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This blog entry was written to accompany my podcast for the September 5, 2010 broadcast of the 365 Days of Astronomy. The podcast can be listened to here.

One of the high points of my stay in Germany recently was a visit I made to Nördlingen on the border between the provinces of Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg in southern Germany. It’s a beautiful place. It is enclosed by a defensive wall that dates back to the 14th Century – there are only three towns in Germany with this claim to fame. All the buildings are full of character. The town was the site of two battles during the Thirty Years War and were it not for the cars and the shops, you could easily imagine yourself in another time, another era.

But beautiful and all though the town is, this is not the reason I went there. It’s Nordlingen’s surroundings that interested me the most. The town is located in a region known as the Ries: a round, flat plain with an approximate diameter of around 23 km (15 miles).  This area is quite different to the surrounding countryside as the following scale model clearly indicates.

For many centuries, the prevailing idea about how this geological feature came to be was that it was an ancient volcanic caldera. The trouble was that much of the boulders and debris surrounding the  region were of non-volcanic origin. Many ideas were presented as to how this material got there, but it’s didn’t fully add up. The origins of the Ries remained controversial until fifty years ago.

Enter Eugene “Gene” Shoemaker. Gene was an astronomer and he had a few questions. When he looked at the Moon he saw a landscape quite different to the Earth. Everywhere on the Moon he saw craters. Big craters, small craters, enormous craters. Why then was the Earth practically devoid of them? Was it credible that the Moon could be subject to the slings and arrows of outrageous impacts while its larger sister, our planetary home, missed them all? He was convinced that the evidence for impact craters must exist on Earth, but where were they all? Gene had a good idea what kind of material would be created when a large object hit the Earth. It was just a matter of finding it.

Gene found the answer in Nordlingen. During a visit to the town in 1960 he became fascinated by the stones of St Georg’s Church in the centre of the town. He immediately realised that the church walls contained coesite, a material only created as a result of a massive meteorite impact. The rock had been mined locally from the Ries. This lead to a simple, stark conclusion. The Ries had been formed as a result of a gigantic meteor impact. “It was the first big impact crater on the Earth that we could prove was an impact crater, and that just changed the whole ballgame”, said Shoemaker.
Here is what we know. 15 million years ago, two large objects, one measuring up to 1km in diameter, crashed into southern Germany. The large object hit Nordlingen. Hitting the ground at a speed of 45,000 km per hour, it punched a hole 4km deep into Earth’s crust, vaporising on impact. The surrounding rocks were compressed to a quarter of their size by the impact and they responded with an explosion measuring 18,000 megatonnes of TNT, hundreds of times larger than the greatest nuclear bomb ever detonated on this planet. An enormous shock wave killed all living things for a hundred kilometers in every direction with devastating effects felt much further afield. A mushroom cloud 30km high was generated. Much of this cloud, composed of melted rock from deep within the crust, subsequently fell back to earth, covering the crater and the region around the Ries with a material known today as Suevite. The church of St Georg in Nordlingen is built from this material.
A massive amount of bedrock was ejected ballistically, forming rocks known as Bunte Breccia. The deepest rocks landed close to the impact zone while rocks close to the surface were hurled over great distances. Some limestone blocks have been found 70km from the crater while glassy rocks known as Moldavites have been discovered 400km away in the Czech Republic.
The 1km deep hole left by the impact became a lake and life returned to the Ries. Over time the lake itself became clogged with sediment and subsequent glaciations flattened out the region into the wide plain we see today.
A particularly good place to see the crater expanse is the Daniel, the steeple of the aforementioned St. Georg’s Church. From a height of 80 metres you can see in all directions the flat, fertile countryside with the hills forming the outer crater in the far distance.
A smaller meteorite simultaneously hit the region of Steinheim am Albuch, 40km away from Nordlingen. While the resulting crater was much smaller – just 3km in diameter – a distinct central uplift remains. Steinheim is a village well worth visiting. There is an excellent little museum in the hamlet of Sontheim im Stubenthal and plenty of well marked trails with wonderful views of the crater.
Addresses
Nordlingen:
Rieskrater Museum
Hintere Gerbergasse 3
86720 Nördlingen, Deutschland
09081 273822-0
Steinheim
Meteorkratermuseum
Hochfeldweg 5
89555 Steinheim, Deutschland
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The World cruise ship came to Cobh yesterday. It will be berthed in Cork Harbour for the next two days. It’s an interesting concept: the passengers own their cabins and many of them are long-term residents. It’s like a floating apartment block where the view outside the front window is constantly changing. A way of living that chases the summer around the globe, if you like.

