A week of rare occurrences
February 18, 2013 Leave a comment
Well, wasn’t that an interesting news week.
First, Pope Benedict XVI becomes the first Catholic leader to abdicate since Gregory XII resigned in 1415. Then, on Friday, a meteor causes a massive airburst in the atmosphere over Chelyabinsk, Russia, the resulting shock wave damaging buildings and injuring more than 1,000 people.
This blog doesn’t have much to add on the Papal abdication that hasn’t already been said in Gwynne Dyer’s analysis of the situation, and that the odds of the Canadian-born cardinal, Marc Ouellet, being promoted to pope are likely being overstated: the momentum is clearly toward a pope from either Catholicism’s traditional Italian (or at least southern European) heartland, or its new Central and South American heartland.
Furthermore, given the Vatican’s very public battles with the Irish and Australian governments over recent government-initiated sexual abuse investigations, the mood toward the English-speaking democracies as a group is probably quite hostile right now, and the cardinals will likely be looking toward a country unlikely to present any unwelcome surprises.
Compared to a papal abdication, meteors exploding in the Earth’s skies are a decidedly more common occurrence. Though events of the magnitude of the Chelyabinsk explosion are quite rare in human terms, there are still perhaps some very elderly people still alive today who vaguely remember the last 100-kiloton-plus explosion over a populated area when a meteorite “the size of a five-storey building” exploded over Arroyomolinos de León, Spain in 1931, breaking windows and damaging buildings below.
Scientists are also still mystified by the Tunguska event, the 1908 blast over a remote area of Siberia that was equivalent to “about 185 Hiroshima bombs”.
Smaller incidents happen more regularly, including a 2012 blast over California, a 2009 medium-sized explosion over Indonesia and a relatively small meteoroid explosion over a remote area of the Sudanese desert in 2008.
Should we be worried about a meteoric explosion high above Winnipeg?
Take heed of the words of NASA’s Don Yeomans, who manages their Near-Earth Object Office: “The thought of another Tunguska does not keep me up at night.”
Meteors, meteorites, comets and other cosmic hazards are indiscriminate about where they hit the Earth: they end up wherever the Earth intercepts their path.
The odds of any given large object entering the Earth’s atmosphere anywhere near Winnipeg are not all that great. Even if one assumes that an atmospheric entry anywhere within 500 kilometres (311 miles) of Winnipeg would constitute a near-miss, that 500-kilometre radius represents a mere one-sixth of one percent of the world’s total surface area.
The world’s vastness has long made it a challenge for the world’s meteorite hunters to find the rocks from outer space that bombard the planet on a daily basis. The arctic and antarctic regions are the easiest hunting grounds for rocks that land on the ice or in the snow where they are easily visible. Most end up in the world’s oceans or in other uninhabited and inconvenient locations, such as jungles, deserts and mountain ranges.
Future Chelyabinsk-type airbursts will most likely happen over these largely uninhabited areas, so there is indeed little point in losing sleep over incoming rocks from outer space.
Video of the Chelyabinsk meteor, including the sonic booms, compiled by The Telegraph, a U.K. newspaper.
That being said, there have been many incidents over the years of meteorites and other cosmic clutter beaning people and things in inhabited areas:
Oct. 2011: The (aptly named) Comette family returns from holiday to their home in Draveil, France, near Paris, to discover that their roof is leaking. Roofers discover a hole, improbably punched through the extremely hard tiles atop the house. They find a 4.5 billion year old meteorite wedged in the insulation.
April 2010: A meteor causes a bright flash of light and a sonic boom in Wisconsin, strong enough to shake homes under the object’s path. The meteor’s fireball is captured on a rooftop webcam as it passes over Madison, Wis. The incident comes five years after a similar incident in the Green Bay area.
Jan. 2009: Authorities in east-central Alaska are flooded with calls from area residents who report seeing a flash of light in the sky, followed by a loud boom and a strange contrail that one person described as “like somebody took a pen and made a white cloud that went up and down and up and down and squiggly”. Though most likely a meteor, rumours also abound of a secret military test, a satellite explosion and visitors from outer space.
Oct. 1992: Witnesses along the U.S. eastern seaboard watch as a “lime-green fireball” crosses the sky from south to north. Moments later, Michelle Knapp hears what initially sounds like a car crash outside her home in Peekskill, N.Y. She finds a hole punched through the trunk of her car and a foot-deep crater in the driveway, both caused by a 20-pound meteorite.
Jan. 1989: Witnesses in three U.S. states see a “massive fireball” crossing the sky during the noon hour, believed to be a meteor that exploded at an altitude of about 15 to 20 miles near Mt. Adams in southwestern Washington State.
Nov. 1982: Robert and Wanda Donahue are having a nice evening at home in Wethersfield, Conn., watching M*A*S*H on the television, when their domestic tranquility is interrupted by what Mrs. Donahue likens to a car or a truck hitting the house. A shower of plaster rains down in their living room, caused by a three-pound softball-sized meteorite that has careened into the dining room, bounced off the ceiling and landed in a chair. Ironically, the incident happened less than a mile from another home struck by a meteorite 11 years earlier.
Nov. 1954: On Nov. 30, 34-year-old Ann Hodges is not feeling well and decides to take a nap at her home in Sylacauga, Ala. At about 2:46 p.m., about the same time as witnesses report seeing an object shooting across the sky accompanied by loud booms, she is suddenly awakened by an eight-pound rock that has smashed through the living room ceiling, bounced off a radio and struck her on the hip. Hodges receives medical attention for the injury, but later ends up in an unpleasant court battle with her landlady, Birdie Guy, who insists that the meteorite struck her house and is rightfully hers. Hodges, for her part, is adamant: “Suing is the only way [the landlady] will get it,” she tells reporters. “I think God intended it for me. After all, it hit me.”
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