On 30 June 1908, around 7 in the morning, a massive explosion ripped through the quiet air above a remote Siberian forest at the Tunguska River. A fireball erupted 100 meters wide, destroying 2,000 sq km of the taiga forest, flattening about 80 million trees as if they were twigs! The earth trembled and windows shattered in villages over 60 km distant. Locals were blown off their feet, the intense heat felt like their clothes were on fire. The ear piercing sound that followed was described as a thousand guns firing.
The Tunguska area was sparsely populated so no eye witnesses were near ground zero. No reports of human casualties were ever recorded, though hundreds of charred reindeer carcasses were discovered by shocked locals. Whatever the so called “Tunguska Event” was, it produced about 200 times more energy than the Hiroshima atomic bomb. Seismic rumbles were detected as far away as England. The Tunguska region is a remote area with long harsh winters and short summers, when the ground thaws into a deep muddy swamp. So even after the event, nobody ventured to the site to investigate. There was some mention in local papers, but nothing in St Petersburg or Moscow.
Over a century later, researchers are still asking the question:
What in the hell happened at Tunguska?
Many are convinced it was an asteroid or comet. But very few traces of such a large object have ever been found, fueling many more crazier theories. It was only in 1927, that a Russian team finally ventured to remote Siberia. When they arrived, the damage was still apparent, almost 20 years later. They found a 50 km area of flattened trees in a strange Butterfly shape. The leader proposed a meteor had exploded in the atmosphere above the forest. It puzzled them however, that there was no impact crater like in Arizona, or any meteor fragments. They theorized the swampy ground was too soft to preserve whatever had hit it.
Russian researchers later declared it was a comet not a meteor. As comets are largely made of ice, the absence of fragments or a crater would make more sense. But that was not the end of the debate. Bizarre alternative theories soon began to pop up like alien mushrooms. One suggested the cause was matter and antimatter somehow colliding. Another that a Russian nuclear explosion caused the blast. Still another felt it was somehow linked to Nikola Tesla’s Death Ray experiments a half a world away in the US. A 1973 a paper suggesting that a Black Hole collided into Earth! Locals thought it was a thunderous visitation of their god Ogdy. And of course where would we be without a conspiracy theory of an alien spaceship crash like Roswell. We may never know if the Tunguska Event was meteor, comet or something more exotic.
A 1958 expedition discovered tiny remnants high in nickel, a known element in meteors. In 2013, researchers analyzed rocks collected from a layer of peat dating back to 1908. They determined the rocks did indeed have a meteoric origin. So today the consensus is that the Tunguska Event was likely caused by an asteroid or comet, colliding with Earth’s atmosphere. Our atmosphere is highly efficient at protecting our planet. It breaks apart the vast majority of meteors. The process is similar to a chemical explosion where the energy is transformed into heat, In other words, any remnants were instantly turned into cosmic dust . This would explain the lack of large chunks or impact crater. To create a blast with the energy of Tunguska, the object would have needed to be 10 times the size of the Titanic!.
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