Here are some pics from yesterday evening.

Wishing everyone a relaxing and peaceful day wherever you are.

I’m just back from a trip to Germany. I started in Munich, proceeded to Stuttgart and ended up in Wiesbaden.

A couple of random things from my trip:

Munich Airport

In all the flights I have made – and I have flown hundreds of times – I have never seen anybody freak out when the plane is taking off and landing. This unblemished run ended last Saturday, when the woman seated in front of me had a full-blown panic attack. As the plane took off, the poor woman started to hyperventilate, emitting regular eeping noises as we hit any bumps or turbulence. She let out a full blown scream at one stage when the plane encountered an air-pocket in the cloud layer. She relaxed completely once we reached cruising height, but as the plane began it’s final approach, all around her were treated to a repeat performance. It must be terrible for her, as such an atavistic fear is not easily remedied.  

Vineyards on the Wuttemberg (Stuttgart)

The German train system is pretty unforgiving if you make the mistake of leaving a suitcase on board. I had only stepped out of the train at Munchen – Pasing, when it dawned on me that something was wrong. Too late. Doors had closed and my suitcase was happily on it’s way to the small village of Geltendorf, about 20 km away. Suffice it to say that my suitcase and I were eventually reunited and that I spent the rest of the day making up for that brief moment of forgetfulness.

Looking for fossils in Holzmaden

I can add fossil hunting to my list of achievements. One of the high-points of the weekend was a trip to Holzmaden, where some fantastic Jurassic Period fossils have been discovered over the last century. There is an open quarry there and members of the public can extract their very own fossils from the bedrock. We collected a nice set of ammonites and belemnites, although how they are going to get from Germany to Ireland is anyone’s guess. 

Fountain in Wiesbaden

Other highlights were a trip down the Rhine and a relaxing day in the beautiful city of Wiesbaden. The public park next to the casino in Wiesbaden is particularly attractive. I was also struck by the friendliness and helpfulness of all the people I encountered during my trip. It’s definitely worth a visit.

Marktkirche in Wiesbaden

On the day after Christmas Day, I climbed Carrauntoohil, the highest mountain in Ireland.

Carrauntoohill

Carrauntoohil is located in Co. Kerry, not so far from the towns of Killarney and Killorglin. It is part of the Magilicuddy Reeks, the loftiest of the mountain ranges in Southwest Ireland.

To reach Carrauntoohil, you must first negotiate your way through the Hag’s Glen, a massive U-shaped valley strewn with ancient moraine. The most usual route to the top is via the Devil’s Ladder, a steep and now quite dangerous route.

Hag's Glen

We didn’t go that way. Instead we ascended via the far more impressive Shay’s Gully route. On the way up, you can see ahead of you the clear remnant of an ancient glacier now long disappeared.

Ascending Shay's Gully

It was a long slog, but we reached the mountain peak in good time. It was like a train station at the top! St. Stephen’s Day – what we in Ireland call the day after Christmas Day – is an incredibly popular day for mountain climbing. Literally hundreds of people take the journey, and there have been more than one casualty on this day, on this mountain, in the past.

At the top

It was absolutely freezing at the top, so we didn’t stay for too long. We descended via Heaven’s Gate: a steep yet manageable and highly picturesque natural stairway to the bottom of the valley.

Descending via Heaven's Gate

I took this picture of a sheep on the way down. And you think you’ve got troubles..

Sheep on cliff

A big thanks to Barry who lead us up and back down again. He was a great help to us particularly where we needed to negotiate steep rock walls on our way down.

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I spent yesterday out of the office, exploring one of the most beautiful and delightful cities on the planet. San Francisco is twinned with Cork, and there are some similarities: the proximity to the ocean, the steep hills, the relaxed lifestyle and ambience. Both are cities for living in as opposed to just working in. Of course, San Francisco is so much more: the weather is superb, the complexity, size and diversity of the place is orders of magnitude greater and then in the distance is this enormous feat of engineering- the Golden Gate Bridge. (Actually there are other suspension bridges linking San Fran to the other side of the Bay, but they don’t get a look in). 

Just click on any of these photos for a bigger picture.

San Francisco morning

First on our itinerary was Chinatown. As you walk down through this sizeable district, you quickly begin to forget that you are in the same country as strip malls and banal chain restaurants. It’s a whole world in miniature.  

sf4-chinatown

Then on to Broadway, the Italian district and in the distance the Transamerica Pyramid. We visited a museum of the Beatnik culture, where I picked up “On the Road” by Jack Kerouac.  

sf5-transamerica

From here we headed up past the twists of Lambert St and looked out east over the city. The Coit tower is one of San Fran’s famous landmarks. 

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Then on down to Fisherman’s Wharf to look at the Golden Gate for the first time. There’s Alcatraz in the distance. 

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After a nice relaxing meal we visited Pier 39 to do some sea lion watching and to make a visit to Rodney Lough’s photo gallery. After seeing some of the photos I am seriously considering hanging up my camera in shame. This guy is good.

sf10-pier-39

Then out bicycle trip to the Golden Gate. Cripes. Where do you begin? So many photo opportunities, so little time! If you ever get a chance to visit San Fran, take a bike ride to the Bridge. You won’t regret it and it’s really good value for money.

sf13-golden-gate

Another photo..

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And just one more, taken as the mist was invading the Bay from the Pacific Ocean.

sf17-golden-gate-fog

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Rainbows. My one abiding memory of my holiday in Kerry this year.

We stayed in Banna Strand, a few miles outside Tralee. There is a marvelously long  beach there, plus a swimming pool and kids’ activity centre so the kids could be entertained whatever the weather. 

That’s not to say we couldn’t travel: there is so much to see in Kerry, it would be a pity to stay in one place all the time. We headed out to Ballybunnion, Dingle, Slea Head, Castlegregory, Killarney, Glencar, Crag Cave, and Fenit Harbour among many other places. All these places may be just names to you, but they are all spectacularly beautiful, especially when the clouds are changing the lighting so often. 

This is the town of Dingle, or to be correct An Daingean – the government changed its name to its Irish form a few years ago resulting in widespread uproar. All over Kerry the name “Dingle” has been erased from roadsigns with white sticking tape..

A seagull by Slea Head, overlooking the Blasket Islands. 

This guy is Brendan the Navigator, a Kerryman reputed to have travelled to Newfoundland and Iceland back in the middle ages.  

This is the Gap of Dunloe: a deep glacial valley beside the Magillicuddy Reeks (Ireland’s highest peaks). The whole Killarney area is Ireland’s equivalent of the Lake District. 

This is Ballybunnion on a freezing, stormy day.

The last ones, I promise. I’m sending them up because I had a camera at just the right time when I was passing by Lime Street Station yesterday evening.

That’s St. Georges Hall in the foreground, and if you look carefully, you will see a second arc just above the main rainbow. 

Cool, huh?

The city is a quite a building site at the moment. It might have something to do with being the European City of Culture this year.. Seriously though, if Cork 2005 is anything to go by, it will look really swell in 2 years time.  

The city is dripping with history. There are many fantastic 19th Century buildings throughout the city centre. I was particularly taken by the Pumphouse on my way into the Liverpool Maritime Museum.

I managed to go on a fantastic walk up the Nire Valley in west Waterford this Sunday. While most people were enjoying a relatively dry morning, we decided to seek a place of near constant rain and mist. 

The walk took us from the car park over an improvised bridge and up into the mountains via a long gentle ridge on the western side of the valley. Once we reached the Comeragh plateau, we passed down a boggy valley leading (unexpectedly) to the top of the Mahon Falls. From there we headed towards The Gap and back to the car park. All in all, the walk lasted 6 hours.  

The heather is in full bloom at the moment. Pictured against the deep greens of a wet Irish summer it’s nothing short of spectacular. 

And now, a bonus: a quick time-lapse video featuring some pretty nifty high-speed sheep..

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