The Leonid meteor shower boomed into the most glorious display of shooting stars in 33 years, raining down fireballs over the Arabian desert while putting on a more demure show in other spots.

"I see this as nature's contribution to the celebration of the new millennium," said Ariel Cohen, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Hebrew University in Israel, where a canopy of shooting stars delighted observers overnight.The global average peaked about 9 p.m. EST Wednesday in a storm of 1,688 meteors per hour, according to NASA's monitoring station at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

It fell short of some predictions but still blew past the threshold of 1,000 meteors per hour to qualify as a true storm.

"The mood was elation," said aerospace engineer Bill Cooke of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. "It fully lived up to our expectations."

The quick, two-hour storm, which may be the most intense for decades to come, was probably the most studied in history. Much lower but still elevated numbers of shooting stars also were likely at least through tonight in a continuing shower, scientists said.

The shower forms from dust and ice pellets shed by the comet Tempel-Tuttle. They streak into the Earth's atmosphere at 40 miles a second and burn up. The shooting stars and fireballs can dart anywhere overhead, but all appear to come from the direction of the constellation Leo, which gives the shower its name.

Since the orbiting comet dumps extra debris every 33 years when it races past the sun, the chances for a true meteor storm rise very 33 years. The last great storm was 1966, with a peak of 144,000 shooting stars per hour. A typical year might yield just 20 per hour. Last year reached 270 an hour.

In the freezing cold of Jordan's desert, about 50 astronomers from around the world sighed with wonder as fireballs blazed over the sand like lightning.

"This experience was exceptional. I have never seen a shower in my life, and I've been in the field for the past 25 years," said German astronomer Georg Dittie of Bonn.

In Spain, on a beach near Valencia, streaks of sparkling light rocketed silently overhead in the cloudless night. A half dozen observers murmured in admiration as multiple meteors burst into the atmosphere. Four whizzing together like an airplane squadron crossed overhead, buzzing the constellation Orion.

"That's worth the price of admission!" said spectator Naomi Pasachoff, whose husband, Jay M. Pasachoff, is director of the Hopkins Observatory in Williamstown, Mass.

Clouds blanketed skies over Britain, dimming the display in many regions.

"It is a disappointment, but we are at the mercy of the elements," said John McFarland, an astronomer at the Armagh Observatory in Northern Ireland. "It's been overcast all night, and I haven't been able to see anything at all."

Although astronomical calculations had forecast the best spectacle in the Middle East and Europe, professional and amateur sky watchers in the United States also took to mountaintops, fields, and just about anywhere else away from city lights to view the show.

The best conditions had been predicted on the East Coast, but the spectacle was sedate in many locales.

In Williamstown, Mass., two classes of astronomy students from Williams College took notes from a country road off campus. Lydia Haile, who lives outside Baltimore, said it was the first time she had ever seen shooting stars.

"It was really, really neat," she said. "It does look like a star moving. It's too fast for a plane."

Dozens of enthusiasts, including families with small children, fixed their gaze skyward from Hard Labor Creek Observatory in Rutledge, Ga. Some occupied themselves peeping at planets through telescopes while waiting for meteor action to intensify. Others watched from lawn chairs.

John Wilson, an astronomer for Georgia State University, said he came for the same reason as casual sky watchers: "It's mainly a lot of fun to go out and 'ooh! and aah!"'