Meteor Strikes New Zealand Warehouse

A spectacular warehouse fire stopped traffic and drew a crowd of onlookers in Auckland, New Zealand, last Saturday night, but the interesting thing is that many people were convinced the fire was caused by a meteorite. The blaze broke out in a warehouse on the intersection of Ponsonby Road and McKelvie Street in Auckland sometime around 10:00pm. A number of people reported seeing what may have been a meteorite from various parts of the upper North Island streaking across the sky just after 10:00. Several callers claim the light in the sky was very bright, and it was described by some as a blinding flash. Others said it was trailing smoke and on witness said he saw the object crash in the area of the warehouse followed by an exploding noise.

This has led to speculation that the fire was caused by the celestial visitor. A New Zealand-based reader followed up with appears to be the most detailed eyewitness account so far. Here is her account of the possible meteorite induced fire:

I saw the meteorite from the top of Mount Eden and I have a BSc in Geology so have a good understanding of what I saw. The blinding green flash was the meteorite entering our atmosphere, it didn’t seem to break the sound barrier as it entered. It looked like it was burning out and left a vapor trail that hung for about five minutes. It was going very fast and would have been burning at about 2,000 degrees, the same as basaltic magma. To clarify, a meteorite is smaller than a metre in diameter and they are not that rare. The meteorite was travelling towards the Ponsonby area and I am not at all suprised that it caused a building to ignite. — Melissa

This a just a reminder that Earth has been struck by many wandering celestial objects, most very small but some very much larger. In The Resilient Earth we related the story of the asteroid credited with ending the Dinosaurs' time on Earth, a radical theory proposed the Luis and Walter Alvarez. While death by flaming meteor is certainly a spectacular way for a species to go extinct that is not the only tool at the grim reaper's disposal.

In chapter 6, Ancient Extinctions, we discussed the six known major extinctions that have occurred since the Cambrian explosion, the dramatic emergence of complex life on Earth 550 million years ago. Scientists have come up with a number of imaginative world wreaking scenarios, any of which make the IPCC's projections for global warming disaster pale in comparison. A temperature rise of a couple of degrees, and all that comes with it, would be an annoyance to people, possibly deadly to a few overly specialized species but hardly even noticeable when compared to the extinction events of the past.

The most famous extinction is also the most recent, the KT or end-Cretaceous Extinction, 65 million years ago. The subject of many TV shows, most people know the story of the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs. What most people don't know is that, along with the dinosaurs, 85% of all species on Earth vanished during that time. Because it was the most recent extinction event, scientists know more about the KT event, the meteor impact discovered by the Alvarezs, than the other great extinctions. Here is a summary of the six major extinctions:

  • Early-Cambrian (512 mya): earliest recognized mass extinction eliminated 50% of all marine species.
  • End-Ordovician (439 mya): 85% of marine species disappeared, including many trilobites. Second largest marine extinction with 60% of marine genera and 26% of marine families.
  • Late-Devonian (365 mya): 70-80% of animal species went extinct, including many corals, brachiopods, and some single-celled organisms. Accounting for 57% of marine genera and 22% of marine families.
  • Permian-Triassic (251 mya): extinction of 96% of marine species, including all trilobites and many terrestrial animals —Earth's biggest extinction.
  • End-Triassic (199 mya): extinction of 76% of species including many sponges, gastropods, bivalves, cephalopods, brachiopods, insects, and vertebrates. Mostly affecting ocean life killing 57% of marine genera and 23% of marine families.
  • KT or end-Cretaceous Extinction (65 mya): 80% of all species on Earth vanished, most notably the dinosaurs. Eliminated 47% of marine genera and 16% of families.

The causes of these natural catastrophes are varied. Ice ages may have played a major role in several. There is evidence that fluctuations in sea level was the primary cause of the end-Ordovician extinction, which mostly affected marine life. The Permian-Triassic Extinction is widely considered the worst of all the major extinction events, killing off an estimated 95% of terrestrial life. Well into the Triassic, as many as 20 million years later, the effects were still felt.

Causes put forward for the biggest of all extinctions pretty much cover the entire range; climate change, sudden release of CO2 or methane, massive volcanoes and an asteroid strike have all been suggested. Douglas Erwin, in his excellent book Extinction, covers all the theories in detail, and finds no single explanation fully satisfying. He has suggested what he calls the “murder on the orient express” theory, a combination of several or even all of the causes listed above.

So what are we to make of all of this naturaly caused death and destruction? Simply that life is a gamble here on planet Earth and there are no guarantees that our species will see another day, let a lone another century. Compared with an Earth shattering impact or a million years of constant volcanic eruptions the “dire” consequences so luridly popularized by Al Gore and his ilk are placed in their true context—they are practically meaningless. The various species that reside on this planet, our own included, had best be able to take such minor changes in stride or they will soon find their only presence is in the fossil record—along with the 99% of Earth's other species that have gone extinct. If it takes an occasional meteor crashing into a warehouse to remind us of this fact we should be thankful.