Search for Greenland's thunderbolt

Click to follow
The Independent Online
A dense meteorite crashed into the southern tip of Greenland last week. The hunt for it goes on, but it would take someone with Miss Smilla's feeling for snow to find it. This, however, is real life. Charles Arthur, Science Editor, investigates another narrow escape.

Two spotter planes were yesterday searching the southern tip of Greenland for the telltale signs of the huge meteorite impact that happened last week, but of which news has only just begun to trickle out.

The size of the meteorite, which lit up the dark morning sky on 9 December, could rival that of the Tunguska meteorite, a body 50 to 100 metres across, which exploded in the air over Siberia in June 1908. The energy released was equivalent to a 15-megaton bomb, and flattened trees across hundreds of square kilometres. Such events happen only a couple of times a century.

Fishermen and early-morning risers saw the sky brighten to daylight at 5.10am, as what eyewitnesses called a green streak flashed across the sky in a period estimated between 2 and 5 seconds. No one was able to photograph it - though in the town of Nuuk a car-park video surveillance camera aimed at the ground did record the incredible brightening of ambient light.

Seconds later, seismographic equipment recorded a 10-second shockwave.

"It was seen all over the southern part of Greenland," Holge Pedersen, of Copenhagen University, told The Independent yesterday. "It wasn't like most meteor falls, which break up about 20 to 30km up and take a couple of minutes to reach the ground. This was travelling really fast and stayed solid." But he said it was impossible at present to estimate the size of the Qaqortoq meteorite - named, by tradition, from the nearest post office. The early signs are that the meteorite was travelling at about Mach 10 - 7,600mph. Had it hit a city, the effect would have been disastrous.

On landing it would be incredibly hot, and melt its way through the icecap - which would then freeze over it, hiding it, though a cloud of water vapour could be let off.

If the description sounds familiar, that's because a buried meteorite in Greenland is one of the essential plot elements in Peter Hoeg's hugely popular book Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow, recently made into a film.

But this was not a publicity stunt, and the lessons from this event may be worrying. There are an estimated 100,000 objects bigger than a kilometre wide floating around the solar system close enough to pose a threat to Earth.