Taissumani, Feb. 22
Fire in the Sky: The Tunguska Event of 1908
Last week a meteor streaked across the sky above the Ural Mountains in Russia and exploded, shattering windows, damaging buildings, and injuring hundreds of people, most from the effects of flying glass. Miraculously, no-one was killed. This event has been very well reported in the news.
Many media reports have compared this event with a similar, though much larger, explosion of a space body a little over 100 years ago, over Tunguska, Siberia. Scientists still argue over whether it was a comet, an asteroid or a meteor. A consensus seems to have developed that it was a meteor, and for purposes of this brief article, that is what I will call it.
On the morning of June 30, 1908, a large space rock, estimated to be 120 feet across and weighing 220 million pounds, entered the earth’s atmosphere at a speed that scientists now estimate to have been 33,500 miles per hour.
The friction caused by the meteor entering the atmosphere slowed its descent and heated the air to 44,500 degrees Fahrenheit before it exploded at a height of 28,000 feet above ground. That’s close to the height at which a jet cruises on its way between Ottawa and Iqaluit.
The energy released by the explosion was equivalent to at least 185 bombs of the size that devastated Hiroshima at the end of the Second World War. There is no impact crater. Most of the object was consumed in the explosion.
The Tunguska event happened in a remote area. It was 19 years before scientists were able to investigate the explosion. Leonid Kulik, curator of the meteorite collection at a museum in St. Petersburg, was the first scientist to reach the area.
What he found defied belief. An estimated 80 million trees — 800 square miles of forest — lay on their sides in a pattern radiating out from the centre of the explosion. What he found at that centre was even stranger. The trees there stood upright, but the force of the downward explosion had stripped away all their branches and bark. A NASA scientist, Don Yeomans, explains, “It looked like a forest of telephone poles.”
The area was sparsely inhabited by local Evenki tribespeople. They initially refused to talk about the event. They thought the explosion had been caused by the god Ogdy, and that he had cursed the area by smashing trees and killing animals. Indeed, although no humans lost their lives, thousands of reindeer, which the Evenki herded, were killed.
Eventually one man, a Russian who lived at a trading post 400 miles away, talked about his memory of the event. He said, “Suddenly in the north sky… the sky was split in two, and high above the forest the whole northern part of the sky appeared covered with fire… At that moment there was a bang in the sky and a mighty crash… The crash was followed by a noise like stones falling from the sky, or of guns firing. The earth trembled.”
The force knocked him from his chair. His shirt felt like it was on fire. He was knocked unconscious for a short time.
Just as in the explosion over Russia last week, so too in Tunguska there was no human loss of life. But the Tunguska meteorite was many times the size of the recent one. It is impossible to imagine the devastation, human and physical, that would occur if a similar meteorite exploded over a major city today.