Thursday, July 16, 2015

Fireball Meteor over Guelph (2014)

I wrote this with the thought that the Guelph Field Nats could use it in a newsletter or something... They didn't - so here it is for your blog reading pleasure!


25 August 2014, 8:20pm; It’s a beautiful late summer evening with light winds and warm temperatures. The sun is setting to the west; and I’m sitting on the swing-set at Joseph Wolfond Park in downtown Guelph.

This is not a routine habit of mine.

I’m on an evening stroll with Melissa and we’ve stopped here for a quick break. With such fine conditions in late August, I had suggested a walk around town with hopes of encountering some migratory Common Nighthawks (Chordeiles minor) which typically pass through southern Ontario at this time of year. Nighthawks are a species at risk, listed as threatened by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) as well as the Committee on the Status of Species at Risk in Ontario (COSSARO). While that’s reason enough to get out and hopefully view the species, these birds are also remarkably charming - with an alluring buoyant flight and the habit of only appearing in the waning hours of daylight. Nary a nighthawk appeared, yet the event that followed truly lit up the sky. (pun intended!)

Returning to the swingset, there is honestly little more I could say to set the scene. Perhaps that is the beauty of a meteor: there is no anticipation or build-up truly possible. A startled yelp from Melissa was all the prelude allotted to my experience. I looked up to see a vivid “firework-esque” streak of blue and white light streaming across the sky - only to fragment and shatter like a sparkler before vanishing. My experience had lasted just over a second, whereas Melissa had an extended viewing of nearly three. 

Astonished, we discussed what we had just observed. Some distant corner of my memory was telling me that exceptionally bright “shooting stars” were referred to as “fireballs” - but I was far from sure. As many do, we consulted wikipedia for some information. Turns out, our “shooting stars” - or meteor - is defined as little more than a visible streak of light. A fireball happens to be a brighter-than-usual meteor! A number of organizations have seemingly tried to define exact parameters for these events, but for the sake of our observation we were pretty darn close to answering our questions. A final term seemed to hit the nail on the head - bolide. While some consider bolide to be synonymous with fireball, others define it as an “exceptionally bright fireball, particularly one that explodes” (italics mine). We could unequivocally say that “our” fireball shattered in the final moments of its existence. How exciting!

We had only one remaining question: Did anyone else observe the event? Once again the magic of the internet provided the answers. Less than twelve hours after we observed the bolide, and had full accounts of the fireball meteor event over southern Ontario and the northeast United States. Several people on each site noted similar experiences, with varying lengths of observation and colours observed. 

While the subject of this note is almost entirely based in astronomy, I couldn’t help but share the experience with fellow naturalists. It was a stark reminder about the incredible things one can witness when observing or studying the natural world - even at the most unexpected times or locations. Afterword’s our naturalist minds become kindled with the ongoing desire to learn more! Bringing this full circle, I can thank this entire experience to some excellent company and the charismatic - yet elusive - Common Nighthawk.

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