Fire Across The Siberian Sky
(The Tunguska Event)
A mysterious multi megaton explosion happened in a remote area of Siberia in Russia. Now known as the Tunguska Event, it happened in 1908 (several decades before the first atomic tests at Trinity) at roughly 7.15 a.m. on June 30th. A tremendous explosion of energy roughly equal to 1,000Hiroshima atom bombs was released in the uninhabited wilds of Siberia, not far from theStony TunguskaRiver. There were two shockwaves less than seconds apart that were recorded as far as way asEngland as disturbances circled the globe.
The explosion flattens 2,150 sq kilometers of centuries old forest. A mushroom cloud reaches, roughly 80 kilometers, into the air stretching far into the stratosphere. The explosion was recorded 4,000 kilometers as far away inSt Petersburg, as well asEngland, as the shockwaves travelled the globe.
A disturbance in the Earth Magnetic Field, not unlike the ones directly after a nuclear explosions – were recorded by the Irkutsk Magnetic and Meteorological Observatory some 970 kilometers south of the event. A magnetic storm raged which took 4 hours to subside. A later analysis of the subsequent records show that the epicenter of the blast and the storm were the same.
In the evening of the aftermath of the event, the sky became bright and colorful clouds were noted. A photographer in Hamburgat 11 pm was able to take photographs as if it were mid-day. He stated that it reminded him of the volcanic dust of Krakatoa which exploded in 1883. The Hedelberg Astronomical Observatory instruments were unable to take usual recordings due to the brightness of the sky. Antwerpreported the night sky in the north appeared to be on fire.
The phenomenon was particularly strong in the U.K.The Times printed a letter by Miss Katherine Stephen who lived in Huntingdon, stated: ‘The strange light in the sky’ that she and her sister witnessed at midnight on the 1st July ‘If anyone could explain the cause of such an unusual sight’. On the 2nd July, Holcombe Ingleby of Brancaster wrote about the ‘Curious sun effects at night’. This not only lasted but actually grew in both in extent and intensity till 2.30 this morning, he continued. ‘I was aroused from sleep at 1.15, and so strong was the light at that hour that I could read a book by it in my chambers quite comfortably.’ It was also recorded in Dublin: ‘A very remarkable afterglow prolonged the daylight to such an extend it was possible to read a newspaper in the open air.’
On the 4th July, The Times made an attempt to explain what, ‘The remarkable ruddy glows which have been seen on many nights lately.’ The newspaper pointed out that the glows in the sky had manifested across Europe extending as far as Berlin. There was no definite explanation, opinions and theories varied as to the cause of the nocturnal lights: ‘Some hold that they are auroral; their color is quite consistent with this view.’ Yet others theorize that ‘the phenomenon was simply an abnormal glow… We may recall the circumstances of the wonderful glows which were seen in this country in the autumn of 1883, and which were due to the dust scattered in the upper atmosphere by the terrific outburst at Krakatoa.’
The New York Times, on the 3rd July reported that strange lights had been observed in the northern heavens on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, the bright diffused white and yellow illuminations throughout the night until it dissipated at dawn. On the 5th the same newspaper published an account from their London correspondent: ‘Dawn at midnight: London sees sky blue and clouds tipped pink at that hour.’ He also notes: ‘Sunsets of exceptional beauty and twilight effects remarkable even in England; the northern sky at midnight became light blue, as if dawn were breaking, and the clouds were touched with pink.’ Several witnesses thought thatLondon was on fire and phoned the police to that effect.
Edinburgh Observatory recorded that the sky was practically as bright as day.
A Russian Perspective
Sibir, the Irsunk newspaper described ‘unusual phenomena of nature.
‘In the village of Nizhne-Karelinsk in the
Northwest high above the horizon, the peasants saw a body shining very brightly (too bright for the naked eye) with a bluish-white light. It moved vertically for about ten minutes. The body was in form of a ‘pipe’ (cylindrical). The sky was cloudless, except that low down in the horizon on the direction in which this glowing body was observered, a small dark cloud was noticed. It was hot and dry and when the shining body approached the ground it seemed to be pulverized and in its place a huge cloud of black smoke was formed and a loud crash, not like thunder, but as if from the fall of large stones, or from gunfire, was heard. All the buildings shook and at the same time, a forked tongue of flame broke through the cloud.’
