When Chicken Little is Right and the Sky Falls

January 29, 2016
Meteor Trail
Russian Emergency Ministry

Most “space weather” is remote – a solar flare or a geomagnetic storm that causes auroras and radio static. This month, however, space weather got close up and personal.

A meteorite crashed into Russia the day after Valentine’s Day.

A few hours later, the 150-foot-wide (45 meters) asteroid 2012 DA14 zoomed by Earth in an extremely close flyby. (It was actually 17,200 miles away, but that’s getting cozy in space.)

Then another meteor fireball whizzed over the North American West Coast, with a starring appearance over San Francisco.

Chicken Little was right!

Some space weather is spectacular −the trail left by the meteor that exploded over Russia. PHOTO SOURCE: Wikipedia

Think of space as a giant pinball machine with rock, metal and ice balls bouncing off each other. If one of the balls remains in space, it is called an asteroid. Asteroids that enter Earth’s atmosphere are meteors and if they actually hit the Earth, they are meteorites.

People don’t realize how common these hits are. Most meteors are less than a yard in diameter and, like the San Francisco fireball, burn up in space. However, an estimated 500 actually hit the Earth every year. Only five or six of the 500 are large enough to track on our weather radar.

Their speed, however, generates a lot of energy. Over two decades, meteors have caused more than 90 blasts large enough for our government had to check to make sure they weren’t atomic bombs!

The speed of meteors gives them tremendous energy when they crash. Meteor Crater/Barringer Crater in Arizona PHOTO SOURCE: USGS

The Russian meteor was about 55 feet (17 m) wide and flew 40,000 mph. It exploded three times before hitting the Earth. The largest explosion, 15 to 20 miles above Chelyabinsk, Russia, was 20–30 times more powerful than the atomic bombs detonated at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nearly 1200 people were injured, mostly from shattered windows. No one was killed and only two people were seriously hurt. With the local temperatures at 5˚F, everyone is frantically trying to seal their buildings again.

The size of the Russian Chelyabinsk meteor Source: Tobias84, Wikimedia

Before someone starts to parade off with Foxy Loxy to tell the king that the sky is falling, they should consider this – most meteors are very small and the Earth is huge. Despite the current hype, and many rumors, there has been only one confirmed case of a meteor actually hitting anyone. Back in 1954, a meteorite crashed through the roof of a home in Sylacauga, Alabama and hit a napping Ann Elizabeth Hodges. She woke up bruised and donated the rock to the Alabama Museum of Natural History.



About This Blog

Are you a weather watcher? Welcome to “Weather Whispers” by James Garriss and until recently, Evelyn Browning Garriss. With expertise and humor, this column covers everything weather—from weather forecasts to WHY extreme weather happens to ways that weather affects your life from farming to your grocery bill. Enjoy weather facts, folklore, and fun!

With heavy hearts, we share the news that historical climatologist and immensely entertaining Almanac contributor Evelyn Browning Garriss passed away in late June 2017. Evelyn shared her lifetime of weather knowledge with Almanac editors and readers, explaining weather phenomena in conversation and expounding on topics in articles for the print edition of The Old Farmer’s Almanac as well as in these articles. We were honored to know and work with her as her time allowed, which is to say when she was not giving lectures to, writing articles for, and consulting with scientists, academia, investors, and government agencies around the world. She will be greatly missed by the Almanac staff and readers.