The Earth may once have been surrounded by rings, like Saturn, which would have cast a shadow on parts of the planet all day long. The rings could have been formed after a glancing blow from an asteroid, when a space rock carves debris from a planet, then bounces off into the atmosphere. The resulting debris would also have shot off into space, and some of it would have ended up orbiting the Earth, forming a ring.

Peter Fawcett of the University of New Mexico and Mark Boslough of Sandia Labs say the debris ring would have cooled the planet by blocking or reducing the amount of sunlight it received in the tropics and subtropics. The rest of the planet would cool down too, because less heat would be transported from tropical regions to higher latitudes.

Geologic records reveal a layer of melted meteorite material thought to be associated with an asteroid impact 35.5 million years ago. 100,000 years of cooler global temperatures followed. “This cooling is longer than one would expect from a large impact alone, so we hypothesized that a temporary ring might have formed,” Fawcett says.

“For a person in the shadow of a reasonably opaque ring, it would be dark like twilight or a heavy overcast,” Boslough says. “The ring would be scattering light in addition to blocking it. I think the most spectacular view would be after sunset or before sunrise, when the sky is dark but parts of the sunlit ring would be brightly visible in the sky.”

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