On the morning of June 30 in the year 1908 a mighty explosion occurred in the skies over eastern Siberia. As a result of this explosion more than 800 square miles of old growth taiga forest was instantly blown over and nearly 100 square miles immediately below the blast epicenter was utterly incinerated. The cause of this blast has been one of the great enduring mysteries of the Twentieth Century. Its significance has not waned with the passage of time, on the contrary, the lessons it has to teach us about the reality of life on Earth are now of the utmost importance. The story it has to tell us is both incomparably grand and ominously revealing of mysteries long forgotten or concealed.
As I discussed in the previous article, so remote was the Tunguska explosion that the outside world did not really learn of it until nearly 20 years later, after the first scientific expedition led by Russian scientist Leonid Kulik reached the site in the summer of 1927. That first journey of 1927 deserves to go down in the annals of history as one of the great scientific expeditions of modern times.
It began like this. Kulik had been hearing rumors and getting bits and pieces of information from various newspaper accounts, such as I already described. An earlier trip through Siberia in 1921 in search of meteorites brought him into contact with a number of second hand accounts and by this time he had become convinced that the explosion was the result of a great meteorite fall. He was,however,only able to determine approximately the area of the blast at that time. He determined to mount an expedition to find the site of the meteorite fall, which, he believed, would have struck the Earth leaving a crater.
Kuliks’ ambition was realized in the spring of 1927 when an expedition was funded by the Russian Academy of Sciences. As noted, since at least 1921 he had been collecting every scrap of information he could find regarding the Tunguska event. He had formed a general idea of the location but only imprecisely. Not having access to accurate maps presented the first challenge to be overcome. He knew that the epicenter lay somewhere to the north of the Podkamennaya Tunguska River and the nearest village was likely to be Vanavara, a small trading post along the river. So he set off on his quest to locate what he expected to be a crater where the meteor had crashed into the Earth.
The Trans-Siberian railway brought Kulik and an assistant to the village of Taishet, about 350 miles from the presumed area of the blast. From there the intrepid scientists proceeded by horse drawn sleds to the village of Khezma, a journey of about 240 miles. After pushing on across steep, forested hills and precipitous gullies they arrived at Vanavara at the end of March. Vanavara was the final jumping off point before the expedition had to contend with the primeval swampy forests that lay between them and the blast site about 40 miles to the north. It should be understood that Kulik had only a brief window in which to locate the site before the melting of the snow in late spring and the melting of the upper layers of permafrost in early summer. Once the permafrost melted the ground became a near impassable bog swarming with exceptionally vicious mosquitoes. Over snow and frozen ground it was possible to make better time than after the spring thaw. However, they had to contend with temperatures as much as 40 degrees below zero.
It had, in fact, inspired the formation of new religion, in which it was believed that the fire god Agdy had descended to Earth, smashing the forest and decimating animal life as punishment for the transgressions of the wicked.
In Vanavara Kulik hired a guide named Ilya Potapovich Petrov. He also attempted to interview locals and eyewitnesses to gain a more detailed picture of the event and a more accurate idea of where exactly it happened and quickly found out that the local people were extremely reluctant to speak of it, holding the whole thing in superstitious dread. It had, in fact, inspired the formation of new religion, in which it was believed that the fire god Agdy had descended to Earth, smashing the forest and decimating animal life as punishment for the transgressions of the wicked. The peasants now believed that the region of the colossal explosion was accursed and would not venture into it. Hearing this only intensified Kuliks’ desire to find and scientifically document the site.
Vanavara, being the closest inhabited community to the blast zone there were some quite extraordinary experiences related by villagers. Meteorite researcher and colleague of Kulik, E. L. Krinov, interviewed many them and included their accounts in his 1966 book Giant Meteorites. One eyewitness, the peasant S. B. Semenov, told Krinov in 1930 that
“I don’t remember the year exactly, but more than twenty years ago when the fallow land was being ploughed up I was sitting on the porch of the house at the trading station of Vanavara at breakfast time and looking towards the north. I had just raised my axe to hoop a cask when suddenly in the north…the sky was split in two, and high above the forest the whole northern part of the sky appeared to be covered with fire. At that moment I felt great heat as if my shirt had caught fire…I wanted to pull off my shirt and throw it away, but at that moment there was a bang in the sky, and a mighty crash was heard . . . I was thrown to the ground about three sajenes [about 21 feet] away from the porch and for a moment I lost consciousness. My wife ran out and carried me into the hut. The crash was followed by noise like stones falling from the sky, or guns firing. The earth trembled, and when I lay on the ground I covered my head because I was afraid that stones might hit it. At the moment when the sky opened, a hot wind, as from a cannon, blew past the huts from the north.”
Semenov, like the eyewitnesses in the newspaper accounts I quoted in the previous article, had the impression that “the sky was split in two” that the sky in effect, “opened.” The other thing that I called the reader’s attention to in that article was that the phenomenon was experienced simultaneously both in the firmament and within the Earth.