The report from thevillageofNizlhne-Karelinsk, was 320km from the blast site. In Vanvara a woman who had gone to fetch water details her experience:
‘I saw the sky in the North open to the ground and fire pour out. We thought that stones were falling from the sky and rushed off in terror, leaving our pail by the spring. When we reached the house we saw my father unconscious lying near the barn. The fire was brighter than the sun. During the bangs, the earth and the huts trembled greatly, and earth came sprinkling down on the roofs.
A ‘tongue of flame’ or ‘fiery body like a beam’
Shoot from South to Northeast before impact seemed common to most of the reports of the event.
It took another twenty years for the first expletory expedition toSiberia. The scientific community had noted the events of Tunguska in 1908 but nothing could be done at the time asRussiawent through a storm of political upheaval, war and revolution.
Leonid Alesyevich Kulik.
On the 30 June 1958 there was commemorative stamp in Russia of Leonid Alesyevich Kulik. It was to remember the event of 1908 and honor the first field researcher to lead an expedition intoSiberia. Kulik who devoted his life to trying to solve the mystery of what happened that morning in 1908, never relised his ambition and died while a prisoner of the Nazi in World War II.
In 1921 with Lenin in power, there was a drive to make Russiaa leading light in scientific enquiry. The newly formed Soviet Academy of Sciences commissioned scientist to look into accounts of meteorites that may have crashed in the wilds of Siberia. At the time of his appointment Kulik was unaware of the Tunska event. He first came into contact with the story, when as leader of a small field expedition, as he was bordering a train. D.O. Sviary, editor of ‘Mirovednieye’ accosted him and gave him a page torn from the 1910 calendar published by Otto Kirshner on the back page to this document was a note to the effect that passengers of a train near the Filimono junction at 8 a.m. in the middle of June, heard a unusual noise. The driver stopped the train and with the passengers investigated the fallen meteorite. It was not possible to study it closely because of the heat. ‘According to these people, the meteorite was almost entirely buried in the ground, and only the top of it protruded. It was a stone block, whitish in color, as much as 6 cubic-sagnes in size.’
The story caught Kulik’s imagination. The academyof Sciencesafforded Kulik with a carriage on the Trans-Siberian Express. However, on further examination he found that the report was wrong in nearly every detail except that the train did stop at Kansk. But as he researched further there did appear to be some sort of collision in Siberiaon June 30th 1908. Kulik published a questionnaire in the local newspaper and distributed 2,500 copies. Accounts painted a picture of a fallen meteorite which he called the ‘Filimonovo Meteorite’. He came to believe that a meteor did indeed crash at the basin of Vanvara River. Unfortunately Kulik had to temporary abandon his search through lack of funds. The Academy of Sciences was not impressed with funding an expedition to find the supposed meteorite. But another scientist A.V.Vozensensky, the director of Irtusk Magnetic and Meteorological observatory recorded seismic and air waves could have been evidence to a meteorite collision with the earth. Vozenesensky believed that there might even be a crater at ground zero of the crash site not unlike the one found in Arizona. Also S.V.Obruchev, a geologist, writ of his studies in 1924 in the Tunska area of huge calamity by the indigenous people the ‘Envenki’ at Siberia. He had learned of a ‘Flattened forest’ four days north east of Vanavera. In 1926 I.M.Suslov, an ethnographer reported in the ‘Mirovendenieye’ his studies of this area, and that with at least 60 eyewitnesses he came to know of the catastrophe atTunguska. The people of that area consider the place of the explosion sacred and are careful to guard its location. Suslov thought that this might have been an impact with the Earth of meteorite of some size. Eventually in 1928 the Academy approved an expedition to Tunska.
