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The 1908 Tunguska Explosion
Still a mystery 100 years later
Nigel Watson (NigelXL5)     Email Article  Print Article 
Published 2008-07-01 05:15 (KST)   
One hundred years ago, a huge object entered the Earth's atmosphere and exploded about six miles above the Stony Tunguska River area in Siberia. Since then the event has remained shrouded in speculation, mystery, rumor and outright fantasy.

Since this occurred in such a huge and inhospitable region, with a very small population, it was not until many years later that it was generally known that this was caused by a fiery object that flew from the southeast to the northwest before exploding at 7:17 a.m. local time (12:17 a.m. Greenwich mean time) on June 30, 1908.

Devastation in the forest.
The impact of the event was so great that it caused an atmospheric shockwave that circled the Earth twice. For the following two nights of July 1908 the night skies of Europe and Asia were unusually bright. The glare in the sky was compared to the atmospheric effects that followed the volcanic eruption at Krakatoa in 1883.

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The 1966 edition of the Guinness Book of World Records noted that if the object had appeared five hours earlier it would have wiped out the city of St. Petersburg.

Local newspapers did report eyewitness accounts of the object's arrival. The Sibir newspaper in Irkutsk, 1,000 kilometers south of the event, reported that the peasants in the village of Nizhne-Karelinsk saw a bright bluish-white light in the sky. The glowing cylindrical-shaped object seemed to crash on the north-west horizon, resulting in the appearance of a "forked tongue of flames" and the sound of a loud crash: "All the inhabitants of the village ran out into the street in panic. The old women wept, everyone thought that the end of the world was approaching."

On the same day, the director of the Irkutsk Magnetic and Meteorological Observatory, A. V. Voznesensky, found that his seismographs recorded earth shocks that lasted for 90 minutes. Intrigued, by these recordings he sent out questionnaires to try to gain more information about this event. From them he learned that people as far away as 600 miles from the blast reported hearing one or more loud bangs and feeling vibrations in the ground.

Leonid Kulik.
In 1921, Leonid Kulik, a geologist at the Mineralogical Museum of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, by chance came across an old newspaper clipping about the Tunguska explosion. He traveled to Kansk hoping to find a giant meteorite that the newspaper said was buried nearby, but on examination it was merely a natural rock that was wrongly attributed to the event.

Over the years, more eyewitness testimony was collected and a report by Voznesensky in 1925 anticipated that a huge crater and meteorite was likely to be found in the area. Excited by this possibility Kulik obtained funding for a proper expedition to the site in 1927. This was no easy task as he had to use horses, and then sledges pulled by reindeer to traverse 700 kilometers of frozen and snow covered countryside.

Using local guides he found a vast area of trees knocked down and uprooted as if dashed down by a giant hand. Odd clumps of trees remained standing but they were also stripped of bark and foliage.

As they got tantalizingly closer to the epicenter of this devastation, Kulik's guides abandoned him because their superstitious fears overcame them. The legends of the indigenous Evenki people featured Ogda, the god of fire and thunder, and it was thought that he had returned to strike them down with invisible fire.

The Soviet authorities edited out any references to the event as a "miracle." It was not until 1967 that a shaman, Ivan Ivanovich Aksenov, admitted he was only 40 kilometers south of the explosion. After its impact he said he saw "The Devil" with two eyes in front and a fire behind, flying to the south: "The devil was going faster than airplanes now do. While flying, it was saying 'troo-troo,' but not loudly." He was so shaken that he prayed to Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary.

Although he was forced to return home, Kulik was able to confirm that something immense had happened at Tunguska and it was more than the product of superstitious fantasies. On the strength of this, he was able to gain further funding for bigger and more organized expeditions to the area for the next few years.

During his expedition of 1930 Kulik obtained testimony from S. B. Semenov, who was near the Vanavara trading post 65 kilometers (40 miles) south of the impact area: "I suddenly saw that directly to the north the sky split in two and fire appeared high and wide over the forest. The split in the sky grew larger, and the entire northern side was covered with fire.

"At that moment I became so hot that I couldn't bear it, as if my shirt was on fire; from the northern side, where the fire was, came strong heat. I wanted to tear off my shirt and throw it down, but then the sky shut closed, and a strong thump sounded, and I was thrown a few yards. I lost my senses for a moment, but then my wife ran out and led me to the house.

"After that such noise came, as if rocks were falling or cannons were firing, the earth shook, and when I was on the ground, I pressed my head down, fearing rocks would smash it. When the sky opened up, hot wind raced between the houses, like from cannons, which left traces in the ground like pathways, and it damaged some crops. Later we saw that many windows were shattered, and in the barn a part of the iron lock snapped."

Unfortunately, despite stubbornly searching for evidence of a giant meteorite or crater Kulik's efforts proved fruitless. After Kulik's last expedition in 1939, the area was neglected until the 1950s. Now better aerial surveys could be conducted to see the full impact of the blast. These confirmed that a butterfly shaped area, 70 kilometers in radius and containing 40,000 felled trees. In addition, analysis of soil samples found globules containing nickel, cobalt, copper and germanium. Many of them had been fused by the high temperatures generated by the explosion and were similar to substances found at other meteorite sites.

