Image by Rafael Moura Sb. from Pixabay

If a large meteor passes above the earth, you would think that humans across the globe would take notice, right? Even more so if the spectacular fireball exploded. However, when a meteor exploded over earth last year humans didn’t even realize it was happening. Yet, now our delayed reaction has caught up.

A Bering Sea Impact Detected By Sensors

The meteor landed just over the Bering Sea on December 18th between Russia and Alaska. It exploded in this remote area just above the surface of the earth. That’s one reason why it might have escaped immediate human notice.

While humans may not have initially become aware of this event, it was picked up by infrasound stations around the world. Peter Brown of the University of Western Canada identified the unusual measurements as part of his regular work. After that, it took some time for Brown and other experts to coordinate the data and pinpoint the meteor’s location so they could understand what took place. Once they were confident that they knew what happened, they released the information to the public.

Meteor’s Size Was Stunning

The sheer size of the meteor stunned observers. At ten meters in diameter, it maintained a mass of 1,400 tons. The object impact was equivalent to 173 kilotons of TNT, it was moving at 115,200 kilometers per hour and exploded just 16 miles above the earth’s surface.

It is safe to say that if humans had been able to see the meteor’s impact, it would have been quite a visual event. Experts say that it released the energy of 724,000 average lightning strikes and ten times the energy of the bomb that was deployed over Hiroshima.

Third Largest Meteor

Despite its size, this was only the third-largest meteor explosion recorded in modern times. The second largest, in 2013, exploded in the region of Chelyabinsk. While astronomers knew that a different asteroid was close by to Earth, they did not expect the impact they saw. The meteor, also weighing ten tons, exploded above Earth’s atmosphere and injured between 900 and 1200 people, mostly from broken glass. Buildings and property were also damaged and video footage of the event was shared around the world on social media.

The largest meteor strike in recent history took place in Siberia in 1908. Called the Tunguska Event, it destroyed more than 80 million trees over an area approximating 2,000 miles. Thousands of people observed the effects of the event describing a fireball in the sky, a shaking of the ground, and explosive sounds. Because of the remote location of the meteor strike, no one visited the impact site until 1927. At that time, photos of the area, documenting the immense damage, were finally taken.

Close Calls Can Be Common

The fact that no one noticed this meteor right away begs the question— are there other meteor strikes and close calls that humans also miss? The unsettling answer is yes.

Because of the deadly nature of meteor impacts, scientists are constantly scanning the skies and working with data in order to predict future impacts. This monitoring has taught them that small impacts frequently come near or impact with the earth. If these smaller rocks impact one of the earth’s oceans, it may not be noticed by humans other than records that scientists keep through data sensors. A website from the American Meteor Society, which was founded in 1911, keeps track of larger meteor activity at or near the Earth. NASA also publishes data on cometary and asteroid fragments that enter our atmosphere.

Larger asteroids hitting earth are much less likely. That’s because they will break up, and even disintegrate, as they come into contact with Earth’s atmosphere. Going forward, scientists are continuing to develop their monitoring technology. Their ability to predict both close calls and larger dangers will only improve.