Leonids

 

(This column was first published in the November 26, 2001 Buffalo News.)

 

Until now the Leonids have jinxed me.

 

Each of the past dozen years I carefully noted the date and time when this annual meteor shower was predicted and set my alarm clock.

 

Most years I got up and looked out to see only dark glowering clouds and occasionally even falling snow. Not really unhappy, I simply retreated to bed. Other years were at least partly clear and I ventured out to watch, seeing each time only a few dozen meteors. Despite often extravagant predictions, not many showed up.

 

This year was different.

 

My alarm rang at 3:00 a.m. on Sunday, November 18. I staggered up, dressed and set out for the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge, stopping only to pick up hot tea to sustain me through the rest of that cold, clear night. Even as I drove east along the Thruway I could see meteors streaking across the sky and I knew that this year would be different.

 

I had chosen the refuge because there would be less ambient light. We humans have effectively taken away the night. In my neighborhood, for example, it is so light at midnight that you can read a book. We not only have streetlights but most houses also have outside lighting that is left on permanently. Even in the countryside all farmers it seems have at least one of those sodium lights that brightly illuminate their houses and barns.

 

By four I had driven a quarter mile in along the dike road just north of the Kanyoo Nature Trail and stationed myself covered with blankets in a lawn chair beside my car. Nearby I could hear geese gabbling and farther off the occasional hooting of a great horned owl.

 

The darkness was far from perfect. I could still see a light from Route 77 and glows along the horizon that rose from Batavia, Buffalo and Rochester. But it was very good and reminded me of those wonderful aurora-strewn night skies on canoe trips in Algonquin Park and the Minnesota Boundary Waters.

 

The sky wasn't quite dark enough for me to make out the Milky Way but it was richly sprinkled with brightly twinkling stars. And every few seconds a meteor etched another white streak across the black background.

 

How many were there? I took one minute counts to gain an estimate. My counts increased from seven to a maximum of fifteen just before 5:00 a.m. Since I could only see half the sky at any time that translated into between 840 and 1800 meteors per hour, numbers I consider spectacular. I can finally say that I have observed a real meteor shower.

 

I left just as dawn and the hunters arrived, carrying away a sense of awe. We are riding a small planet through virtually infinite space yet astronomers can describe that sky in great detail, including occurrences like these Leonid showers. The meteors, they tell us, are really grain-sized particles left by Comet Tempel-Tuttle. When we run into their path at 160,000 miles per hour, the molecules of our atmosphere collide with them, slow them down and transform their energy into glowing heat. Nearby air molecules radiate this light and we see shooting stars.

 

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I add an important note: Regional Fish & Wildlife Service officers are asking for assistance in collecting waterfowl and fish killed along the Lake Erie shore by our terrible epidemic of Type E Botulism. Volunteers should call the Erie office at 851-7010 or the Allegany office at 372-0645. Protective gloves will be provided to volunteers. Others should not touch these birds and should keep pets away from them as well.-- Gerry Rising