March 13, 2005

Pacific Northwest Fireball

I went sailing on the Columbia River this weekend with my friends Jeremy and Megan. After we tied up the boat and headed back toward the car I saw what first looked like a typical shooting star streaking across the early night sky. Then it got bigger. A lot bigger. And brighter. A lot brighter.


(Image captured from home video)

“Hey,” I said to Jeremy, “it’s a shooting st…HOLY SHIT LOOK AT THAT!”

“Whoa!” Jeremy said as he looked up.

It didn’t burn out, as shooting stars almost always do. It just kept going, both across and down the sky.

“Where?” Megan said. She was standing far off to our right and couldn’t see anything through the trees.

It finally vanished, either because it passed over the horizon or was about to impact on the ground.

Jeremy and I looked at each other, our heads slightly cocked. We were listening for the explosion. Nothing.

“Do you think it was a meteor?” Jeremy said.

“Oh yeah. What else would it be? It was way too big and bright and fast to be an airplane.”

We went home and checked the news. Sure enough, it was a meteor. It startled people all over the Pacific Northwest in a radius that stretched from Northern California to Canada. Portland was in the exact center of that radius. It was literally right over our heads.

Just a few days ago Mt. St. Helens had its biggest eruption since I was a child. Then a huge flaming rock fell out of the sky. Both happened during the same week within eye-shot of Portland. Forest fires are next. We’ve had almost no rain at all for two months. Our rainy season just vanished. A few days ago Washington declared a state of emergency. Feels like disaster blogging (with photos, of course) might be on the agenda this summer. We're a tinderbox here, and we're supposed to be soggy and dripping.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at March 13, 2005 10:56 PM

“We went home and checked the news. Sure enough, it was a meteor.”

Thank God, I thought for a moment that everyone would conclude they had seen a spaceship from another galaxy. My imagination was running wild: the real threat to Western Civilization is no longer the Islamic nihilists, but aliens from Mars.

Posted by: David Thomson at March 13, 2005 11:58 PM

I remember answers to the question: What happened to the dinosaurs? -- that didn't even include a mention of catastrophic meteor/ asteroid collision.

I'm not sure the world will be suffering from Global Warming, but I'm pretty sure CO2 is going up, fast, in the atmosphere. Which means weather patterns will change:
hotter hots, drier drys, wetter wets, colder colds -- and the reverse. Colder hots, wetter drys, drier wets, hotter colds -- but these temperates won't be noticed so much.

Floods and storms need to be recognized as increasingly more probable. There should be more effort done in rapid disaster recovery, especially from floods, though earthquake / tsunami / volcano/ meteor shock damage can use much rapid response support.

[I'm still thinking about how anybody can know whether they are "lying to themselves" about foreign policy. Have you any examples?]

Posted by: Tom Grey - Liberty Dad at March 14, 2005 12:17 AM

It may not have impacted anywhere, just grazed the upper atmosphere and gone on. Still something to tell the grandkids about.

Hope you get rain soon. I can remember the cloud of smoke we had over San Diego back in 2003. Authorities were real worried the fire would get south of Mission Valley and race through the heart of the city itself. I'd hate to see it happen to Portland.

Posted by: Alan Kellogg at March 14, 2005 01:02 AM

Cats and dogs... living together...

Posted by: ZF at March 14, 2005 04:44 AM

great picture! I never have a camcorder on hand when these things happen.

beware the ides of March! :-)

Posted by: mary at March 14, 2005 06:31 AM

'tis an omen.

Posted by: Carlos at March 14, 2005 06:45 AM

10. The Earth quakes and the heavens rattle;
the beasts of nature flock together and the
nations of men flock apart; volcanoes usher up
heat while elsewhere water becomes ice and
melts; and then on other days it just rains, or doesn't. 11. Indeed do many things come to pass.
HBT; The Book of Predictions, Chap. 19

What you actually saw, was not a meteor. It appeared as a meteor to observers because their brains weren't prepared to deal with the fact that it was, indeed, a Largish Golden Apple. The real question is, why is Eris tossing the Apple of Discord at Portland?

Keep an eye out for small jars of cinnamon and brown sugar. She really likes baked apples... and Mt. St. Helens is probably about the right baking temperature. And dear gods, be careful, she is not a good cook! Last time she tried to make a dessert in a volcano it was not good... the other deities still tease her occasionally about her "Pompeii Peach Cobbler".

MJT, I'd recommend moving, or at least investing in lots of milk.

