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Disturbing the Peace River Meteorite

Peace River meteorite
The seven gram specimen of Peace River, Canada in the author’s collection.

“Then came a flash so brilliant that you could not see anything and it lit up everything bright as day. Then came the explosion after the light faded out, which shook the house with such force that the windows and dishes rattled.”

-Emil Grigoleit of Hines Creek, Alberta, Canada.

There are many shocking things about the fall of the Peace River meteorite including just how many witnesses were awake at 4:35 AM on a cold Sunday morning. Mr. Grigoleit’s account quoted above is one of dozens that when combined shrank the witnessed fall area from 4000 square miles to about 100 square miles. From there, the elliptical strewn field was further refined resulting in a quite manageable 5.5 by 3.5 mile search area.

So less than a month after the March 31 fall, and after the snow melted, the first piece of the Peace River meteorite was found, an 8kg fragment that John Westgate pulled from a field a mere two days into the serious search after the snow melted and the floodwaters subsided. A total of seven pieces of Peace River were reported found weighing from 360 grams to 16.6 kilos for a total recovered weight of over 45 kilograms. There were also many so-called souvenir specimens collected but not recorded or weighed.

Peace River meteorite
The early stages in the search for the Peace River meteorite began with mapping the stories from witnesses.

Solid fieldwork led to the location of the Peace River fragments now in captivity, but the first hurdle in the science of the Peace River meteorite was convincing those in academia that such an event actually took place and was worthy of the 300 mile drive. But like L’Aigle, the eyewitness testimony was consistant and overwhelming making a six-hour one-way trip to the fall area worth the time of university researchers. Arriving on site, the interviews began. In essence, each witness was taken to the exact spot where they were when Peace River fell. The witnesses were given a stick to point at whatever they remember seeing. The directions and angles were recorded and measured using a Brunton compass.

Peace River meteorite
A Brunton Pocket Field Transit compass similar to the type used to triangulate the angles and arcs provided by the many witnesses who just happened to be awake early that Sunday morning.

On a side note here, although many consider Brunton compasses to be from an American company, it was actually D.W. Brunton who commissioned a watchmaker in Denver, Colorado to build Brunton’s invention, a Pocket Transit Compass. Brunton himself was a Canadian-born geologist and mining engineer.

Some of the eyewitness testimony collected and documented by R. E. Folinsbee and L. A. Bayrock in their highly detailed account of the fall included:

“…First noticed when ground and interior of car lit up like sheet lighting.”
-R.C.M.P. Constable Lowe

 

Saw an orange fireball the size of several full moons descending at a very steep angle …exploding…leaving behind a large number of bright fragments that fell to the ground.

-Peace River resident Lloyd Leonard

 

Heard a low hissing sound.

Shaftsbury Settlement resident Fred St. Germain

 

Saw the sky brighten and a reddish bolide about one-third the size of a full moon descending.

-Piece River resident Mrs. Ragelson

 

Saw a flash in the sky and then a yellow to reddish fireball about one-tenth the size of the full moon at the same time he heard a sound rumbling sound.

-Bluesky resident R. Proctor

 

Saw the whole sky brighten up and a fireball of very deep red color about “one foot” in diameter.

-Warrensville resident Peter Karpiak

 

Saw a bolide travel across path of his car west to east. The bolide was small at first and became larger and larger until at least the size of the full moon at which time it exploded. Noted that the explosion took place 15-20 miles away.

-Smithmills resident V. Lambert (whose observation was remarkably accurate)

And on and on.

Once the general area of the fall was identified, a Cessna 180 airplane was used to search for fragments. However the snow cover prevented finding anything. A ground search at that time was equally ineffective. And as anyone around farmland knows, when the snow melts, the fields flood. So although a mild search proceeded with searchers wearing wadding boots it too was unfruitful. Even worse, chert pebbles are a common rock in the area and they look remarkably like meteorites and were collected in droves. And finally, adding insult to injury or rather the other way around, the day before the first fragment was found it was reported that “all our searchers acquired was a severe sunburn.”

Peace River meteorite
Folinsbee’s map of the location within the strewn field of the recovered fragments of the Peace River meteorite.

 

Much was learned back when Folinsbee searched the Bruderhiem, Canada fall in 1960 (discussed here in the Accretion Desk back in 2011). So building on that knowledge and lessons-learned including the fact that even large meteorite fragments can be easily overlooked in a cultivated field unless a highly systematic search is undertaken.

Peace River meteorite
R. E. Folnisbee holding a large fragment of the Peace River meteorite.

 

One particular fragment was most interesting not because it was a meteorite but rather because it was not a “meateorite” (this author’s choice of spelling). Its thought a coyote was disappointed the stone was not a sharp-tailed grouse or other tasty beast. In disgust after sneaking up on the rock, the canine defecated on the fragment. That story reminds me of the dog that urinated on a piece of Lost City before it was recovered. Perhaps there is a new collecting genre for such localities similar to “Hammer Stones.” If such a category is opened, may I suggest the name “Meteortoilite.”

Three followup searches were made, one each in June, July, and August of the same year. Folinsbee and Bayrock outlined two facts about the functional search for Peace River meteorite specimens including:

-Its possible to accurately “Pinpoint” a fall area even when the closest witness is 20 miles away.

-A systematic reporting system is necessary to collect the diversity of witness information. Also use the media and “on-the-spot education in meteoritics.” (in the article Nininger was given a nod for that tip)

 

In the end, R. E. Folinsbee reported to the Meteoritical Bulletin (No. 27, July 1963) about the Peace River meteorite fall with a total weight of recovered specimens of 45.76kg. Although the above fall information is clearly listed in the Meteoritical Bulletin Database, the official Peace River entry lists a total known weight of only 8kg.

Peace River meteorite
One of the many dark colored inclusions within the grey matrix of Peace River. Notice the interesting seam running diagonally.

 

Robert Folinsbee died in 2008, but his rich scientific career lives on as does his memory with asteroid (187679) Folinsbee named in his honor.

The location of asteroid (187679) Folinsbee at the time of this writing.

 

Like all witnessed meteorite falls Peace River is filled with excitement and chase. But dare I call Peace River historic? Well, considering that it fell in the year I was born, I’d say Peace River, while a wonderful and highly collectable L6 chondrite with a rich documented history, it is far from historical.

Until next time…

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