Semenov’s daughter, Kosolapova provides another dramatic description.
“I was 19, and when the meteorite fell I was at the trading station of Vanavara. Marpha Bryukhanova and I had come to the spring…for water. Marpha began to draw water, and I was standing beside her facing north. Suddenly before me I saw the sky in the north open to the ground and fire pour out. We were terrified, but the sky closed again and immediately afterwards bangs like gun-shots were heard. We thought that stones were falling from the sky, and rushed off in terror, leaving our pail by the spring…”
“…I ran with my head down and covered, because I was afraid that stones might fall on it…We were terribly frightened at the time. The fire was brighter than the sun. During the bangs the earth and the huts trembled greatly…The noises at first were very loud, and seemed to be right above our heads. . .”
Even though the village of Vanavara is some 40 miles from the blast epicenter, at this distance the blast appeared brighter than the sun. Also, a common impression among many eyewitnesses was the sense that great stones were striking the Earth.
Even though the village of Vanavara is some 40 miles from the blast epicenter, at this distance the blast appeared brighter than the sun. Also, a common impression among many eyewitnesses was the sense that great stones were striking the Earth. On their first attempt to reach the blast zone Kulik was forced to turn back by the heavy snow. The small party made their second attempt on April 18 with pack horses. Three days out they arrived at the hut of the herdsman Okhchen who joined the group and they traded their horses for reindeer. Kulik and his assistant were suffering from lack of food and a variety of infections inflicted upon them by the vicissitudes of their journey, now approaching ten weeks. Two days of arduous marching brought the exhausted party to the periphery of the great destruction. For two more days they pushed and hacked their way through the dead and prostrate trees. The vast scale of destruction proved to be too much for Potapovich and Okhchen to handle and they abandoned the mission in terror, forcing Kulik to return to Vanavara to hire new guides.
The next attempt was commenced on April 30. At this point it had been nearly three months since Kulik set out on his quest. Because of the primitive level of communication Kulik was unable to get word back to his colleagues in St. Petersburg, who began to fear that he might be dead. This time the party decided to travel by raft due to the immense difficulty they had encountered trekking through the forest. However, by late April the rivers had become swollen with spring melt and the brave team had to contend with intense rapids. Abandoning the rafts after traveling by river as far as possible they once more set out on foot. On May 20 Kulik again reached the edge of the great forest blowdown. For the next week they pushed through the tangle of dead trees, always moving towards the center of the blast zone. Arriving at the mouth of the Churgima River Kulik and his team set up camp, from whence they ventured out on daily treks. For nine days Kulik explored, finally realizing that the prostrate forest was splayed out radially from an epicenter that the guides referred to as the Southern Swamp. It was here Kulik believed that he would find his crater. What he found instead was a bizarre landscape where, in his words, “the solid ground heaved outward from the spot in giant waves, like waves in water.”
“the solid ground heaved outward from the spot in giant waves, like waves in water.”
In addition he saw numerous depressions in the peat marsh that he described as “peculiar flat holes.” These holes, he believed, must have been formed by pieces of the meteorite striking the ground. In a later expedition Kulik undertook the excavation of one of these holes but was disappointed to find no trace of a meteorite. His final expedition to the blast zone was undertaken in 1938. Shortly after, World War 2 broke out and Kulik joined the fight against the Nazis. He was captured and died of typhus in a Nazi prison camp on April 24, 1942, a tragic loss to the world of science.
The legacy of Kuliks research expeditions is of the utmost importance not just to the abstract domain of science and academia, but to the world at large. As already stated, I believe the Tunguska blast will prove to be as far reaching in its historical ramifications as any great event of the 20th century, including two world wars, the discovery of atomic energy and the advent of the space program. As we continue to learn more about this amazing event the mysteries grow deeper and the significance to understanding both our past and our future escalates.
One of Kuliks’ successors, Russian scientist I. S. Astapowitch, wrote in 1934 that
“The flight and fall of the meteorite on 30th June, 1908, amongst the greatest meteoric phenomena known to mankind, must occupy one of the foremost places because of the magnitude of the phenomena accompanying its movement through the atmosphere . . . it is unlikely that our generation may again be witnesses of a similar meteoric phenomenon; if it had occurred 4 hr. 47 m. later, when the city of Leningrad would have lain on the same parallel near the center of the explosion, our knowledge of it would probably have been considerably more extensive…” (Astapowitch, I. S. (1934) Air Waves Caused by the Fall of the Meteorite on 30th June, 1908, in Central Siberia: Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society, Vol. 60, pp. 493 – 503)
Had the center of the explosion occurred 4 hours and 47 minutes later as Astapowich conjectures, it is a certainty that the history of the 20th Century would have been dramatically different.
In the next article I will probe deeper into the mysteries of this powerful cosmic event and the critically important lessons it has to teach us.
– Randall Carlson
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