The Many Times Humans Have Almost Been Killed By Meteorites

The Many Times Humans Have Almost Been Killed By Meteorites

On Saturday, a luckless bus driver died in a mysterious explosion in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. His death took on added significance when local officials declared that the man was killed by a meteorite.

The Indian Institute of Astrophysics is working to confirm that claim. But if true, it marks the first confirmed death-by-meteorite. That's rather shocking. Over the long and violent history of our species, has no one else been killed by a falling space rock?

It's really tough to say. As the sparse historic record suggests, the lifetime odds of being killed by a meteorite are incredibly small: about one in 700,000, according to calculations by astronomer Alan Harris. You're much more likely to drown, to die in an aeroplane crash, to get flattened by a tornado or to be offed by a fellow human than you are to have your life snuffed out by an extraterrestrial impactor.

Still, a report by the National Resource Council estimates that there should be approximately 91 meteorite-related fatalities every year. Perhaps many meteoric deaths have simply gone unreported — a possibility supported by the fact that historic records are very sparse before the 19th century.

But based on records compiled by Harvard's International Comet Quarterly, it's clear there have been close calls over the past 200 years. These include a — later disputed — report of an Indian man getting killed by a meteorite in 1825, another case of an Indian man getting struck in the arm by a space rock in 1827 and many instances of meteorites smashing through people's roofs or hitting their cars. A (possibly apocryphal) report declares that a meteorite struck a house in China in 1907, causing it to collapse and killing the family inside. In 1915, another report claims that a meteorite tore off a Chinese woman's arm.

With animals, we have a few solid reports of death-by-meteorite, including a horse that was struck and killed in New Concord, Ohio, in 1860 and a dog that had the misfortune of getting walloped during a meteorite shower over Nakhla, Egypt, in 1911.

In a few instances, meteorites have threatened to cause much more destruction. Just three years back, a space rock hurled into Earth's atmosphere and exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia, producing a tremendous shockwave that damaged thousands of buildings and injured over a thousand people. The event garnered international attention, but astonishingly, not a single person was killed. And Chelyabinsk was peanuts compared with the asteroid or comet that exploded over Tunguska, Siberia, in 1908, flattening a 16 square kilometre region of forest. Scientists have since estimated that the Tunguska blast released the energy equivalent of 185 Hiroshima bombs. Had it occurred over New York City, it could have ended three million lives.

Incidents like Chelyabinsk and Tunguska are rare, but they serve to remind us that death from above is never more than one statistically unlikely orbital trajectory away from us.

As for the recent case in India? I contacted Harris — the guy who calculated the odds of being killed by a meteorite — and he's sceptical. "The odds of someone, somewhere, sometime in history, having been killed by a meteorite or bolide explosion is not out of the question," he told Gizmodo in an email. "But keep claims in perspective: every year about 100 million deaths occur, many of them under obscure or shadowy circumstances. What are the odds of one such death being claimed as due to a meteorite rather than some other cause that someone would like to conceal?"

While we wait for the Indian authorities to confirm or deny the report, I'll leave you with one final morbid tidbit to chew on. Harris' calculations show that while a massive, Armageddon-style meteorite impact is much less likely than a small impact, the chances of being killed by the former and the latter are about equal.

So, while there may be no confirmed deaths-by-meteorite yet, odds are about 50-50 that if you get struck and killed by a meteorite, 7 billion other people are going out with you.


Comments

    Does no one proof read giz articles before they are published?

    You are getting meteorite and meteor mixed up. Meteorite can't hit anything, unless someone is throwing it.

    by the fact that historic records are very sparse

    You are also getting 'historical' mixed up with 'historic'.

      Does anyone just read the articles any more without tearing them to shreds ? No one likes a spelling / grammar nazi.

      A meteorite is what you call the space rock that has hit something on the earths surface after surviving its fall through the atmosphere. the article is correct and you are wrong

      If a meteor hits you, and you're on the Earth's surface, then pretty much by definition it's a meteorite. It's a meteor if it DOESN'T reach the surface - for example if it explodes in mid-air.

      I suppose you could argue that it's not a meteorite UNTIL it hits you. That's splitting hairs a bit too finely IMO.

      You're right about the historic/historical thing however.

