July 14, 2005

Giant SAfrican crater added to World Heritage list

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - A giant crater formed 2 billion
years ago when a meteorite smashed into what is now South
Africa has been added to the United Nations' list of protected
heritage sites, South Africa said Thursday.

The Vredefort Dome -- the world's oldest and biggest
meteorite impact site -- joined the global list that includes
natural and manmade wonders like Australia's Great Barrier Reef
and the Great Wall of China.

The Dome was formed when a meteorite, or asteroid, some 10
km (6 miles) in diameter fell from space an estimated 2 billion
years ago and struck the Earth at a speed of around 10-15 km
(6-9 miles) a second, melting and shattering rock below.

It carved out a crater originally up to 300 km (186 miles)
across. That crater has mostly eroded, leaving a smaller
structure with a diameter of 40 km (25 miles), which spans the
Free State and North West provinces in the center of South

The South African government said it would spend 18 million
rand ($2.75 million) to develop tourism at the site, which
would create jobs in poor rural areas. It also wants to ramp up
research into geology and early African cultures.

"Opportunities exist to engage in geological research and
explore and understand more sensitively the rich culture of the
Basotho, Batswana and Khoi-San (peoples)," said Minister of
Arts and Culture Pallo Jordan.

The World Heritage Committee opted to give the Vredefort
Dome protected status at a meeting in South Africa's east coast
city of Durban this week, making it the country's seventh World
Heritage Site.

Other protected sites include Robben Island off Cape Town
-- where former President Nelson Mandela was imprisoned by the
apartheid government -- and the Sterkfontein caves near
Johannesburg, where hominid fossils dating back over 4 million
years have been unearthed.

A World Heritage site designation requires governments to
ensure the site's long-term protection and prevent any
development that could damage them. ($1=6.541 Rand)