Meteorite Impact!! Chelyabinsk, Russia and Farmville, NC
Wow! I’ve spent the morning watching video from the meteorite strike in Russia. The new footage from the Chelyabinsk region of Russia is spectacular. The story is also very familiar: The same thing happened in North Carolina in 1934.
Residents of Kinston were surprised by a fireball in the sky and an explosion on 4 December 1934, at about 1:15 in the afternoon. The first impression was that a moonshine still, or the city gasworks, had exploded outside of town somewhere. That quickly cleared up as reports of the fireball became available. It was seen by students at nearby East Carolina Teacher’s College (now ECU).
Newspapers from the time report that the shock wave was felt in Jones, Craven and Greene Counties, as well as Pitt County. The fireball was observed by students in Goldsboro and Raleigh. The Curator of Geology at the Museum of Natural Sciences was Harry Davis, who later tracked the path of the meteorite across the state, through his correspondence with friends who saw the fireball trail over Charlotte.
The first piece of the Farmville meteorite was found immediately, 12.5 pounds on the Cecil Dixon farm. It was dug up by the children of Mr. Robert Wainright. The second, larger piece was found in 1935, when field workers went out to start the Spring plowing. It was 111 pounds, in a crater about 3.5 feet deep, found by Mr. C.P. Brady who was subleasing the farm. This mass was sold to Harry Davis for $40 and is still in the Museum’s Collections. It turned out to be an H4 chondrite, part of a group known as ordinary chondrites. UNC Geology undergraduate Sheri Singerling did her senior research project on piece of Farmville in 2010. She’s now a grad student at UT Knoxville, continuing her work on meteorites.
This all makes comparisons easier. The Farmville meteorite shook houses and shook plates off shelves and tables, but there aren’t reports of damage from the shockwave or lots of windows being broken. Perhaps it is due to the fact that this part of the state was mostly rural. It could also be that the Farmville meteorite was smaller. Early reports from Russia put the crater at about 15 to 20 feet across, again, much larger than Farmville’s 3.5 feet.
Why do these things detonate? Coming through the atmosphere, abrasion with the atmosphere melts about 2 mm of the outside of the meteorite. The material can ablate off the sides, leaving a trail. If there are any cracks in the meteorite, gases can build up and detonate the rock. The stresses of coming through the atmosphere can also shatter a rock.
I offer my sympathies to those injured in the Chelyabinsk explosion. This event truly came on them out of the blue. For those of us still safe at home, there are more activities to help gauge the size of a potential disaster. ImpactEarth! allows you to hit the earth with various sizes of meteorites and see what happens. You also get to pick how far from the impact you are standing. You know, to see if you survive. Here’s a .kml file for Google Earth that will let you find the North Carolina meteorite nearest you.
We have a piece of the Farmville meteorite on display on the third floor of the main Museum, where you can touch it. We have other North Carolina meteorites on the first floor in the Treasures gallery, and on the second floor in the minerals exhibit. In the new wing, the NRC, we have a more extensive collection of meteorites on display, including a piece of Mars that you can touch. Please pay us a visit.