This article is the third in a series describing one of the greatest and most mysterious natural events in modern history. On June 30, just after 7 a.m. local time, in the year 1908, eyewitnesses in a remote region of Siberia experienced a demonstration of the awesome power of cosmic events to affect life on Earth. 107 years later we are still learning the lessons and deciphering the mysteries surrounding this phenomenal occurrence, and are only just beginning to grasp the implications for our own future. While political partisans and self-described environmentalists go into hysterics over a miniscule increase in a beneficial atmospheric trace gas (.0001 increase of CO2 concentration in the past century relative to total atmospheric composition) the cosmos continues to remind us, and the surface of the Earth bears witness to, the fact that far more frequently than anyone has imagined, interactions between the Earth and the heavens occur, with profound consequences to the full range of terrestrial existence.
While political partisans and self-described environmentalists go into hysterics over a miniscule increase in a beneficial atmospheric trace gas (.0001 increase of CO2 concentration in the past century relative to total atmospheric composition) the cosmos continues to remind us, and the surface of the Earth bears witness to, the fact that far more frequently than anyone has imagined, interactions between the Earth and the heavens occur, with profound consequences to the full range of terrestrial existence.
Over the decades, since that first heroic expedition by Leonid Kulik in 1927, information trickled out of the Soviet Union and the world at large slowly became aware of the powerful explosion that utterly decimated over 800 square miles of forest. With the end of the Cold War, American scientists gained access to a tremendous trove of Russian research into the Tunguska Event, as it has come to be called, as well as the ability to research the site first hand. While this has made a wealth of new knowledge and information available to American scientists and scholars, in my opinion, however, the import of this phenomenon has largely gone unrecognized.
You know from the two previous articles that early in the morning of that fateful day some type of celestial visitor, either a comet, an asteroid, or something in-between, descended rapidly through the Earth’s atmosphere with such force that it blew itself up about 5 miles above the surface. The blast wave demolished over 800 square miles of old growth, taiga forest. This area is roughly equal to the areas found inside the perimeter interstate highways that surround many major cities in the U.S., for example I-285 surrounding Atlanta or I-495 surrounding Washington D.C. The blast zone was extensive enough to utterly decimate any major urban area in the U.S. Were a cosmic blast of equivalent magnitude to occur over a large U.S. city today there could potentially be more than a million casualties. The devastation of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina would pale by comparison. And unlike a calamity brought on by a hurricane, there would be no warning of the impending event. A celestial object the size of the Tunguska meteorite still falls below our present long term observational and prediction capabilities.
Were a cosmic blast of equivalent magnitude to occur over a large U.S. city today there could potentially be more than a million casualties.
One of the first major reports to reach the educated public of the western world appeared in the July, 1928 issue of Scientific American. The article was written by Charles P. Olivier, at the time chairman of the Meteor Commission of the International Astronomical Union. He writes:
“Recently reports have been reaching the scientific world of a wonderful meteoric fall in one of the most inaccessible parts of Siberia. During the past year there have been several references to it in the scientific and popular journals, but the official account of the exploration of the locality by the Academy of Sciences of the U.S.S.R. has only just been received.”
By 1928, with those first early reports reaching western scientists, it was realized that a variety of effects of this great explosion had actually been observed at many locations thousands of miles distant from the blast epicenter, but not associated with it at the time. The May, 1931 issue of Scientific American featured an article by the scientific correspondent for The Manchester Guardian, J. G. Crowther. In this article Crowther makes an appeal to the readers. He writes that those who live in the United States, Canada and Japan “and keep diaries may be able to provide some special information of value to meteorologists. It concerns the atmospheric and sunset effects of the great meteorite which fell in Siberia . . . That the fall actually took place became generally known only in 1928 and since then some remarkable new information has been discovered.” Crowther recounts a discussion that occurred at the Dublin meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1908, concerning wave motion.
