The Best Place to Hunt Meteorites
In most parts of the world, a person could search throughout a lifetime and never find a single meteorite. However, a small number of researchers are finding several hundred meteorites each winter in a few special locations in Antarctica.
In most parts of the world, meteorites are very difficult to find because meteorites that fall there can be…
- quickly destroyed by weathering
- hard to distinguish from local materials
- hidden by vegetation
- covered by surface materials
Advantages of Cold Climate
In Antarctica, freshly fallen meteorites are protected by the cold climate. Iron meteorites do not rust in the cold conditions, and stony meteorites weather very slowly.
Members of the search team move across the ice on foot or by snowmobile looking for meteorites. The dark-colored meteorites contrast sharply with the white snow and ice. Some of the dark objects found are meteorites, but the searchers do find many terrestrial rocks that have been incorporated into the ice by the glaciers. They search by walking or by snowmobile, and which method they use is determined by ice conditions, weather conditions, and the abundance of meteorites present in the area.
Although the cold climate is ideal for preserving meteorites, it presents a huge challenge to the researchers who hunt them. They have to travel to a remote location where they will live in tents in subzero weather. Out on the hunt they face intense cold, fierce wind, and blistering sun. It takes a determined and dedicated person to do this for several weeks each year.
Ice Movement and Meteorite Concentration
The two most important reasons why meteorite hunting in some parts of Antarctica is so productive are: 1) ice movements, and, 2) ablation.
The ice of the Antarctic continent is in motion. The ice grows thicker in some areas from snow accumulation, then it slowly flows away from those areas under its own weight. Remember that the continent is covered by a glacier.
The theory of ice movement is shown in the accompanying diagram. It shows how meteorites are buried in zones of snow accumulation. Then the ice moves under its own weight away from these snowfields towards the edge of the Antarctic continent. In some areas rock formations block the flow of ice. Where this occurs, steady katabatic winds can remove the ice by sublimation and mechanical abrasion. Up to ten centimeters of ice per year can be removed by these ablation processes.
Curating Pristine Meteorites
The meteorites found in Antarctica are in pristine condition. They are not weathered like meteorites found in temperate climates. The original fusion crust, formed by ablation of the meteorite as it fell through the atmosphere, is often preserved.
When a meteorite is found, a snowmobile with a high-resolution GPS receiver is driven to the site to obtain a very accurate location. The meteorite is then photographed in place, recovered, placed into a sterile Teflon bag, assigned a unique field number, logged into a field book, and given a detailed field description. The discovery site is then marked with a flag bearing the meteorite’s identification number.