John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.
Has a speeding chunk of space rock smashed through your roof? Perhaps it's shown on this intriguing map of meteorite landings.
First off, yes, the illustration above is bombastic and has little to do with the reality of meteors hitting earth. But have you ever seen a more rockin' piece of stock art? Just take a moment to bask in its DEATH IS UPON US awesomeness. Hug the wife and kids. Double-check your will.
Now, calmly, turn your eyes to this less explosive but nevertheless intriguing map of "500 Years of Witnessed Meteors." Made by Adam Pearce, from Chicago, the space-based cartography shows meteors that survive the fiery friction of the atmosphere, smash into the earth and are recovered by meteorite hunters.
"I spent about 30 hours on the map," Pearce says. "It took me a surprisingly long time before I learned that 'metor' was not the correct spelling; I think there are still some typos in my code."
The interactive map is only a partial sampling of the 45,716 meteorites on record with the Meteoritical Society. "The vast majority of those are fragments found in Antarctica and other remote locations like Western Australia and the Sahara," he says. "Only about 1,107 have a recorded sighting associated with them and of those I was able to find pictures for 605. Since the map is intended for the public and not professionals, I chose to show only the 605 with the most information associated with them."
Each circle represents a space rock that cratered on Earth. Larger circles indicate heavier masses, and the colors are clues to when they landed (yellow is oldest, red the most recent). Move the mouse over each strike zone to see a photo of the extraterrestrial interloper as it appears in the Encyclopedia of Meteorites.
Notable meteorites include the one in 2003 that "crashed through the two-story home of Ray and Judy Fausset, who were not at home at the time," according to one account. "Neighbors said that they heard a 'terrific noise.'... The main mass of the meteorite was found in the crawl space under the house." There's also this 1992 baby that thudded down in Peekskill, New York, busting up the trunk of a sweet Chevy Malibu:
Insurance probably didn't cover that, but a local woman was able to make up for the damage by selling the meteorite to dealers for $69,000.
The map most definitely includes the 1954 interplanetary softball that clipped Ann Hodges, the only known victim of a meteor strike in world history. Hodges was napping on the couch in her house in Sylacauga, Alabama, when a gnarly 12-pound stone broke through her roof and nailed her on the thigh, leaving an ugly welt. The poor woman later suffered a nervous breakdown, with her ex-husband saying she "never did recover" from her cosmic beaning.
The distribution seems to indicate that more meteorites have been found in the central United States, Europe, India, Nigeria and Japan. But perhaps that's just because these are regions with decent population sizes that are prone to noticing blazing fireballs in the sky. Notice the relative lack of meteorites in largely uninhabited spaces in Canada, Australia and the Amazon. Light pollution might also be dampening meteorite discoveries in big urban areas, like along the Atlantic and California coasts.
I asked Pearce if anything jumped out at him about the map. He wrote back:
The most interesting pattern I've seen: Our record of witnessed meteorites tracks the spread of Western civilization. If you select a small slice of the Year histogram and slowly drag it to the right, yellow dots (indicating earlier impacts) pop up in Europe, increasing in frequency after Galileo and Newton et al. Along with imperialism, orange dots start to appear in India and the Eastern seaboard of the U.S. Just looking at the U.S., the western-most red dot moves farther and farther west with the population of the U.S. over time. A similar pattern occurs in the rest of the world as the sighting rate in areas on the periphery increases during the 19th and 20th centuries.
Typing this out it seems sort of obvious and expected, but it is very exciting seeing these patterns emerge 'organically' from the data. It also raises an interesting questions about the broader historical record: Billions of people have lived and died without leaving any records of meteors they surely witnessed; what other things do we not know about their lives?
Has this research made Pearce nervous about get knocked on the noggin? He jokes, "It makes me worried about leaving the house at all!"