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OUT OF THIS WORLD | Earth, Space and Everything In-Between - a daily journey through weather, space and science with meteorologist/science writer Scott Sutherland

Want to find a meteorite? Expert Geoff Notkin tells us how!

Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Thursday, November 16, 2017, 5:37 PM - Meteorites are rare and wondrous, and finding one is an amazing experience, but how does one go about locating these elusive treasures? Meteorite hunter Geoff Notkin tells us how!

Quick Facts:

Meteorites are rocks from space that survive their passage through the atmosphere and reach the surface
• This is known as a meteorite fall and the area where the meteorite(s) end up is called a strewn field
• Meteorite impacts can produce special terrestrial rocks, known as tektites
• All meteorites have a few distinctive features that set them apart from Earth rocks - some are obvious, others can be more subtle
• Luck is a big factor when searching for meteorites, but knowing where to look, and what to look for, is very important
• There are places in the world that are best for searching for meteorites, and there are places we shouldn't search
• Who owns a meteorite depends mostly on the country you're in, and who owns the land the meteorite is found on

In part 1 of this series on meteorites, we spoke with scientists from the Royal Ontario Museum about what meteorites are, where they come from and even what they can tell us about the solar system we call home.

So, now that we know at least the basics about these space rocks, how does one go about finding them in the field, in amongst the other strange-looking rocks out there?

To answer this question, we talked with adventurer, author, science writer, award winning TV celebrity and expert meteorite hunter, Geoff Notkin.

So, although we have the internet at our disposal these days, and several books available that provide examples of meteorites, a good place to start may still be at your local meteorite collection, to see these rocks for yourself.

Some of the more prominent meteorite collections in Canada are located at:

The Teck Suite of Galleries: Earth Treasures, at the Royal Ontario Museum, in Toronto, ON
The National Meteorite Collection, at the Geological Survey of Canada, in Ottawa, ON
The Earth Gallery, at the Canadian Museum of Nature, in Ottawa, ON
The Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration (CPSX), at the University of Western Ontario, in London, ON
Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, University of Alberta, in Edmonton, AB
The Planetarium de Montréal, in Montreal, QC
The Redpath Museum, at McGill University, in Montreal, QC
Musée de Géologie et de Mineralogie Université Laval, in Quebec City, QC

With a good idea of what meteorites look like, and armed with a guide, such as an internet source on a mobile device, or a book like Rocks from Space, by O. Richard Norton (available in bookstores and on Amazon.com), or Meteorite Hunting, by Geoff Notkin (available from Aerolite.org), we have a start on what we should be looking for.

Where do we start looking?

Firstly, can meteorites be found anywhere? As Notkin tells us below, it's not quite that easy:

Alright, so, we can't just look anywhere.

Since nearly all meteorites have a high metal content, at least compared to your average Earth rocks, we have to take into account that, in many parts of the world, these space rocks can become buried and lost. Although they've survived for millions to billions of years in space, the action of water and oxygen here on Earth can wear away at these objects, fairly quickly.

Now, taking climate into account, what are the more favourable locations for finding meteorites in the world?

As Notkin mentions here, it is best to look in relatively dry, old environments.

This can be as easy as searching in places such as Kansas (where Notkin and his Meteorite Men co-host Steve Arnold found an amazing specimen) or perhaps the Canadian Prairies. 

It could mean, however, undertaking quite the journey, to reach some very remote and inhospitable regions.

When searching for meteorites, however, be aware that there are rules for this kind of thing, and those rules vary from place to place.

According to Notkin, even looking for meteorites in some countries is illegal, while others have laws regarding the exportation of meteorites.

In the United States, he said, the law concerning meteorite finds says that whoever owns the property, also owns any meteorites that are found there. Thus, meteorites found on private land belong to the land owner, so getting permission to search on private land is a must. Also, if you happen to find something on someone's land, they are perfectly within their rights to take possession of that meteorite.

Meteorites found on public land are a special case, and have different requirements, depending on the reason why they're being collected:

• Someone collecting as a hobby can take up to 10 lbs (4.5 kg) of meteorites off public land for free,
• Anyone collecting to sell the meteorites must pay an application fee, a price or percentage of the value, and a reclamation fee, and
• Collecting for scientific or academic purposes, by either an individual or organization, is free, but requires an Antiquities Act permit from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

In Canada, the system is a little more simple.

Just as in the United States, the owner of the land also owns any meteorites found there, however there's no distinction between private and public land. So, a private land owner can decide to let you search for and keep meteorites on their property, or they may take possession of anything found.

If you locate a meteorite on public land, though, there's really no restrictions place on you, except if you want to remove the meteorites from the country (which is explained further below), or if you are searching in a specific one-square-kilometre patch of northern Alberta, as Notkin discusses here:

Want to learn more about the Whitecourt Meteorite Crater? Watch Meteorite Men, Season 1, Episode 1, on Geoff Notkin's YouTube channel.

There is one catch, though, as mentioned above.

If you find meteorites in Canada and wish to take them out of the country, Notkin says that anything you've found must be submitted to the Canadian government for inspection.

Meteorites found in Canada are covered under the Cultural Property Export and Import Act, and thus must be inspected before being removed from the country, to determine if there is any scientific value to the find. Thus, a meteorite expert - such as Dr. Chris Herd, from the University of Alberta, for example - will go over what has been found. The government will keep any meteorites determined to be of scientific significance, so that they may be studied. The rest are returned to the finder, who is then free to take them out of the country.

However, according to Notkin, the Canadian government pays fair market value for whatever meteorites they keep, which he considers to be a great system!

