The Tunguska Event

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In 1908, in the middle of the Siberian wilderness, near the Tunguska River, an explosion took place which was equivalent in size to the detonation of a 5 megaton nuclear bomb. 

But it wasn’t a nuclear bomb. Such things didn’t even exist then. It was a mystery that scientists are still trying to figure out today. 

Learn more about the Tunguska Event on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily. 

On June 30th, 1908, at around 7:17 am local time, the Earth witnessed one of the largest explosions in recorded human history. 

The explosion occurred in the remote forests of Siberia, near the Podkamennaya Tunguska River.

40 kilometers away from ground zero, was the small community of Vanavara. This was the closest human settlement to what was the center of the explosion.

One man, sitting on a porch was blown off his chair with intense heat which felt as if his clothes were on fire. 

Despite the magnitude of the explosion, it isn’t believed that there were any direct casualties from the blast due to its remoteness. One did man died later from complications after being thrown into a tree, but that is the only death which can be confirmed to be attributed to the blast. 

Hundreds of kilometers away, windows were broken. 

Seismic stations around the world detected the blast. There was evidence of the event in stations as far as Berlin, London, Washington, and Indonesia. For the next two nights, there was a glow reported in Europe and Asia which was bright enough to take photos.

For something so major and important,  you’d think that scientists from all over the world would swarm into the area to find out what happened.

That, however, didn’t happen.

There was nothing. No research teams, no scientific expeditions, nothing. 

Russia had its own issues at the time, and getting to the middle of nowhere Siberia wasn’t easy. It wasn’t until 13 years after the event, that the first researcher bothered to visit. 

A geologist named Leonid Kulik visited the region in 1921. During this trip, he didn’t get to the central impact area, but he was able to see signs of the devastation over a decade after the event, and he was able to gather eyewitness testimony of people who were there. 

It was enough to convince Kulik that this was the result of a meteor strike and that the Soviet government should fund another more substantial expedition to the region to search for fragments. 

In 1927 he returned with a larger team. They hired a team of indigenous hunters to take to the impact zone. 

What they found was incredible.

The explosion toppled an estimated 80 million trees over an area of 2,000 square kilometers. That is approximately the size of Luxembourg. While Luxembourg isn’t a large country, it is huge for a blast area. 

The trees were all blown down in a radial pattern from the central impact zone. 

It was in the central impact zone where they found the biggest surprise of all. There was no crater. 

They expected to find a giant hole in the ground where the meteor hit. Such a thing didn’t exist. Moreover, they couldn’t find any traces of meteor metal anywhere. 

In the central zone, they found trees that were still standing and burnt but oddly had all the branches and bark removed. They were like telephone poles. 

In the 1960s, photographs of the region showed that the area of felled trees actually had the shape of a butterfly, with two lobbed regions. 

The mysteries of the site fueled speculation and theories for decades. The initial theory was that the ground was very soft and that the heavy meteor sank into the ground, and the land quickly rebounded covering up any crater. However, subsequent scans with better technology found no heavy metals in the area. 

The other big theory was that it was a small comet that impacted and that because it was made of ice, it disintegrated before it made contact with the ground. The force wave from the incoming comet caused the damage, but it didn’t leave a crater.

Other theories included a tiny black hole, antimatter, and of course aliens. You can’t have crazy theories without aliens. 

So, what did happen?

There is no way to know for certain, but there have been several developments that have allowed for some insight into the event of 1908.

First, stripped, standing trees is something that was observed after the Hiroshima explosion and after other nuclear tests. It is consistent with a massive airborne explosion. The shock waves hit the branches before the trunk of the tree could react. Also, if the shockwave is coming from directly overhead, it won’t provide much lateral force to knock it over, so it stands upright. 

Second, in 1963 an explosives test was done in the rainforests of Cape York, Australia. They wanted to do see what would happen to such a forest with a large explosion. They detonated 50 tons of conventional explosives and found a pattern in the trees which was consistent with the butterfly pattern found in Siberia. 

Third, another meteor impact in Russia, this time in 2013 outside the town of Chelyabinsk was captured on video my dozens of cameras and they were able to get measurements that helped in determining what happened 105 years earlier. The Chelyabinsk event was only about 1/10 the size of the Tunguska event. You might have seen videos of this floating around the internet. If not, you can easily find them doing a quick search. The footage is fascinating and frightening.

Finally, with all the above information, Russian researchers have been able to create a more accurate computer model to get a better idea of what happened and to come up with a theory that is consistent with all the known facts.

In 2020 they released a theory that seems to check all the boxes. Their theory is that it was a meteor, but it came into the Earth’s atmosphere at a very shallow angle, which caused it to skip back into space.

If you’ve ever watched Apollo 13 or another documentary on the space program, you might have heard them talk about how they have re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere at exactly the right angle. Too steep and they’ll burn up. Too shallow, and they skip off into space.

The Tunguska event, according to this theory, was a case of the later. It came in shallow, enough to cause an enormous pressure wave in one direction, which caused the butterfly shape on the ground, but then skipped off out of the atmosphere, which is why there wasn’t a crater. 

If true, that means that the object which is responsible for the Tunguska event is still out there orbiting the sun.