Ratatosk, Squirrel of Discord

Posted by: Ratatosk at March 14, 2005 06:55 AM

Wouldn't any meteor "grazing the upper atmosphere" be too small to be seen as a fireball to the naked eye? And wouldn't it be, like, pulled in by Earth's gravity?

And if it was big enough to be seen, and escape the gravity pull, wouldn't it be pretty honkin' big?

Posted by: Barry at March 14, 2005 07:27 AM

Cool. Saw it on the news this morning and was pissed that I wasn't outside when it went over.

I saw a bright green fireball a few years ago. They're awesomely scary.

Posted by: double-plus-ungood at March 14, 2005 09:17 AM

Supposedly it broke into tiny pieces which fell into the Pacific Ocean.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at March 14, 2005 09:17 AM

Why would it just break up like that? Don't get me wrong I'm glad it did, I just want to know why.

Posted by: Kay Hoog at March 14, 2005 10:14 AM


I guess it broke into tiny pieces because it was too small to maintain its integrity and hit the ground like a "proper" meteorite. It sure looked big when it was on fire, though. I would not have been shocked to find out it was the size of a building, but it was more like the size of a basketball. The Perseid meteors, by contrast, are the size of peas.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at March 14, 2005 10:23 AM

It was aerobraking being done by an alien ship entering earth orbit. They contacted me on my moonbatphone just before they arrived. They'll be up there studying us, under stealth cloaking, for a few of their years (that's a week and a half our time).

Nothing to worry about folks. Forget you even saw anything.

Posted by: Gungagungadin at March 14, 2005 02:38 PM

A large meteor struck the ground in Siberia in the early 20th century. (1905?) It devastated several hundred square miles. Fortunately it was an unpopulated area.

There is a junk of the Canary Islands that could fall into the sea and cause a massive tsunami that would devastate the entire Atlantic coasts.

We live on a fragile planet, where things very occasionally happen that make questions of democracy vs fascism, us vs them, etc, very small by comparison.

Posted by: VinoVeritas at March 14, 2005 02:41 PM

The meteor broke up because of aerodynamic heating caused by it's passage through the atmosphere. Meteor's are generally suprisingly small. The ones you typically see at night are about the size of a grain of sand. This one sounds bigger.

Some meteors do hit the atmosphere and bounce off. It depends mainly on the angle they hit the atmosphere.

In 1908, something didn't hit Siberia. Something exploded about 8 km above the ground. About 2150 square kilometers of Siberia was devestated and 80 million trees were knocked down. Latest theory on what did this is a stony meteorite. Search for Tunguska on the web.

Posted by: RSwan at March 14, 2005 05:08 PM

The end is nigh! :-)

Posted by: Benjamin at March 14, 2005 05:08 PM

Rswan: About 2150 square kilometers of Siberia was devestated and 80 million trees were knocked down

Jeez. Good thing it didn't explode over Moscow.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at March 14, 2005 05:32 PM

Benjamin: The end is nigh! :-)

If you're going to go there, might as well quote the movie 28 Days Later.

The End is Extremely Fucking Nigh!
Posted by: Michael J. Totten at March 14, 2005 05:33 PM

Aha! So it wasn't a figment of my imagination. Great photo! I was heading out to the Blue Moon with Gila when I saw it out of the corner of my eye - Gila was making the turn from Burnside onto 21st, and didn't see it.

Posted by: Asher Abrams at March 14, 2005 06:40 PM

Barry wrote:
"And if it was big enough to be seen, and escape the gravity pull, wouldn't it be pretty honkin' big?"

It's the speed, not the size, along with the trajectory, that is the factor here.

The newsgroup sci.astro.amateur usually has some very good information and discussion on events like this (althought I just checked it now and there's nothing...a bit strange)

Posted by: YetAnotherRick at March 14, 2005 11:00 PM

Gross simplification: two kinds of meteorites. One is a sort of brittle rock containing lots of carbon and trapped gases, the other is mostly iron. The rock ones are commoner.

When a meteorite enters the atmosphere it starts getting hot. Iron meteorites conduct heat, so they tend to get hot all through fairly quickly. Rock meteorites don't conduct heat well, so they get really hot on the surface before the heat penetrates the interior.

So iron meteorites melt into blobs, and if they're big enough make it to the surface. Rock ones generally break up into little bits and melt away without hitting the ground. Big rock ones explode from internal pressure when they get hot all the way through.

What you saw was a rock one -- a "carbonaceous chondrite." When it got hot all through it popped into bits, and the bits fell into the Pacific.


Posted by: Ric Locke at March 15, 2005 07:24 PM
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