The First Tunguska Expedition
Travelling on the Trans-Siberian Express Kulik reached the outpost station of Taishet, about 900 kilometers fromTunguskaground zero site. Travelling across the Siberia was a hard trek with snowstorms and wilderness to be fought they eventually the isolatedvillageofKezhama, 215 kilometers from the site. Packing food and provisions Kulik carried on his expedition. Both Kulik and his assistant had to battle through the rugged Taiga, fraught with gullies, bogs and swamps. A detour at the Ford Rivers because of the badly built crossing bridges. Arriving at the northerly outpost ofSiberia. It was here they were supposed to contact with Ilya Potapovich (of the Evenki people the oldest of the Siberian natives) to guide them the rest of the way. But Potapovich was reluctant to go where the thunder God of the Evenki people ‘Ogdy’, had cursed the area by smashing the trees and slaying the animals. But after bartering Kulik convinced Potapovich otherwise and agreed to guide them. Unfortunately even with the new guide and Kulik’s enthusiasm the expedition had to be halted. The horses were tired and in no condition to continue against the snow covered forest. Again the expedition was forced to stay in Vanavara and await better weather.
Better prepared with fresh animals and enough provisions for a month on the 8th April Kulik’s expedition started toward the Tunguska site. On 13th April the expedition crossed the Makrita River, it was here they began to find evidence of massive explosion in the form of fallen trees, flattened and scorched, uprooted by a powerful force. Kulik at this point decided to get a better vantage point to see the devastation he decided to climb the twin mountains called Shakrama. A plateau spread before him of flattened trees. ‘The results of even a cursory examination exceeded all the tales of the eyewitnesses and my wildest expectation.’ Stated Kulik in his diary. He reveals an ‘uncanny feeling’ as he stands witness to ’75 centimeters thick giant trees snapped like twigs, and their tops hurled many meters to the South’. The guide refused to any further into the domain that was cursed by the God ‘Odgy’. Back in Vanavara Kulik, determined to find the blast epicenter, he hired Russian peasants from the village of Kezhma planning a different route to the site. After a 3 day journey by sledges they arrived at the Chamba River. Building rafts the expedition went-up the Chamba River then along the Khushimo River. After ten days the expedition reached the mouth of the Churgima River. On the 20th May they finally came to where the trees were flattened. It was here that they arrived at a marshy basin 5 and 7 kilometers in diameter and was contained on each side by low lying hills. This area that Kulik was convinced was the blast site, which he called the ‘Great Cauldron’. Kulik wrote of this area: ‘There could be no doubt. I had circled the center of the fall, with a fiery steam of gasses and cold solid bodies, the meteorite had struck the cauldron, with its hills, tundra and swamps’.
Kulik found a destroyed and flattened forest
The devastation of the epicenter of the blast consisted of, surprisingly, trees still standing, stripped of bark and foliage with marks that suggested scorching. They looked as though they were a forest of ‘telegraph poles’. Kulik writes in his diary: ‘The Taiga has been practically destroyed by being flattened. The trees lie in rows on the ground, without branches or bark, in direction opposite to the center of the fall. This peculiar “fan” pattern of the trees can be seen very well from some heights that form the peripheral ring of trees’.
A fact that Kulik had observed was at the center of the blast the trees though stripped of foliage or branches still stood. Outside the ring formation the trees were flattened to the ground. Kulik thought to be where a node had formed: an area of where the waves cancelled each other out.
All the trees showed signs of scorching. Unlike a typical forest fire where the charring is from the bottom-up these trees were uniformly burnt as a possible explanation; a great rush of hot air made from the exchange of kinetic energy into heat energy from the meteorites collision had brought the trees down as well as scorching them.
The forest growth was returning after twenty years. As Kulik writes: ‘Our Observation point no sign of forest can be seen, for everything is devastated and burnt, and around the edges of this dead area the young twenty-year-old forest growth has moved forward’.
Also Kulik noted giant ridges. It reminded him of when a brick falls into a shallow puddle it ripples out and forms impressions in the mud. At the center of the basin where Kulik expected to find the remains or debris of the meteorite he found holes instead which he described as looking like ‘lunar craters’. The holes ranged from 10 to 15 meters across and roughly 4 meters deep. The bottom of the holes were swampy and their incline deep. As provisions were low, the expedition had to turn back before a more thorough examination could take place.
Kulik on his way back toLeningradwas already planning a second expedition. He wrote on his report to theAcademyofSciences:
‘This picture (of shallow holes) corresponds exactly to the theoretical conditions of fall of a swarm of large meteorite fragments, the larger specimens of which exceed 130 tons. In all probability these fragments were of iron meteorite.’
