The Prairie Meteorite Search

Alan Hildebrand*, Dan Lockwood and Andrew Bird

Alan Hildebrand*, Dan Lockwood and Andrew Bird
University of Calgary

Tuesday, February 5th, 2002 – 10:30 AM
Telus Convention Centre - 8th Ave SE, Calgary


Meteorites have been accumulating on the Canadian land mass since the end of the last glaciation, approximately 10,000 years ago. The current rate of fall for meteorites >100 g mass (surviving to the ground) is ~27 per year per 106 km2. With a 10,000 year integration time, and presuming that fragmentation by atmospheric breaking produces a five-fold increase in number, this rate implies that ~14 meteorites >100 g mass occur in each 10 km2 (~3.5 in each section). Meteorites are generally found by eye, so that any surface upon which rocks are distinct is favourable for recovery, such as sea (or lake) ice or barren desert. Any type of high standing vegetation substantially reduces recovery chances.

In Canada agricultural land has been the most prolific meteorite producing surface. In addition to being unvegetated for part of the year (and cut short after harvest), farmers have an "intimate" relationship with their fields and the rocks thereon. Rock picking is both a seasonal and perpetual activity, and simple curiosity has led to the known recovery of 26 meteorites by farmers on the Canadian prairies to date. The typical cues that lead farmers to suspect a rock as a meteorite are unusually high density and unusual, sometimes rusty, appearances. The Prairies are Canada's outstanding recovery surface being the largest cultivated area; the farmed portion of southern Ontario has produced meteorites at a comparable rate.

The Prairie Meteorite Search uses the method pioneered by Harvey Nininger seventy years ago in the southern American states to recover meteorites. The method involves making it easy for farmers to have unusual rocks identified that they feel might be meteorites. Campaigns of local publicity, primarily through putting articles in local newspapers, alert residents of a rural area to an opportunity to have their suspected meteorites identified at a central place such as a museum, school, or library. Meteorite samples are also displayed so that anyone may see their characteristics. The rockier Canadian prairies have a lower "signal to noise" ratio than the unglaciated southern American states, but the Prairie Meteorite Search has recovered four meteorites in the summers of 2000 and 2001, bringing Canada's recovered total to 61 meteorites to date. The average ratio of genuine meteorites to "meteor wrongs" for this search is approximately 1 in 400. Based on the area covered, and how and when meteorites have been found, one may estimate that farmers on the Prairies have recovered more than 100 meteorites, most of which remain unknown to the research community.


Alan Hildebrand is an Associate Professor in the Department of Geology and Geophysics of the University of Calgary where he holds a Canada Research Chair in Planetary Science. After graduating from the University of New Brunswick with a B.Sc. in Geology in 1977, he worked in the mineral exploration industry before turning to a research career. In 1992 he received a Ph.D. in Planetary Sciences from the University of Arizona. His research interests are the role of impacts in the solar system, small bodies in the solar system (asteroids and comets), and meteoritics. He also has a strong interest in professional ethics. His hobbies include science fiction, hiking and scuba diving.

Dan Lockwood is a fourth-year student at the University of Calgary, and will be completing his B.Sc. in Earth Science in spring, 2002. He hunted 'fallen stars' for the Prairie Meteorite Search during the summer of 2001, recovering two new Canadian meteorites. His academic interests include Canadian physical geography, remote sensing, and sedimentary processes. Dan also enjoys hiking, carving, playing soccer, and drumming.

Andrew Bird found two meteorites in the inaugural Prairie Meteorite Search of summer 2000. While geology is what lured him to the University of Calgary, Andrew is currently diversifying his knowledge base by studying Canadian history. After he graduates with an Honours B.A. in spring 2003, he plans on attending law school, specializing in constitutional and governmental affairs. Andrew's interests are Canadian public policy, government models and morality. His passions for skiing and mountaineering have taken him from the Caucasus mountains of Russia to the Southern Alps of New Zealand.