SANTA TERESA, New Mexico (KVIA) — About 15 miles northwest of the Doña Ana County International Jetport lies a rare geological feature. Kilbourne, or Kilbourne’s Hole, is a maar volcano that formed anywhere from 200,000 to 1.2 million years ago. While that may sound like a light year away, the geological world considers that time frame to be a very young feature!
To understand how this feature formed, we must first understand plate tectonics. It is known that oceanic plates, such as the Pacific Plate are made out of very dense rock. On the contrary, continental plates, such as the North American, South American or Eurasian Plates are made out of rocks that are still pretty dense, but overall less dense than oceanic plates. Therefore, oceanic plates sink under continental plates.
ABC-7 spoke with UTEP Research Assistant in Geology, Perry Houser, on how this unique feature was created. He mentioned there are multiple theories, but the following is the most accepted one:
Normally, oceanic plates sink at a dramatic rate, he explained, but in this case, “the plate went much more shallow than the typical ones. So it went under California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and then to Texas, and by the time it got to here- the El Paso region- it got to the point where it started to melt, [and created] the Rio Grande Rift.”
Houser continued, “some of the magma started seeping upwards, and you have superheated magma that touched an underwater aquifer- super cold water- and when that happened the contact exploded, and it left a giant crater that many thought was a meteor impact, but in fact is a maar volcano.”
The reason Kilbourne Hole is considered rare is that it’s one of the few places in the world where you can see pieces of the crust!
Houser shared you can view “xenolith from the old crust, and also xenolith from the mantle. And that’s especially amazing, because at the surface of the earth here you get to see stuff that normally would never be able to be seen at the surface, even through mining you can’t get to that depth.”
In addition, you can see, “beautiful green and black crystals called Olivine. The high-quality version of that is peridot- the birthstone for August.” He added, “these crystals, when you pick it up, even in the rock form you can rub it and it’ll start to fall apart in your hands. It’s extremely brittle, but at depth it’s so incredibly hot that it’s as strong as a diamond.”
Due to its rarity, the site has, and continues to be used for NASA astronaut training.
“[Kilbourne’s Hole was] particularly used by NASA in the late 60s and early 70s for the Apollo missions. It’s a planetary analogous site where they would bring astronauts to do training for potential missions to Mars and the moon, because the surface environment is as close as you can get in the world here,” Houser explained.
You can see it for yourself too! There is access from a dirt road that will take you all the way to the feature. It is now protected as a national monument, so you are not allowed to take any of the rocks that you find. Houser mentioned that much of the hole has been picked over, so it is in fact rare to see Olivine today. If you want to take a trip out there, make sure someone knows you are going, as it is a very isolated location.
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