Discover the Biggest Impact Crater in North Dakota

Written by Drew Wood
Updated: May 25, 2023
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Believe it or not, our planet is absolutely peppered with impact craters. It has quite likely been hit just as many times as our pockmarked Moon. The difference is, on Earth, the craters have been worn down by wind, rain, volcanic heat, and frozen glaciers. They’re barely visible or erased altogether. Others are somewhere in the depths of the ocean, waiting to be discovered. And others are buried under layers of soil, forests, farms, and houses. This is the kind of crater you’ll find in McKenzie County, North Dakota. The Red Wing Crater is 15 miles southwest of Watford City, but you won’t find it. It’s 6,600 feet underground and was only discovered during oil exploration in 1972. It took 200 million years to hide this 5.6-mile-wide crater, but geologists are slowly unraveling its secrets today.

Key Points

  • The biggest impact crater in North Dakota is the Red Wing Crater in McKenzie County.
  • It is 5.6 miles across but buried 6,600 feet deep and not visible from the surface.
  • It was discovered during oil drilling. The impact had turned oil-bearing rocks up on end, making a much deeper well than would have normally been expected.
  • The impact happened 200 million years ago during the Triassic Period.
  • Researchers think it was caused by a meteor about 200 feet across.
  • This may have been part of a bigger event. It is possible a shotgun spray of meteors caused impacts in North America and Europe at nearly the same time.
  • Making a similar crater would require a 20-megaton nuclear explosion.
  • An explosion that big would shatter windows and inflict 3rd degree burns on people 25 miles away.
  • Meteors of this magnitude strike Earth about once every 2,000 years.
  • The odds of being killed by a meteor are very low, as they most often hit unpopulated areas.
flying smoky meteor on background of sky

Meteors that burn up in Earth’s atmosphere without hitting the ground are often called “fireballs” or “shooting stars.”

©Krasowit/Shutterstock.com

What Caused the Biggest Impact Crater in North Dakota?

The Red Wing Crater is completely invisible from the surface. But what gave it away was the discovery of oil in the area. During drilling, a column of oil was discovered that was 2,850 feet thick! Usually, 98 feet or so would be expected. This happened because the rock strata there were tiled on their sides.

Further exploration helped confirm the hypothesis that a 200-foot meteor had impacted the area. Evidence showed that the crater was 5.6 miles wide. Geologists estimated the age of the crater at 200 million years old, which would put it in the Triassic Period. It’s even been suggested this impact was part of a multiple-impact event. A group of meteors likely struck in multiple places across the Northern Hemisphere. The other craters suggested as part of this event are the  Saint Martin crater in Manitoba, the Manicouagan impact structure in Quebec, the Rochechouart impact structure in France, and the Obolon’ crater in Ukraine.

North Dakota

The Badlands region is not far from the site of the biggest impact crater in North Dakota.

©iStock.com/Tammi Mild

What was North Dakota Like During the Triassic Period?

Right at the beginning of the Triassic period, there was a big extinction called the “Great Dying.” Scientists think this extinction was due to a large number of volcanic eruptions that emitted carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. During most of the Triassic period, life was bouncing back and new species were developing. Some of these were the ancestors of modern crocodiles and alligators. Others of them were flying reptiles like pterosaurs. True dinosaurs got started in the Triassic but started to really thrive in the Jurassic period that followed. The first real mammals also evolved during the Triassic. Just as the period was beginning, it ended with more volcanoes and more extinctions. After this, there was more space for dinosaurs and mammals to spread and compete for ownership of the world.

So, what was happening in North Dakota? It was pretty much a beach scene. Most of the state was covered in a pretty shallow sea, with some hot, dry, desert islands. Maybe they looked a little like the Badlands in the western part of North and South Dakota today.

If you could have gone snorkeling, you might have seen a lot of marine life that wasn’t much different than what we see today. These likely included sea urchins, mollusks, scallops, snails, clams, and the first corals. But you would have also seen some weird kinds of amphibians, such as the labyrinthodonts and the temnospondyls. These strange animals could grow up to 13 feet long. And you might have even spotted the largest marine reptiles in the history of the world. These were the shastasaurids, which were a kind of ichthyosaur that grew anywhere from 19-66 feet long!

Ichthyosaur

This is an ichthyosaur, one of the marine predators of the Triassic Period.

©Dotted Yeti/Shutterstock.com

What If It Happened Today?

Let’s imagine the same thing happened, in the same place today. What could we expect? There would be a blinding flash and a fireball 2.5 miles in diameter would rise up into the sky. Anyone or anything within 24 miles could be immediately injured by fire or falling debris, including molten rocks thrown out by the explosion. Watford City, just 15 miles away, would be destroyed. The sky would be darkened across the state and a trail of dust and ash would spread over the whole area.

You might compare this to what happened when Mount St. Helens erupted in 1980. Billings, Montana, got an inch of ashfall even though it is almost 700 miles away! Let’s point out, though, that the explosion at Mount St. Helens, at 35 megatons, was nearly twice as large as the one at Red Wing Crater (20 megatons). North Dakota is about 340 miles long from one end to the other. If the Red Wing meteor hit in the same place today, it’s safe to say that ash would spread over the whole state and wreak havoc on farming and ranching.

One of the really wonderful things about North Dakota is that it is so unspoiled. In fact, it ranks 47th in population among the 50 states. This would help keep the human death toll down in a catastrophe like this, but the damage to the environment and economy would be huge and would take years to recover from.

Mount St. Helen Mudslides

The explosion that created the biggest impact crater in North Dakota would have been about 20 megatons.

©Austin Post / This image is in the public domain in the United States because it only contains materials that originally came from the United States Geological Survey, an agency of the United States Department of the Interior.

Is It Likely to Happen Again?

Unfortunately, yes, it is likely to happen again. But the good thing about this is that it doesn’t happen very often. While smaller meteors hit the planet all the time and most burn up in the atmosphere, only about once every 2,000 years or so does a meteor about the size of a football field (360 feet) smack into Earth. Every time Hollywood makes a movie about a meteor, they want to show it hitting a major city like a target bullseye. But since 70% of the planet is under water and half the land is ice, desert, rugged mountains, or deep unpopulated forest, there’s really only about a 15% chance that a meteor would hit a well-populated place.

What are your odds of dying by meteor? About 1 in 250,000. That’s less likely than death by plane crash (1 in 30,000) but more likely than buying a winning PowerBall ticket (1 in 195,000,000). And of course, the odds are infinitely smaller that a meteor would hit the same place again, after 200 million years. So, if you want to be safe from meteors, maybe you’ll decide Watford City, with the biggest impact crater in North Dakota, is exactly the place to be!

Where Is The Red Wing Crater Located on a Map?

The Red Wing or Red Wing Creek structure refers to a meteor crater situated in McKenzie County, North Dakota, around 24 km southwest of Watford City, North Dakota, United States. Unlike some other craters, this one remains hidden beneath the surface, although it was identified through the use of seismic methods. Since its discovery in 1972, the structure has been an active oil-producing site, contributing to the region’s oil industry.

Here is The Red Wing Crater on a map:

The photo featured at the top of this post is © Triff/Shutterstock.com


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About the Author

Drew Wood is a writer at A-Z Animals focusing on mammals, geography, and world cultures. Drew has worked in research and writing for over 20 years and holds a Masters in Foreign Affairs (1992) and a Doctorate in Religion (2009). A resident of Nebraska, Drew enjoys Brazilian jiu-jitsu, movies, and being an emotional support human to four dogs.

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