On 30 June 1908, at around 7:00am in the morning, a massive explosion ripped through the quiet air above a remote Siberian forest at the Tunguska River. A fireball erupted 100 meters wide, destroying 2,000 sq km of the taiga forest, flattening about 80 Million trees as if they were twigs! The earth trembled and windows shattered in villages over 100 km distant. Locals were blown off their feet, the intense heat felt like their clothes were on fire. The ear piercing sound that followed was described as a thousand artillery guns firing.
The Tunguska area of central Siberia was sparsely populated, so no eye witnesses were near ground zero. No reports of human casualties were ever recorded, though hundreds of charred reindeer carcasses were discovered by shocked locals. Whatever the so called “Tunguska Event” was, it produced about 200 times more energy than the Hiroshima atomic bomb. Seismic rumbles were detected as far away as England and the Dutch East Indies!
The Tunguska region is a remote area of Siberian taiga, about a thousand miles north of Mongolia, with long harsh winters and short summers, when the ground thaws into a deep swampy bog. So even after the event, nobody rushed to venture to the site to investigate. There was some mention in local papers, but nothing in the St. Petersburg or Moscow press of 1908.
Over a century later, researchers are still asking the question:
What in the hell actually happened at Tunguska?
Many are convinced it was an asteroid or comet. But very few traces of such a large object have ever been found, fueling many more crazier theories. It was only in 1927, that a Russian team lead by mineralogist Leonid Kulilk finally ventured to remote Siberia. When they arrived, the damage was still apparent, almost 20 years later. They found a 50 km area of flattened trees in a strange Butterfly shape. The leader proposed a meteor had exploded in the atmosphere above the forest. It puzzled them however, that there was no impact crater like in Arizona, or any meteor fragments. They theorized the swampy ground was too soft to preserve whatever had hit it.
Russian researchers later declared it was a comet, not a meteor. As comets are largely made of ice, the absence of fragments or a crater would make more sense. But that was not the end of the debate. Bizarre alternative theories soon began to pop up like alien mushrooms. One suggested the cause was matter and antimatter somehow colliding over Siberia. Another that a Russian nuclear explosion caused the blast, though the atomic bomb had yet to be invented. Still another felt it was somehow linked to Nikola Tesla’s Death Ray experiments a half a world away in the US.
A 1973 a paper suggesting that a Black Hole had collided into Earth! Locals thought it was a thunderous visitation of their Siberian god Ogdy. And of course where would we be without a conspiracy theory of an alien spaceship crash like at Roswell, New Mexico. We may never know if the Tunguska Event was a meteor, comet or something more exotic.
A 1958 Expedition discovered remnants high in Nickel, a known element in Meteors.
In 2013, researchers analyzed rocks collected from a layer of peat dating back to 1908. They determined the rocks did indeed have a meteoric origin. So today the consensus is that the Tunguska Event was likely caused by an asteroid or comet, colliding with Earth’s atmosphere. Our atmosphere is highly efficient at protecting our planet. It breaks apart the vast majority of meteors. The process is similar to a chemical explosion where the energy is transformed into heat. In other words, any remnants were instantly turned into cosmic dust. This would explain the lack of large meteor chunks or a huge impact crater.
To create a blast with the energy of Tunguska, the object would have needed to be 10 times the size of the Titanic!
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