Once upon a time in Tunguska

30 June 1908: A tremendous explosion a 1.000 times stronger than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, later known as the “Tunguska event”, flattened about 60 million trees in a 800 square miles area in Siberia.

“We had a hut by the river with my brother Chekaren. We were sleeping. Suddenly we both woke up at the same time. Somebody shoved us. We heard whistling and felt strong wind. Chekaren said, 'Can you hear all those birds flying overhead?' We were both in the hut, couldn't see what was going on outside. Suddenly, I got shoved again, this time so hard I fell into the fire. I got scared. Chekaren got scared too. We started crying out for father, mother, brother, but no one answered. There was noise beyond the hut, we could hear trees falling down. Chekaren and I got out of our sleeping bags and wanted to run out, but then the thunder struck. This was the first thunder. The Earth began to move and rock, wind hit our hut and knocked it over. My body was pushed down by sticks, but my head was in the clear. Then I saw a wonder: trees were falling, the branches were on fire, it became mighty bright, how can I say this, as if there was a second sun, my eyes were hurting, I even closed them. It was like what the Russians call lightning. And immediately there was a loud thunderclap. This was the second thunder. The morning was sunny, there were no clouds, our Sun was shining brightly as usual, and suddenly there came a second one!“ (Cuchan of the Shanyagir tribe, eye-witness of the Tunguska event)

A photo from the trees felled in the Tunguska event, taken during Leonid Kulik’s expedition in 1927 

The event was registered in places as a far apart as Great Britain and the Russian Pacific coast. By seismic stations and fluctuations in atmospheric pressure and by the night skies aglow across Eurasia for a few days, allegedly bright enough to allow people to read the newspaper outside in London. The most established theories about what happened on 30 June 1908 in Siberia agree that an asteroid or comet exploded roughly five miles about the taiga’s surface, making the Tunguska event the largest impact event in recorded history. On site, the effects were studied not before 1927, due to the remoteness of the area and the rather overwhelming political events that hit Russia in the first half of the 20th century. However, the consequences of the Tunguska event were still visible more than 20 years later. No crater was found and the butterfly-shaped pattern of the felled trees that were obviously either stripped or burned at the top remind of the nuclear blast of A- and H-bombs ignited in the atmosphere and the theory that something exploded high above the ground are undisputed, even though falling debris did cause craters, the largest of them being probably a hole called Lake Cheko, a small bowl-shaped lake, 708 metres long, 364 metres wide and about 50 metres deep.

A Soviet stamp issued on the 50th anniversary of the Tunguska event, remembering Leonid Kulik (1958)

The theories about what exactly exploded over Tunguska vary widely, a comet or asteroid suggests itself, but after the 1950s, with advancing physical knowledge and Soviet secrecy regarding the site, more exotic claims were made, ranging from natural H-bombs to a passing black hole hitting Siberia and a possible chunk of anti-matter burning up in the atmosphere. The most weird is relatively recent, postulating a swarm of gnats over the tundra in 1908 so big that they caused frictional heat cumulating in a combustion along the lines of the effects of an A-bomb. And, of course, Speculations about the Tunguska event being caused by endeavours of intelligent life forms are rampant since the 1920s. The most popular is, of course, a wrecked space ship, but established science fiction writers as well as conspiracy theorists spun a yarn from Tsarist atomic bomb tests, Soviet time machines and the side effects of an experiment by Nicola Tesla conducted about the same time.

More on: