Meteor Event Causes Sunday Morning Hubbub In Nevada, California
April 23, 2012

Meteor Event Causes Sunday Morning Hubbub In Nevada, California

Lawrence LeBlond for

Residents in parts of Nevada and California were treated to a rare daytime celestial event that awoke some on Sunday morning with a loud explosion, according to a Fox News report.

The event -- a meteor streaking across the morning sky -- was followed by hundreds of calls to 911 centers in the area reporting a deafening explosion, while some reported seeing the fireball blazing across the sky.

The “big boom,” as it became quickly known across social media outlets, occurred at about 8 a.m. Sunday morning and had homeowners in the region scurrying about fearing an earthquake or some other catastrophe had struck.

Witnesses from Winnemucca, Nevada to Bakersfield, California reported seeing the object streaking east to west across the morning sky, with the deafening boom following minutes later. Experts said the thunderous explosion that followed the meteor may have been a sonic boom or the sound of it breaking up over the Earth.

“It probably would have exploded as it entered the atmosphere,” Mike Smith, a meteorologist from the National Weather Service office in Sacramento, California, told Reuters.

The sonic boom touched off alarms at a Wal-Mart in Carson City, Nevada, according to an online report from the Reno-Gazette Journal. It was also felt all around the Tahoe basin and into California as far north as Tehama County and as far south as Riverside County. Las Vegas residents also reported seeing and hearing the meteor.

The visible display was nothing short of dazzling, as some described it.

“I was out ... hiking in the mountains (and) saw this great, big, white ball streaming across the sky to the west,” Ellen Pillard, a Reno resident, told the Reno-Gazette Journal. “Then it just disappeared,” and minutes later came the boom, she said. “It was just amazing ... I thought maybe I was dreaming.”

“I was outside my apartment and saw a huge bright thing in the corner of my eye,” said another witness, Jenae Neu. “I looked up and saw a huge bright ball with some sort of tail. It looked like it was about 100 yards away and it only lasted about two seconds before it went behind a hill that´s close to my place. It was like nothing I´ve ever seen. It was crazy.”

Reno resident Nicole Carlsen told the Associated Press (AP) the event “made the shades in my room shake hard enough to slam into the window a couple times. I kept looking for earthquake information, but (there was) nothing. I even checked the front of my house to make sure no one ran into the garage.”

While the explosion was heard in many areas in southern California, many did not experience the spectacular light show as area skies were cloudy that morning, including Los Angeles.

While most meteors that enter the earth´s atmosphere that we see at night are no bigger than a pebble or a grain of sand, a meteor large enough to be seen during the daytime would have to be as big as a baseball, said Smith.

Robert Lunsford, of the Geneseo, NY-based American Meteor Society, said he had no doubt that Sunday´s event was the work of a fireball. “It happens all the time, but most are in daytime and are missed. This one was extraordinarily bright in the daylight.”

While it´s rare for fireballs to produce a loud explosion, Lunsford said it does happen if the meteor can survive intact until breaking up within five miles of Earth´s surface. Most fireballs are visible at 50 miles above Earth, he added.

“If you hear a sonic boom or loud explosion, that´s a good indication that some fragments may have reached the ground,” Lunsford told the AP. “We'll have to get some people to work on it to pinpoint where it broke up and see if anything can be found on the ground.”

Sunday´s event came on the heels of the pre-dawn peak of the Lyrid meteor shower, an annual display that occurs when the Earth passes through the remains of space debris left by the Comet Thatcher that last visited the planet in 1861, said Smith. That comet isn´t due to pass by us again for another 250 years.

Dan Ruby of the Fleischmann Planetarium at the University of Nevada, Reno, told the AP that even though the Lyrids peaked on Saturday night, he didn´t believe Sunday morning´s event was connected to the Lyrid display at all.

“People are putting two and two together and saying it has something to do with the meteor shower,” he said. “But the fireball was probably coincidental and unrelated to the peak of the meteor shower.”

However, Tom Dang of the National Weather Service said he believed the meteor could have been part of the shower. “It leaves a cloud of debris and we´re just moving through that debris right now,” he told Fox News.

The acoustic signal from the meteor´s passage was recorded on numerous stations along the UNR Seismological Laboratory´s earthquake monitoring network, said Ken Smith, Science Network Manager at the lab.

“The airwave from the meteor was strong enough to cause measurable ground motions at seismograph stations,” he noted.