Just as members of academia have involved Notkin and his Meteorite Men co-star, Notkin believes in involving academia in his meteorite hunting, whenever the situation warrants it, as he discusses here.

Although it is estimated that up to 300 metric tons of meteoroids are swept up by Earth every day, as the planet travels in its orbit around the Sun, meteorites are still a fairly rare find. This is due to the fact that most of that material falls as dust grains, and thus are not easily located, or the meteoroids fall into the oceans, or they hit the ground in very remote areas of the world.

Even locating a well-observed meteorite fall is not an easy task, but as Notkin tells us, below, it became much easier starting in 2009:

This same method of finding meteorite falls, by using Doppler radar, apparently caught one of the latest fireballs to be widely seen, which occurred over Illinois and Wisconsin, in early February of this year.

The importance of finding meteorites quickly cannot be overstated. Most meteorites are only discovered years after they fell, and after years of sitting in environments where they can be affected by Earth's weather.

Even the driest of environments can have some weathering effect, simply from being scoured by wind-blown dust and sand, and due to reacting with what little humidity there is in the air. Examining a rock that has only fallen from space hours-to-days before they arrive at the laboratory, however, can reveal things that would have been lost if the meteorite had been found after years of exposure.

The wonderful thing about this use of Doppler radar to quickly locate meteorites, Notkin said, is that the idea came from outside the meteorite science community - from enthusiasts in related fields - and it was put to use by meteorite hunters.

Since scientists tend to have academic obligations - with lectures, research, and writing papers - they often do not have the time to hunt for meteorites.

So, meteorite hunting is an excellent example of citizen science, and is a great way for those outside the scientific community to contribute to the science of meteoritics, as Notkin mentions here, but as we continued, he also shows that a meteorite doesn't have to be a fresh one to contain important scientific discoveries. 

Getting Started

Now, with all of this fresh insight into meteorites and meteorite hunting, if we wanted to actually go out and starting hunting for meteorites, ourselves, how would we get started?

Some of the things to remember about meteorites when searching:

Magnetic - due to having a high metal content, most meteorites will stick to a magnet (ones from the Moon and Mars have less iron, thus won't attract a magnet)
Fusion crust - the outer surface of a meteorite will have a very thin, glossy dark crust, anywhere from grey to brown to black, while the interior can be a much lighter colour 
Regmaglypts - some larger meteorites, especially iron ones, will have impressions in the surface, which look similar to a thumbprint pressed into putty
Shape - meteorites tend to have smooth, rounded surface features, but are rarely spherical or symmetrical (and some fusion crusts can have a rough feel to them)
Fragments - larger meteorites frequently break apart as they streak through the atmosphere, and thus are found as irregularly-shaped fragments, with the fusion crust only coating part of their surface
Interior - iron meteorites will be shiny like steel inside, stony-iron will be the same, with small gemstone-like bits embedded in the metal, while stony will either be mostly uniform or will look like tiny spherules all packed together
Meteor-wrongs - there are many Earth rocks, natural and artificial, that can share characteristics of meteorites. Hematite, magnetite, and mining or industrial slag are commonly mistaken for meteorites. If it's not magnetic, or lacks a fusion crust, or has tiny holes in the surface, or looks like it's made up of layers of material, it is very likely a meteor-wrong.

As they search, meteorite hunters tend use a walking stick with a neodymium magnet attached to the end, to sweep across the rocks they come upon, and they often use metal detectors to help locate them, as well. Always remember to get permission from land owners before searching on their property (and be prepared to share your finds with them), and be aware of the laws surrounding the finding and removal of meteorites from any location you go hunting.

A search for meteorites may turn up other strange rocks. These can easily be terrestrial rocks, weathered by wind and/or water, artificial stones or lumps of metal, or they may be a special kind of rock known as a tektite. Tektites are bits of natural glass which are produced by the impact of a meteoroid hitting the ground. They can appear black, brown, grey or even green.

A piece of Moldavite, a translucent green tektite found in the Czech Republic, associated with the Nördlinger Ries Impact Crater, in southern Germany. Credit: Onohej Zlatove, Moldavite Association

If you think you've found a meteorite, check with your local museum (see the meteorite collections linked above), as they may have identification clinics or staff on the premises that can help with confirmation.

Where can we find the resources Notkin mentions?

The best place to get Geoff Notkin's first book, Meteorite Hunting: How To Find Treasure From Space, is definitely via his website, Aerolite.org, as it can be somewhat expensive through Amazon or eBay. The book is an excellent resource to put one on the path of meteorite hunting and collecting, and well worth picking up.

Used with permission.

His second book on meteorites, Rock Star: Adventures of a Meteorite Man, is also available from the site, which is more an account of his own exploits in hunting meteorites, and features an introduction written by Notkin's childhood friend, award-winning author Neil Gaiman!

You can read a great review of Rock Star, by Emily Lakdawalla of The Planetary Society, here.

Geoff can also be seen in episodes of Meteorite Minute - 13 in all, so far - which can be viewed on his YouTube channel, along with select episodes of the series Meteorite Men, which he appeared in with his friend and fellow meteorite hunter, Steve Arnold.

Perhaps the most interesting and exciting resource, though, is the chance to learn about meteorite hunting from Geoff Notkin himself, during one of his Meteorite Adventures workshops! There are only a few of these three-day events every year, typically restricted to the cooler months of the year for Arizona, and the available spots on each apparently fill up very quickly.

For more from Geoff Notkin, including real meteorites and impactites (Earth rocks formed specifically due to meteorites impacts), go to Aerolite.org. Also, be sure to check back for more in the future as we continue this fascinating series on meteorites!

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