from Metropolitan State University in Denver. A resident of Florida, Niccoy enjoys hiking, cooking, reading, and spending time at the beach.

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