November 19 , 2001
Leonids - A Night to Remember
This journal entry has nothing to do with building a cordwood house, but I felt compelled to share with you my Leonid meteor hunting adventure. If you still think I'm sane after reading all the previous journal entries, you might change your mind after reading this one.
I guess I should preface this by stating that astronomy is an interest of mine and every year I always make it a point to view two meteor showers: the Perseids in August and the Leonids in November. Predictions of a Leonid meteor storm have always led to a disappointment, so why should this year's event be any different? Why bother at all to drive anywhere for an event that's commonly doomed by mad scientist predictions and weather bunnies that can't accurately forecast the weather?
This year the prediction was made again, with a bit more certainty than previous years. (Just like the Chicago Cubs, wait til next year.) The Leonids have had quite an impressive history though. The last storm occurred in 1966 with thousands per hour reported across North America. There was an especially explosive display back in the 1800's that caused people to fear the end of the world was coming. There were so many meteors falling that they looked like snowflakes in a snowstorm. This year's prediction was for up to 4,000 per hour. Not as impressive as snowflakes, but not too shabby either. So even if the meteor predictions were correct, what about the weather forecast?
Typically, November is the cloudiest month of all here in the Midwest. But even with that said, I figured somewhere within a 300 mile radius might have clear skies. I scouted every Internet site related to weather I could find. Where would it be clear? Since I was up in Minnesota most of the week working on the house, I started looking at forecasts there. Our place in the country would have been a great site to view the show, but the weather forecast looked too iffy for Minnesota so I drove home to Illinois hoping to find somewhere clear. By Friday it appeared that fog, haze and/or high clouds would sock in Illinois. So now where to?
Central Indiana looked pretty good and it was about just as far as driving up to Minnesota, so why not? Four hours driving isn't too bad. By Saturday morning just before I was ready to leave, my plans for central Indiana seemed pretty hopeless. The whole area from northern Illinois to central Indiana was socked in with thick fog. Even if the fog lifted it was due to redevelop by Saturday night or Sunday morning.
After much internal debate and flipping coins, I finally left the house at 11 a.m. on Saturday telling Jo I was just going to head southeast until I got to a weather forecast that didn't include the letters F-O-G in it.
I drove until I reached southern Indiana and called my brother Jim to see what he could pull up on the Internet for me. The forecasts even for southern Indiana called for scattered dense fog. So how the heck do you get scattered dense fog anyway? If I'm in the fog, it's not scattered!
Onwards I drove. I was now in Kentucky and it was after dark. Already I could see fog forming alongside the highway, so I kept driving. Before I knew it, I was over 500 miles from home and near the Grand Ol' Opery. Shucks! I drove about 40 miles east of Nashville to a state park that looked good for viewing.
It was now after 9 p.m. I didn't have a tent with me and I wanted some place warm after pulling an outdoor all-nighter. I went into the nearest town and got a motel room for the night, even though I had no intentions of going to sleep until six in the morning. The fella behind the desk asked if I wanted a wake up call, but I figured that he would look at me kind of strange if I told him to wake me up at midnight. So I ate a sandwich in the motel room, watched the 10 O'clock news and then decided to head on out to view the Leonids.
I arrived at the Cedars of Lebanon State Park at about 11:30 p.m. and scouted out a place to view the Leonids. The sky was fairly dark, but it really is disheartening to see the gradual fading away of dark skies from North America. Light pollution is a huge problem across the United States. All the electric utility companies must be elated at how much electricity we use to light up cities, suburbs and now even the countryside. What a shameful waste! The sodium vapor glow from Nashville was quite noticeable to the north, but I was done driving for the night.
The first meteors I saw were pretty much what I expected of most Leonid showers. About 40 to 60 meteors per hour were occurring, most of them rather bright. I had about 12 shots left on my roll of film, so I figured I'd shoot them off before any big event occurred, if I was so lucky. I got to the last frame in the roll of film and clicked the shutter. At just that instant, a meteor came streaking across the sky that brightened into a fireball. It was so bright that the whole area around me lit up like a full moon. I released the shutter and looked in the viewfinder. Sure enough the fireball streaked through the area that I had been photographing. But now the question was, did it make the last frame on the roll of film or not? Only time would tell.(As you can see from the above photo, I got it on film.)
Onwards the night progressed. Gradually the shower intensified. By 2 a.m. I was seeing over 100 meteors per hour, which was pretty good. I was a little bit concerned about the area I picked to shoot photographs by now. It was a remote parking lot and I didn't think I would see too many vehicles out and about during the night, but every once and a while a pickup truck or two would drive by. Why there were so many pickup trucks driving by at two in the morning?
By 4 a.m., the number of meteors had increased to the point that simultaneous meteors were falling. Two sometimes three would shoot across the sky within a second or two. The number of people driving by intensified too and next thing I knew I was sharing the parking lot with six other vehicles. Evidently the local press must have played up the event and others had the same idea that I had. The problem was that everyone was driving into the parking lot with their headlights on. Every time a vehicle drove by or into the lot, I would have to release the shutter on the camera and waste a photograph and readjust my eyes to the night sky. (This was a small price to pay though considering what was to follow.)
By 5 a.m., the meteors were coming at a rate of 10 to 20 per minute! Wow! They finally got the prediction right! And thankfully so did the weather forecasters! No matter where you looked in the sky there were meteors falling within a minute or so of each other and most of them quite bright.
I waited until dawn broke at around 6:30 (eastern time). Even with daylight fast approaching the rate was still around 5 to 10 per minute. It was quite an amazing site and probably a once in a lifetime event. Was I crazy for driving over 500 miles to see this? Well, that's a subjective question. Maybe everyone else is crazy and I'm not.