One hundred and six years ago today on 9th February 1913, with the glorious era of the Belle Epoque drawing to its conclusion at the approach of the first world war, a most curious and spectacular sight occurred in the night sky. It was visible over Canada, the USA and parts of Bermuda, and consisted of a series of very bright meteors or ‘fireballs’ processing across the heavens from west to east. It was also observed from ships at sea as far south as Brazil.
Here is a painting of the event by the Canadian artist Gustav Hahn. You might recognise the stars of the constellation Orion on the upper left.
'Meteoric Display of February 9, 1913, as seen near High Park' by Gustav Hahn
A fireball is an unusual enough occurrence. But to witness a whole procession of them is almost unknown.
Meteor = particle of dust or rock entering the earth’s upper atmosphere and burning up to create a short-lived trail of light or ‘shooting star.’ Common. Fireball = a slow-moving bright object, far larger and of longer duration than a shooting star. Rare.
Stately and Measured
Those who were fortunate enough to observe the event described the passage of the objects as ‘stately and measured’. The lights all travelled in a horizontal direction parallel to the horizon and were each visible for approximately a minute. The colour was a bright fiery yellow, and the entire procession took several minutes to pass by. It must have been a breathtaking experience to have witnessed it.
There were some accompanying sounds – rumblings mostly, but enough to shake the ground according to some reports – suggesting the objects might have been close to the earth and disintegrating as they went, perhaps even creating a series of what we today would call sonic booms.
Witnesses able to provide a little more detail described the procession as consisting of two bars of flaming material with a stream of sparks being thrown out. Others described the leading bodies as being like large arc lights slightly violet in colour, followed by yellow and red fragments.
Gustav Hahn, the artist
Gustav Hahn (1866-1962) was born in Germany but made his home in Canada as an artist and muralist. He pioneered the Art Nouveau style in Canada, and taught at the Ontario College of Art. Significant in this context is that he was also an amateur astronomer - an interest shared with his father, who collected meteorites (the physical remnants of shooting stars). His painting of the event, therefore, which depicts the night sky above a neighbourhood in Toronto’s west end, would have been an expert portrayal of exactly how everything would have looked from the ground. A magnificent record of an extraordinary event.
That night in 1913, at the conclusion of the procession there was for some an equaly unusual and peculiar 'encore' - a single ball of fire that passed across the sky in the wake of the main event. This had no trail attached and did not have the bright yellow colour of the main procession. It appeared, instead, as a clear light, like that of a large star.
Astronomers have calculated that the path of the procession could have extended as much as 7000 miles in length. Because it did not behave in any way like a normal meteor shower, it could have been due to a short-lived satellite, albeit a very small one, which would have been captured by the earth at some stage before subsequently fragmenting and burning up in low orbit.
The Tunguska Event
The 1900s was, in fact, a decade of unusual objects falling to earth. A little less than five years previous to the procession, in 1908, a huge explosion above a remote region of Siberia devastated a surface area of around 2,000 sq km and flattened as many as 80 million trees. Known today as the Tunguska event, it left no visible crater, and is thought to have been a large meteor or a comet exploding in the upper atmosphere. It was fortunate it did not occur in a more populated area. Residents in the nearest town, at a distance of 35 miles reported being thrown off their feet by the blast.
Photo of Tunguska's fallen forest
The above photograph, by the way, was taken much later after the event, during a 1927 expedition led by Leonid Kulik. The devastation was still plain to see, reminiscent of a vast field of battle.