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The Tunguska Event

A photo of the toppled trees at Tunguska

It is one of the most uninhabitable places in the world.

The Russian area of Tunguska consists of enormous bogs and thick forests. The mosquitoes are vicious and the temperatures can drop well below freezing in the winter and soar to near 100 degrees in the summer. There are very few villages in the area, and nomadic reindeer herders move slowly along the landscape.

One wouldn’t really expect something extraordinary to happen here, but on the morning of June 30, 1908, the world changed in a remarkable way.

A witness in a nearby village described it best:

…the sky was split in two, and high above the forest the whole northern part of the sky appeared covered with fire. (There) was a bang in the sky and a mighty crash…followed by a noise like stones falling from the sky, or of guns firing.

Other witnesses would tell similar tales of being knocked over by some explosive shock wave and household objects being blown apart. Still others described feeling so hot that “(I thought) my shirt was on fire.” Some witnesses reported trees toppling over and temporarily trapping villagers and sounds like huge bombs in the distance.

Had this unexplainable event affected only Siberia, this might not have garnered any of the attention it eventually would. But it left footprints across Eurasia. Atmospheric pressure in England jumped. It was reported in some parts of Europe that for a few nights after the unexplained event the sky was still bright enough at midnight for people to read by while sitting outside.

For more than a decade, nobody knew what to make of it or tried to find answers.

In 1921, thirteen years after the event, a Russian mineralogist named Leonid Kulik led the first scientific inquiry into what had happened. Local guides were hard to find, as the local population was superstitious of getting close to the area.

Once he had arrived at what supposedly was the site of the explosion, he was stunned. For miles and miles trees had been blown horizontal, trunks and branches stuck to the ground. Kulik noticed that the downed trees all seemed to be pointing away from a specific area. Kulik, already suspecting the event was caused by a meteorite falling to Earth, used the downed trees to trace a route to what should have been where the meteorite hit the ground.

He did successfully find what appeared to be the center: a site where the trees remained vertical, but the branches and bark had been burned off. Looking further, Kulik was disappointed not to find a large surviving meteorite anywhere in the location — not even a crater made by a large object smashing into the ground — a clear feature of other sites where meteorites had crashed. But he found nothing. That didn’t make sense.

Over the years others would attempt to make sense of it. The Tunguska area is just as remote today as it was in Kulik’s time, but expeditions still occasionally go out into the area hoping to identify the source of the massive explosion seen all those years ago.

There have always been proponents of Kulik’s meteorite theory, even though they have also been unable to find an impact crater or anything left of the meteor itself.

Another school of thought postulates that a meteor did streak through the Earth’s atmosphere, but it completely burned up before it hit the Earth. The dissolving meteor could cause the visual show that was seen and could also cause the shock wave that knocked down all those trees.

Similarly, it has been theorized that a wayward comet, not a meteor, is the culprit. A comet, being primarily composed of ice and dust, would leave no suspicious solid fragments on the ground. One would still expect an impact crater, however.

Once scientist claimed that the other scientists were looking in the wrong direction. He states that natural gasses under the Earth’s crust exploded through a crack in the Earth and caused the wreckage.

Other people have postulated everything from tiny black holes to alien spacecraft.

Even in this age of computer-simulated reenactments and advanced aerial photography, the cause of the Tunguska Event remains unknown.

It’s a mystery that won’t go away.

Sources:
The Tunguska Impact–100 Years Later – NASA Science website, pulled 12-Jan-12
“Tunguska event” Wikipedia, pulled 12-Jan-12

About Doug MacGowan

Doug MacGowan lives on the San Francisco peninsula with his wife, a dog, and far too many cats. He has published three books on the topic of historic true crime. In his free time he enjoys reading.