The Tunguska Event: A Rude Awakening

In the early morning hours of June 30, 1908, the remote Siberian area within 500 miles (800 km) of the Podkamennaya Tunguska River erupted with flames, scorching wind and an earth-shaking explosion.

What became known as the Tunguska Event baffled scientists and drove the imaginations of artists and crackpots alike for decades.

As one eyewitness at the time described it, “The sky was split in two, and high above the forest the whole northern part of the sky appeared covered with fire.”

What It Wasn’t

Such a dramatic event in an area that’s geographically and politically difficult to traverse led to rampant speculation on the cause behind this explosion that decimated 500,000 acres of nearby pine forest. These wild explanations covered everything from scientific explanations like black holes to science fiction like aliens and everything in between, but they started with religion.

Angry Gods

The Yakut and Evenk people indigenous to this area were hesitant to discuss it. Many of them believed that their god Ogdy had sent the fiery explosion. It was believed Ogdy was displeased with them and cursed them by smashing their trees and killing their animals.

Aliens

Scientists of varying fields proposed the theory that aliens caused the Siberian event. Theories posited that the destruction was caused by an alien spacecraft landing, crashing or even discharging an antimatter weapon. Russian engineer Aleksander Kasantsews proposed that the Tunguska event was an extraterrestrial nuclear explosion and pointed to locally recorded geographical anomalies that mimicked those of a nuclear blast.

A Black Hole

An unnamed American physicist proposed a theory in 1973 that involved miniature black holes. Seriously. The theory suggested that one of these mini black holes collided with the Earth and caused an antimatter explosion in the atmosphere. It then somehow vanished without causing any more problems.

What It Was

Although more than 40 expeditions since 1928 have returned little concrete evidence of what happened at the Tunguska event, the scientific community has concluded that the Tunguska event was caused by a cosmic object — most likely a large meteorite — that exploded before making an impact.

According to NASA, here’s what happened.

An extremely large meteorite, believed to be the size of a five-story building, entered the Earth’s atmosphere traveling at a speed of around 33,500 mph. The air around the meteorite became super-heated due to its rapid descent through the atmosphere. At roughly 28,000 feet above the surface of the planet, the meteorite fragmented and exploded, disintegrating and releasing the energy of 185 atomic bombs.

Cultural Impact

poster of International asteroid day

Despite this explanation, the mysterious event in the Siberian expanses of Russia inspired a number of artistic endeavors. Dozens of books, mostly science fiction, use it as a basis for the action in their stories. Movies, television shows and music refer to the events that took place years ago on that June morning. In fact, you can watch a History channel documentary on this event here.

Moreover, every year June 30 marks International Asteroid Day. Although not specifically meant to commemorate the Tunguska event, it happens on the anniversary of this most well-known run-in with one to help raise awareness of the danger large meteorites may pose to the Earth.

This rare and still not completely explained event foreshadows the future of humanity. As an astronomer at NASA’s Ames Research Center said, “Tunguska is the largest cosmic impact witnessed by modern humans. It also is characteristic of the sort of impact we are likely to have to protect against in the future.” Thus, the more we can learn about the Tunguska event, the better prepared we can be.