As early as 1930, it was suggested that a comet rather than a meteorite struck the area. It was speculated that it had a mass of several million tons and that its attendant dust trail had caused the night glows seen throughout the world on the nights after its arrival.

Popular book about the event.
Against this theory is that no comet was seen approaching the Earth -- it just seemed to appear suddenly over Siberia without warning. The best explanation is that it could have been a fragment from Comet Encke.

The arguments about its origins have helped open the field to more fashionable and outlandish explanations.

After seeing the devastation caused by the atomic bomb explosion at Hiroshima, science fiction writer Alexander Kazantsev speculated in 1946 that the Tunguska event was caused by the explosion of a nuclear-powered spaceship. This idea was furthered by several Soviet scientists, including Alexei Zolotov, who claimed the craft was carrying "beings from other worlds."

In July 2004 members of the Siberian Tunguska Space Phenomenon Foundation said they found a 50-kilogram stone made of crystalline matter and two other "extraterrestrial" stone fragments at the site. The expedition was led by Yuri Lavbin, who said that the fragments "are manifestly not of natural origin."

"Their material recalls an alloy used to make space rockets, while at the beginning of the 20th century only planes made of plywood existed," he added. His theory was that an extraterrestrial spaceship had shot down a meteor to prevent it causing too much damage to Earth. In this mission the spacecraft itself crashed along with the meteor.

Science writer James Oberg tends to regard the idea that it was caused by a nuclear-powered spaceship as part of the folklore of the space age, which seeks to bring excitement to the boring space missions run by NASA.

More seriously, an asteroid, an anti-matter rock or a black hole have been suggested as the culprits. Other theories are that it was the manifestation of massive geo-physical forces, ball lightening, a laser beam from another star system or the secret testing of a wireless transmitter of energy by inventor Nikola Tesla.

A. Yu. Ol'khovatov states:

"In late 1980s I came up with the idea that Tunguska event was something completely different, not a cosmic, but a geophysical event, associated with tectonic processes.

"My idea, which in the meantime has been presented at several scientific conferences as well as in scientific journals, should not be confused with an earthquake, although earthquakes were indeed associated with the 1908 explosion. It was a more complicated event of tectonic origin in which atmospheric processes played a large role. So probably we can call Tunguska as tectono-atmospheric phenomenon. Now we can just to admit that it was related with some still poorly understood processes of the Earth electricity, but it is just a speculation.

"Unfortunately, till now, such phenomena are little known and poorly understood. Moreover, there is no scientific term accepted for the phenomena still. I prefer to call as a 'geophysical meteor' or just a 'geometeor.' In a very simplified form often it can be imagined as an explosion of an energetic high-speed ball-lightning."

There is circumstantial evidence that Tesla's tinkering with a wireless transmitter of energy could have caused the explosion. In 1915, for example, he wrote:

"It is perfectly practical to transmit electrical energy without wires and produce destructive effects at a distance. I have already constructed a wireless transmitter which makes this possible But when unavoidable [it] may be used to destroy property and life. The art is already so far developed that the great destructive effects can be produced at any point on the globe, defined before with great accuracy."

The Spaceguard organization thinks that we should prepare for the future appearance of another Tunguska-like object. Jay Tate, Director of the Spaceguard Center, says:

"Tunguska sized events may not put the whole of the planet at risk, but the local damage is extreme. Had the Tunguska object struck London every structure inside the M25 would have been totally destroyed.

"Estimates vary, but we would expect a Tunguska sized event every century or two. Most will be over the sea, but it is debatable whether the random detonation of the equivalent of a large nuclear weapon over the planet is an acceptable risk.

"As for actions to mitigate the hazard, that would be difficult. Current Near Earth Orbit (NEO) search programmes (in the US) are concentrating on large objects (1 km and larger). Follow on projects to detect smaller objects (down to 140m in size) have yet to get underway. Detecting NEOs as small as the Tunguska object would be challenging -- not impossible, but expensive and time consuming. It's possible, but it's up to the cheque-writers and decision makers to decide."

Each theory has its own proponents and opponents ensuring the mystery of what visited Siberia on that day in June 1908 will rumble on for many years to come.
References:

Cowan, C., Alturi, C. R., and Libby, W. F. 1965. "Possible anti-matter content of the Tunguska meteor of 1908." Nature 206:861-865.

Jackson, A. A. and Ryan, M. P. 1973. "Was the Tungus event due to a black hole?" Nature 245:88-89.

Krinov, E. L. 1966. "Giant Meteorites" (London: Pergamon Press).

Tesla, Nikola. "Tesla's New Device Like Bolts of Thor." New York Times, Dec. 8, 1915, pg. 8.

Whipple, F. J. W. 1930. "The great Siberian meteor and the waves, seismic and aerial, which it produced." Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society 56:287-304.

The Times of London, Wednesday, July 1, 1908.

Web references:

YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EiXpp-i442s

Near Earth Object Program: http://neo.jpl.nasa.gov/neo/

Spaceguard UK: http://www.spaceguarduk.com/

Eyewitness testimony, see: http://www.vurdalak.com/tunguska/witness/witnesses.htm
©2008 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Nigel Watson

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