On the 13th March the Academy approved a second expedition.
The second Tunguska expedition
Kulik leftLeningradfor the second expedition accompanied by V.Sylih, a Zoologist. He was joined by N.A. Stukov from Sovkino Studio, the expediton plus five workers, reached Kukik’s campsite inTunguskaaround late June. He immediately marked 150 craters with wooden stakes in an area of 100 square kilometers. His magnetic instruments were unable to detect the trace metals he had expected to find. Strukov having finished his short film about the expedition left with two workers.
Kulik continued to gather peat and soil samples, Styin and the remaining three laborers were beginning to show signs of vitamin deficiency. Kulik knew that Styin would have to go back, but if he returned he returned without the results that would be the end of any future expeditions. He sent Styin back toLeningradto plead his case and the other laborers back to Vanvara; he would stay behind to carry-on the research.
As luck would have it the airship ‘Italia’ had crashed near the North Pole, its crew had been dramatically rescued by the Russian ice-breaker ‘Krasin’. The rescue caused a sensation on hearing of Styin’s return and Kulik, possibly dead in the waste ofSiberia, a martyr to his work, was the fodder the Soviet press craved. The Academy bowed to public pressure and authorized a rescue and second expedition toTunguska. Styin returned to the blast site, accompanied by the ethnographer ‘Suslov’ and a group of journalists. As soon as they arrived at the site they found Kulik well, the expedition was put to work. He had hoped to find magnetic measurements from the holes but was disappointed to find nothing.
As October ended Kulik returned to Leningradto find himself a national hero. Strukov having finished his short film titled: ‘In Search Of Tunguska Meteorite’ of Kulik’s second expedition, was a success, as well as the news coverage. The Tunguskaevent was now well and truly in the Russian consciousness. British and American papers reported Kulik’s return from the Siberian wastes. There was even a hint from the presses that there may well be deposited wealth of iron buried at Tunguskavalued at $1,000,000. On the 16th March, The Literary Digest interviewed both Kulik and Styin:
‘The value of the metals in the Siberian find is estimated by Mr Sitin as between one million and two hundred million dollars, chiefly for the iron and platinum.’
Thanks to Kuliks oratory and writing skills he made Tunguska popular in theSoviet Union.
THE THIRD EXPEDITION
The third expedition intoTunguskawas more impressive affair. It was in February 1929. It had more scientists; it was better equipped, with geological and meteorological instruments, horse train carrying drilling equipment.
Kulak’s theory that the ‘Suslov’ and other craters formed the impact of several large meteors. Kulik started his excavation with the ‘suslov’ crater, drilling 4 meters beneath the topsoil. After one month drilling there were still no sign of meteorite impact. The only discovery was a tree stump which suggested this was not the site of the meteor impact.
Krinov, decided that hos was not ground zero as previously believed by Kulak but further in theSouthSwamp. Eventually after months of toil (only finding fragments of silica remenants of a bottle from a fire at the first expedition, they gave up drilling. Kulik was wearied by the lack of evidence to be discovered, despite all his hard work. He didn’t return toTunguskafor another 7 years, but he did continue to work on the project. He did eventually come to believe that he had made an error and that the actual blast site was indeed further South.
In July 1939 Kulik returned toTunguska. An aerial photograph survey (though it was never finished) of the blast site confirmed by the circular pattern of the fallen trees, pointing to theSouthSwampas the most plausible site for the collision.
Kulik and his team began drilling in earnest at theSouthSwamp. The expedition found evidence of what might have been underground craters. However, geologists dismissed this idea relating to them to the natural features of the swamp.
There was to be a fifth expedition to make a magnetic survey of the area, but World War II intervened. Kulik was captured by the Germans as part of the Peoples Militia which he was a volunteer. While working as a nurse in a prisoner-of-war camp he contracted Typhus which proofed fatal. He died on 14th April 1942 aged 58.
There have been several expeditions toTunguskamost notably in 1958 and again in 1963 under the leadership of Nikola Valsilyev (1930-2001) to this day no one as conclusively found any meteorite samples. Even, as now believed, with our knowledge from nuclear and atomic testing, that the explosion was from a height, cannot explained why nothing as survived from the impact.