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He writes: “Dr. N. W. Shaw contributed an example of a curious atmospheric wave-motion recorded on the self-recording micro-barograph invented by himself and Mr. W. H Dines in 1903. This instrument automatically records sudden small changes in atmospheric pressure such as those due to air waves . . . On June 30th, 1908, six of these instruments in England . . . recorded a series of air waves arriving during a period of about 20 minutes, with about four fairly plain maxima, as if there had been four disturbances or explosions somewhere in the earth’s atmosphere during that period. After the discussion this record was more or less forgotten and became one of the unexplained curiosities of meteorological science.” In other words, the powerful air waves produced by the blast passed over England and registered on newly invented atmospheric pressure instruments. In fact, the aerial waves were so powerful they passed completely around the world twice, both passages being registered on the barographs. But, at the time no one made the connection between these unusual atmospheric pressure waves and the rumors coming out of Siberia for some type of great meteor fall.
And unlike a calamity brought on by a hurricane, there would be no warning of the impending event. A celestial object the size of the Tunguska meteorite still falls below our present long term observational and prediction capabilities.
Around 1935 Kulik received a letter from an eyewitness named Naumenko who observed the event from the village of Kezhma, about 140 miles south of the blast.
“The day was unusually clear and not a single cloud was to be seen. No wind stirred, and there was absolute silence. Suddenly, far off, still hardly audible, was heard the sound of thunder. It made us look up involuntarily in every direction. The sound seemed to come from beyond the River Angara and became louder rapidly. There was something extraordinary about it . . .The first fairly faint crash resounded, but when I turned quickly in the direction of the crash I saw that the Sun’s rays were crossed by a broad fiery-white band on the right side of its rays. On the left side, towards the north, an irregularly- shaped brilliantly white somewhat elongated mass was flying into the taiga…with a diameter far greater than the Moon’s. Approximately two to three seconds, maybe that generally heard during a storm. After the second crash, the “ball” was no longer visible, but its tail, or rather the streamer, was now completely on the left side of the Sun’s rays . . . Then, after a shorter interval of time than that between the first and second crashes, the third thunder crash occurred. This was so loud (as though there were several crashes all mingled together within it) that the whole ground trembled. An echo, like a continuous deafening roar, resounded through the taiga, indeed it seemed through the whole taiga of vast Siberia.”
As emphasized in the two preceding articles the phenomenon had a powerful terrestrial component, in fact, it registered as a 5+ earthquake on the Richter scale. This was the result of the massive amount of energy released by the blast subsequently absorbed by the Earth. Also note the reference to the quality of the environment immediately preceding the arrival of the great meteor – it was absolutely still and silent. This served to accentuate the first audible indication of the approaching object even more dramatically.
Naumenkos’ letter goes on to describe the reaction of other eyewitnesses from the village.
“The carpenters, after the first and second crashes, had crossed themselves in stupefaction, and when the third crash resounded they fell backwards from the building on to the chips of wood. Some of them were so stunned and utterly terrified that I had to calm them down and reassure them. We all abandoned work and went into the village. There, whole crowds of local inhabitants were gathered in the streets in terror, talking about the phenomenon.”
Kuliks’ colleague Krinov in his work relates many eyewitness accounts. Among those was the account by the boatman Kokorin who was sailing down the River Angara, not far from the village of Boguchany, which is about 230 miles from the blast center.
“In the north a pale bluish light glowed, and from the south a fiery body that was considerably larger than the Sun and left a broad bright streamer behind it flew across the sky. Then such a cannonade broke out that all the workmen who were in the boat rushed to hide in the cabin, forgetting all about the danger that threatened from the rapids. The first bangs were faint, but became progressively louder. The sound effect, he estimated, lasted three to five minutes. The intensity of the sounds was so great that the boatmen were completely demoralized.”
One truly amazing phenomenon associated with the fall of the great meteorite was described by Krinov.
“On the first night after the fall of the Tunguska meteorite, i.e. from 30 June to 1 July 1908, and with lesser intensity on a few successive nights, extraordinary optical phenomena were observed in the Earth’s atmosphere. Everywhere in Western Siberia and over all Europe, the attention of scientists and of a large number of people was primarily attracted by the unusually bright nights. In fact, it may be said that from 30 June to 1 July there was no night at all. . . At the same time, massive glowing silvery clouds were seen against a background of brilliant, colourful sunsets . . .”
This strange consequence of the Tunguska Event has been the subject of much debate, and provides important clues as to the identity of this celestial intruder. As more details emerge the mystery of the Tunguska Event deepens. I will pick up the thread of this narrative next month in part 4 of The Great Siberian Thunderbolt.
– Randall Carlson
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