Explaining the Unexplainable | The Tunguska Event

Picture4

Fig.1 (© Vibhuti Patel)

At 7:14am on June 30, 1908, Siberia was struck by an explosion. An explosion that was a thousand times more powerful than Hiroshima. Yikes.

Witnesses in the nearby trading post of Vanavara saw what they described to be a fireball in the sky, as bright and as hot as a second son. One man described it like this:

Suddenly in the north sky… the sky was split in two, and high above the forest the whole northern part of the sky appeared covered with fire… At that moment there was a bang in the sky and a mighty crash… The crash was followed by a noise like stones falling from the sky, or of guns firing. The earth trembled.

Here’s another account:

…the peasants saw a body shining very brightly (too bright for the naked eye) with a bluish-white light…. The body was in the form of  ‘a pipe’, i.e. cylindrical. The sky was cloudless, except that low down on the horizon, in the direction in which this glowing body was observed, a small dark cloud was noticed. It was hot and dry and when the shining body approached the ground (which was covered with forest at this point) it seemed to be pulverized, and in its place a loud crash, not like thunder, but as if from the fall of large stones or from gunfire was heard. All the buildings shook and at the same time a forked tongue of flames broke through the cloud.

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.

…yeah. That’s terrifying.

Moments later, they were thrown backwards by a shockwave so powerful that it flattened trees, killed animals and shook the very ground within a radius of 40 km. The blast was of such a staggering magnitude that the resulting dust clouds hovered over Europe and were even seen by Londoners.

Figure 1.

Fig.2 – Map of the blast site (from http://www.icr.org/research/index/researchp_sa_r05/)

Despite all this, the source of the explosion remained very much unknown. The most obvious explanation was that the area was struck by a falling meteor, however there was no sign of an impact crater or even fragments of meteorite at or around ground zero.

Research continued in the decades following, and some crazy theories were proposed. From nuclear explosions to alien spacecraft, theories rose and fell and were even more speculative since scientists were never actually at the explosion and only viewed the devastation 19 years after it happened.

The commonly accepted explanation now, though, is that either a meteor or a comet entered Earth’s atmosphere and exploded just above the ground. This would explain the lack of impact crater, but the nature of the explosion remains unknown.

The moral of the story is if you look up at the sky and see that you’re suddenly on Tatooine, get the heck out of there.

Featured image depicts the devastation caused by the event, and is sourced from http://www.sciencebuzz.org/blog/tunguska_event_crater_may_have_been_located.

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