What Are Meteor Storms and When Will the Next One Occur?

In the wake of the media reporting that the Tau Herculids meteor shower could become a meteor storm, many people were disappointed. Some asked when the next meteor storm would occur. In this article, I will explain what a meteor storm is and when the next one is likely to occur.

Before we get into what a meteor storm is, let us cover the meteor shower. As a comet approaches the Sun, it warms up and releases a cloud of gas and debris.

The debris retains the approximate orbit of the comet and spreads out over time. Whenever Earth's orbit intersects the debris cloud, a meteor shower occurs.

So, what is a meteor storm?

The 1999 Leonids Meteor Storm
A meteor storm occurs when the Earth goes through an unusually dense part of a comet’s debris cloud and produces a 1000 or more meteors per hour.

It is important to review some historical meteor storms to understand the likelihood of them occurring in the future. Due to the generally inaccurate and imprecise records of the time, I do not want to go back beyond the 19th century. The scientific consensus at the time did not realize that meteor showers are made of rocks from space until the 1803 L'Aigle meteor hit France.

Coincidentally, the first storm of the 19th century also occurred in 1803 and was a particularly intense Leonids meteor storm. Leonid meteor showers originate from the Tempel-Tuttle comet, and evidence for this shower dates back as far as 687 BC.

Leonids usually produce meteor storms every 33 years, which was confirmed again in 1833 with a storm that produced 20 meteors per second. A Leonids meteor storm then occurred again in 1866 and 1867 and 1868. The comet Tempel-Tuttle made a close approach to Jupiter in 1898, when Jupiter's gravitational field threw both the comet and its debris off course. Meaning the meteor storm did not happen again until 1966.

Due to Biela's Comet splitting in two in 1845, a surprise meteor storm occurred in 1872. Up to four meteors per second were recorded. The meteor shower became known as the Andromedids.

In 1885, the Andromedids occurred as another meteor storm with meteor rates of about four a second.

The periodic period comet Giacobini-Zinner triggered a surprise meteor storm 48 years later in 1933, when meteor rates reached 20 per second. This meteor shower is now known as the Draconids.

In 1946, the Draconid meteor shower happened again, but this time it was much slower--the meteor rate topped out at about 3 per second.

The greatest meteor storm in recorded history then occurred in 1966. Approximately 40 meteors per second were recorded and seen across the entire globe after a long hiatus by the Leonid meteor shower.

On schedule, the Leonids were back in 1999 for a brief meteor storm. The meteor rate was between 1-to-2 per second. In a similar way to what happened in 1866 to 1868, the Leonids then came back in strength over the following years. In 2001 the Leonids gave us a meteor approximately every three seconds. Then again in 2002 with rates of about a meteor per second.

Whenever I examine historical astronomical events like these, especially the gaps between events, human lifespans never seem to be able to hold up.

When will the next meteor storm occur?

The timing of a meteor storm and its intensity is very difficult to predict.

But as you have probably guessed by now from looking at the historical information. It is most likely that the regular Leonid meteor shower will produce a meteor storm since it has the largest potential numbers of meteors per hour for any meteor shower over a single year. About every thirty-three years, the Leonids create a meteor storm that is also a good performer when it comes to storms.

The hourly rates for the Leonids have been calculated by Mikhail Maslov. As you might expect after the meteor storm in 1999, 2001 and 2002. In 2034 and 2035, meteors are expected to peak at a speed of 500 meteors per hour, but that still falls short of the 1000 meteor/hour level needed for a meteor storm.

Mikhail predicts the next true meteor storm will happen in 2094 when Earth goes through some particularly dense comet debris that produces 1300 to 1400 meteors per hour.

I still recommend following the tried-and-tested Leonid meteor storm prediction method, of a meteor storm happening approximately every 33 years. 

If Mikhail's work is correct, try not to be too disappointed, as the history of meteor storms shows that we can always be surprised by another unpredicted event before then.

If you would like to capture a meteor storm or shower then a good way is to get a camera that is capable of up to a ten second delay and a fish eye lens, as this lens can capture a large section of the sky in one go.

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