Tunguska, Psychopathy and the Sixth Extinction
One hundred and four years ago today, on the night of 30 June and 1 July, one of the most extraordinary events in modern history occurred.
The first reports of a strange glow in the sky came from across Europe. Shortly after midnight on 1 July 1908, Londoners were intrigued to see a pink phosphorescent night sky over the capital. People who had retired awoke confused as the strange pink glow shone into their bedrooms. The same ruddy luminescence was reported over Belgium. The skies over Germany were curiously said to be bright green, while the heavens over Scotland were of an incredible intense whiteness which tricked the wildlife into believing it was dawn. Birdsong started and cocks crowed – at two o’clock in the morning. The skies over Moscow were so bright, photographs were taken of the streets without using a magnesium flash. A captain on a ship on the River Volga said he could see vessels on the river two miles away by the uncanny astral light. One golf game in England almost went on until four in the morning under the nocturnal glow, and in the following week The Times of London was inundated with letters from readers from all over the United Kingdom to report the curious ‘false dawn’. A woman in Huntingdon wrote that she had been able to read a book in her bedroom solely by the peculiar rosy light. There were hundreds of letters from people reporting identical lighting conditions that went on for weeks… (Tom Slemen)
None of the people witnessing this strange phenomenon had any idea that, in the central Siberian plateau, just after 7:15 a.m. local time, the planet had been hit by a cometary impactor that exploded – as most such impactors do – in the atmosphere just above the Earth’s surface.
There was, of course, a great deal of comment about the strange, glowing sky in newspapers and scientific journals at the time. A theory was proposed that icy particles had somehow formed high in the atmosphere and were reflecting sunlight. Another theory suggested that a strange auroral disturbance was involved. The Danish astronomer Kohl pointed out that several very large meteors had recently been observed over Denmark and he suggested that comet dust in the high atmosphere might account for the phenomenon. He was getting close, but in general, there was no agreement as to what had happened.
An Irkutsk newspaper dated 2 July reported that, in a village more than 200 miles from the Tunguska river, peasants had seen a fireball brighter than the sun approach the ground, followed by a huge cloud of black smoke, a forked tongue of flame and a loud crash as if from gunfire.
All the villagers ran into the street in panic. The old women wept and everyone thought the end of the world was approaching.
Nearly 400 miles south-west of the explosion, at 7:17 a.m. on 30 June, a train driver on the Trans-Siberian express had to stop his train for fear of derailment due to the tremors and commotion. In towns 300 to 400 miles away, hurricane-like gusts rattled doors, windows and crockery. This was followed within minutes by shock waves which knocked down horses and hurled people working on boats into the river.
Over 550 miles to the south of the explosion, a seismograph in the city of Irkutsk near Lake Baikal, close to the Mongolian border, registered strong earth tremors.
Local Siberian newspapers carried stories of a fireball in the sky, and a fearful explosion, but by the autumn of 1908 these stories had died out, and they went unnoticed in St. Petersburg, Moscow and the West. The region was arguably one of the most inaccessible places on Earth, in the center of Siberia.
The closest observers of the explosion were reindeer herders asleep in their tents in several camps about 30 km from the site. They were blown into the air and knocked unconscious; one man blown into a tree later died of his injuries.
Early in the morning when everyone was asleep in the tent, it was blown up in the air along with its occupants. Some lost consciousness. When they regained consciousness, they heard a great deal of noise and saw the forest burning around them, much of it devastated.
The ground shook and incredibly prolonged roaring was heard. Everything round about was shrouded in smoke and fog from burning, falling trees. Eventually the noise died away and the wind dropped, but the forest went on burning. Many reindeer rushed away and were lost. [earthsci.org]
Thousands of reindeer, in the general area around ground zero, were killed. Many campsites and storage huts belonging to the herders that dotted the area were destroyed.
Rumors of an extraordinary event persisted, transmitted back by geologists and other researchers working in the area. These stories attracted the attention of a meteorite researcher, Leonard Kulik. But, it was not until 1927 that he could finally lead an expedition to the site of the 1908 explosion.
Kulik got off the Trans-Siberian railway at the Taishet station and on horse-drawn sledges they set off on an arduous three-day odyssey through 350 miles of ice and snow until he and his men reached the village of Kezhma, situated on the River Angara. At the village Kulik and his party of researchers replenished their supplies of food, then struggled on for a three-day journey across wild and unchartered areas of Siberia until they reached the log-cabin village of Vanavara on 25 March.
Kulik then tried to make headway through the untamed Siberian forests, or taiga as the Russians call it, but was forced to turn back after heavy snowdrifts almost froze the horses to death. For three days Kulik was forced to remain in the snow-bound village of Vanavara, but during this period he interviewed many of the Evenki hunters who had witnessed the Siberian fireball’s arrival on this planet.
The tales of the sky being ripped open by a falling sun and of a great thunder shaking the ground made Kulik even more eager to penetrate the taiga to find his holy grail.
When the weather gradually improved, Kulik set out for the Tunguska Valley. When he finally reached the site of the mysterious explosion, he was almost speechless. From a ridge overlooking the scene, Kulik took out his notebook and scribbled down his first impressions of the damage wreaked by the cosmic vandal. Kulik wrote:
From our observation point no sign of forest can be seen, for everything has been devastated and burned, and around the edge of the dead area, the young, twenty-year-old forest growth has moved forward furiously, seeking sunshine and life. One has an uncanny feeling when one sees twenty to thirty-inch [thick] giant trees snapped across like twigs, and their tops hurled many yards away.
There were three further expeditions to the site of the Tunguska explosion, all of them headed by Kulik. In 1941, Hitler attacked Russia. The 58-year-old Leonid Kulik volunteered to defend Moscow, but was wounded by the Nazis. He was captured by German troops and thrown in a prison camp where he died from his wounds. [Tom Slemen]
The energy of the explosion has been calculated from the extent of the flattened forest and from the small pressure waves which arrived at the speed of sound and were recorded on barographs around the world including stations between Cambridge, 50 miles north of London, and Petersfield, 55 miles south. Interestingly, it took the meteorologists in England twenty years to make the connection between their records and the devastation in Tunguska. The wave trains were unlike any others which had been recorded up until that time but nowadays we know that they do resemble those obtained from a hydrogen bomb explosion. It seems that the impact had an energy of 30 to 40 megatons, the combined force of a few dozen ordinary hydrogen bombs…