© Alexandra Pope
Chris Herd, a professor in the University of Alberta's department of earth and atmospheric sciences, photographs a crowd of local officials gathered in the basin of a 1,000-year-old meteorite crater located on Whitecourt's east mountain.
What local hunters in Whitecourt thought for years was a sinkhole is actually the crater left behind by a meteor that fell to earth 1,000 years ago and is now attracting international attention from researchers.

George VanderBurg, MLA for Whitecourt-Ste. Anne, said he was very surprised to learn about the crater. He recalled going hunting with his father and using the site as a meeting point. Deer could often be found drinking rainwater that collected in the bottom of the crater, he said.

"All of us that have grown up here have known about it, but we didn't know it was the big scientific thing that it is," he said.

Chris Herd, a professor with the University of Alberta's department of earth and atmospheric sciences who is leading the research on the meteor crater, said he couldn't believe his ears when someone from the area told him about the crater last year.

"We still joke about how skeptical I was on the phone, because we literally get hundreds of these calls every year," Herd said in an interview at the crater site last Monday. "This is very exciting."

The crater is 36 metres wide and six metres deep, which is small as far as most craters go, Herd said. At an estimated 1,000 years old, it is also one of the youngest craters in the world. The second-youngest crater in Canada, located in Quebec, is 1.2 million years old.

Herd said the meteor, which was made primarily of iron, was probably formed very early in the life of the solar system by the same process that formed the earth's core. Herd thinks the meteor came from the asteroid belt and measured one metre across. However, researchers have so far found 74 different pieces of the original meteor - which is called a meteorite once it hits the ground - scattered around the crater, some up to 70 metres away.

"The big mystery is the relationship between the meteorites and the event," Herd said.

Herd explained that most meteors travel so fast, they are completely vaporized when they hit the earth. In some cases the pressure of earth's atmosphere slows a meteor down enough to leave a portion of it relatively intact when it lands.

But something happened to the Whitecourt meteor on its way to earth, Herd said. The meteorites found around the crater have sharp edges, which tell researchers a story about what might have happened to the meteor before it hit the ground.

"The rock was ripped apart on impact or at a low altitude," Herd said. "Otherwise the atmospheric pressure would have rounded (the edges of the meteorites)."

The site is one of only 12 of its kind in the world and has been very well preserved, Herd said.

"It's a phenomenal opportunity for the research that I do," he said.

Lindsay Blackett, Alberta minister of culture and community spirit, said the big concern for local authorities is how to prevent meteorite hunters from coming to the site and digging up meteorite fragments.

The province will designate the site as a historic resource and post signs asking visitors to do their part in preserving it, but researchers fear that won't stop some meteorite collectors from stealing rocks.

"You really just have to count on the local community to keep an eye on it," Blackett said. "I think people having a vested interest in this site will (encourage them) to keep an eye on it."

VanderBurg said once the researchers have finished their work, the site could be a great educational opportunity for the public and local students.

"This is the kind of place that inspires kids to go out and seek careers in science," he said.