      Your post is delightfully ironic.
      No *meteor* has ever killed anyone!
      It was a meteoroid when it hit the dude, and it was a meteorite when it survived impace with the ground.

        It's a meteorite the moment it stops travelling free through space or the atmosphere after hitting the Earths surface not hitting "the ground". Are you telling me a meteoroid that hit a tree and stayed up there isn't now a meteorite? No. Because it is. It became a meteorite the moment it hit the poor dude. He was kill by a meteorite.

          "Are you telling me a meteoroid that hit a tree and stayed up there isn't now a meteorite?"

          Absolutely!
          Because I would not be easily convinced that a tree is part of the earth's surface.
          What's more, I'm *absolutely certain* that a bus-driver is not a part of the earth's surface!
          (Although, sadly, now s/he might perhaps be considered so!)

            If you're uncertain about the tree but certain about a human, then clearly my argument is already won because your logic has evaporated just like a meteoroid that never becomes a meteorite.

            "Surface" in the context of meteorites means it has come to rest on matter on the the Earth, whether that be mud, sand, ice, taxi drivers or trees., not that it has to by definition land neatly on an exposed rock somehere. A simple concept, not easily understood by the equally simple I suppose.

              I have some involvement in land-surveying.
              Anyone who tells me that a tree is part of the Earth's surface is disguising a feature-code error.
              Anyone who tells me a bus driver is part of the Earth's surface is certifiable.

              You really, really, need to cite a trustworthy source for your claim there's a special definition of 'the earth's surface' just for meteorites.

                So a tree isn't part of the Earth's surface and a space rock landing in one doesn't become a meteorite? OK. How about a meteoroid that lands on the grass or on the snow in Antartica. Are you saying that isn't a meteorite either? What is it then? A cabbage? It's a meteorite. That being the case, use your land surveying expertise to logically explain the difference between the tree leaves and the grass or ice when it comes to meteorite status please. I'm sure you can come up with some really complex land-surveying maths and physics to educate me. I didn't claim any special definition. You're the one claming that parts of the surface aren't parts of the surface. Why don't you define 'surface' for all the readers then? Make sure it excludes trees and taxi drivers but not grass or ice. Make a list of ins and outs so everyone can refer to it in the future. Hey, what is it if it falls into a hole BELOW the surface full of frozen grass? Ohhhhhhh, brain hurt.

                  A meteoroid which hasn't yet hit the earth's surface, is...
                  A meteoroid!

                  A pretty good test for sanity would be to ask people to point at the Earth's surface:
                  Most would point at rocks or dirt.
                  A creative few might point at ice or snow or water.
                  Stoners and hippies might point to grass, and maybe some mushrooms and specific herbs.
                  The severely mentally crippled may indicate a tree.
                  And there's steve.f, pointing, at a bus driver...

                  Last edited 10/02/16 9:58 pm

                  Ah, that's it, when you can't logically address the question to prove your point then resort to insults.Answer this, is a field of grass the Earth's surface? Yes or no? Is a field of snow the Earth's surface? Yes or no? NASA thinks a field of snow is http://curator.jsc.nasa.gov/antmet/ I guess those moon landing fakers don't know anything. Explain why the grass is different to the snow. If you can't, then explain why the grass is different to the tree. If you can't then explain why the tree is different to the taxi driver. You can't.

    My post didn't engage your demand for definition because your argument falls without reference to any specific, as I demonstrated in my post.
    I'll explain in small words.
    The fallacy you're employing is known as 'the argument of the beard'.

    Here's how it works in your case:
    Rock is clearly part of the Earth's surface.
    Dirt has similarities to rock, so it's part of the Earth's surface.
    Grass has similarities to dirt, so it's part of the Earth's surface.
    A bush has similarities to grass, so it's part of the Earth's surface.
    A tree has similarities to a bush, so it's part of the Earth's surface.
    A person has similarities to a tree, so a person is part of the Earth's surface.
    A bat has similarities to a human, so a bat is part of the Earth's surface.
    A plane has similarities to a bat, so a plane is part of the Earth's surface.
    A satellite has similarities to a plane, so a satellite is part of the Earth's surface.
    The moon is a satellite, so the moon is part of the Earth's surface.

    The bus driver was *standing* on the Earth's surface.

    Last edited 11/02/16 10:14 am

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