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  Meteor shocks Pacific Northwest
Web Extra Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Meteor shocks Pacific Northwest

At about 5:31 a.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 19, a bright, flaming fireball streaked across the pre-dawn sky in the Pacific Northwest near Portland, Ore., and exploded with a large blast that lit up the horizon, witnesses say. Security cameras at a Portland hospital captured the fireball’s arrival on film, and dozens of reports of eyewitness sightings came in from across Washington and Oregon and even as far away as Idaho and British Columbia. No one has found pieces of the meteorite yet or any craters, but researchers are on the lookout, and suggest that anyone who finds any evidence of it should call the experts.

 “The fireball came in over western Washington, going east-southeast, and exploded somewhere around Pendleton, Ore.,” in the northeastern part of the state, says Dick Pugh of Portland State University’s Cascadia Meteorite Laboratory. “It was exceedingly bright in Pendleton – bright enough to wake people up,” he says. People from Pendleton to Hermiston, Ore., say that they heard a sonic boom – “loud enough to rattle windows and send dogs running under beds.” The sonic booms — in addition to the crackling and popping noises, called “electrophonic sounds,” that followed — indicate that at least a portion of the meteor survived entry into Earth's atmosphere and struck the ground, he says.

Geologists at Cascadia Meteorite Laboratory say that they have received calls from people in three separate locations in Oregon who said they saw pieces of the meteorite strike the ground, but they haven’t confirmed the findings yet. "We can hope for holes in barn roofs," Pugh says, as that would make any fragments easier to find. But more likely the meteorite fragments are scattered among eastern Oregon’s wheatfields or in the Blue Mountains, which he says would make them exceedingly difficult to locate. “We aren’t going to go out and wander the wheatfields,” he says, but they are still pondering a visit to Pendleton to show locals what to be looking for as they walk their own land. “The recovery rate on fireballs is about 1 percent,” he adds, “so the odds aren’t good.” And even if they were to find anything, he says, “I would expect any fragments to be from marble-sized to maybe the size of a basketball,” and no large craters.

Most meteors burn up in the atmosphere before striking Earth, so for this one to get as close as it did — and maybe hit the planet, thus becoming a “meteorite” — means it was once a very big piece of rock, says Scott Burns, a geologist at Portland State. “It’s very exciting,” he says.

Four meteorites have been recovered in Oregon, including one recovered in Oregon City in 1902 that weighs 15 tons. Fireballs — defined as meteors that are brighter than Venus — are far more common, however. “We get several a year here in the Pacific Northwest, but most of the time it’s too cloudy to see them,” Pugh says. The last one was seen on Dec. 24, 2007, but the last meteorite to be recovered in Oregon was in 1981, he says, and that’s only because it hit a house.
 

Megan Sever

Links:
KGW local news story 
Cascadia Meteorite Laboratory 
The Oregonian coverage  

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