Boom Heard in Pittsburgh on New Year’s Day Was Likely an Exploding Meteor

Illustration of area where blast was heard over southwestern Pennsylvania
Exploding meteors, also called airbursts, happen with a chunk of space rock smashes into Earth’s dense atmosphere.  National Weather Service

A loud boom reverberated over suburban Pittsburgh on New Year’s Day, startling and confusing residents below. There were no obvious signs of a thunderstorm, earthquake, or source of the sound, leaving many eager for answers. Locals began sharing their reports of the blast, which happened around 11:20 a.m. over Washington County, Pennsylvania on January 1.

“The sensation reminded me of fireworks,” Heather Lin Ishler, a Pittsburgh resident, says to Azi Paybarah for the New York Times. If you stood too close, she says, you could feel “a rumbling in your chest.”

The sound traveled across southwestern Pennsylvania and into parts of Ohio and West Virginia, according to comments on social media.  

“Rather odd sound, but didn’t hear any sirens afterward, so we didn’t think much else of it,” says Ohio resident Brandon Delaney to Tim Grant for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

After ruling out other sources of the blast, the National Weather Service pinpointed a potential culprit: an exploding meteor.

“The loud explosion heard over SW PA earlier may have been a meteor explosion,” the National Weather Service writes. “No confirmation, but this is the most likely explanation at this time.”

Exploding meteors, also called airbursts, happen when a large chunk of space rock smashes into Earth’s dense atmosphere and disintegrates, reports NPR’s Catherine Whelan. One of the most dramatic airbursts in recent decades was the 2013 Chelyabinsk meteor, a house-size asteroid that briefly lit up the Russian sky brighter than the sun. If not for Pittsburgh’s cloudy weather that morning, the recent meteor explosion would have been easy to spot in the sky.

NASA’s Meteor Watch later confirmed the meteor blast on social media, saying a nearby infrasound station registered the blast wave from the meteor as it broke apart. The agency estimates the meteor was about a yard in diameters and cruised at around 45,000 miles per hour when it exploded, according to the Associated Press. The energy released during the blast is the equivalent of 30 tons of TNT.

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“It’s really a mystery to us and to everybody,” says Jenna Lake, a meteorologist at the weather service, to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “Despite us being called meteorologists, we don’t know anything about meteors. Our science is weather.”

Lake says if the New Year’s Day blast was caused by a meteor, it’s unlikely the explosion would leave residue or bits of rock behind.

“It may have burned so quick and fast, there’s nothing left,” Lake says.

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