How a 40-mile-wide track of the earth was utterly devastated
Even in northern Siberia, with its freezing winters and scorching summers, the early hours of a June morning are a time to be enjoyed. And farmer Sergei Semenov had taken a break from his wheat fields to snatch a few moments’ rest in the sunshine on the porch of his farmhouse.
It was just after 7 am on 30 June 1908 and to Semenov, miles away from the revolutionary fever that was beginning to sweep parts of the country, it seemed a good time to be alive.
At precisely 7.17 am his reveries were brought to an abrupt halt. An enormous explosion rent the horizon with a blinding light.
He said later: ‘There appeared a great flash. There was so much heat, my shirt was almost burnt off my back. I saw a huge ball of fire that covered an enormous part of the sky. Afterwards it became very dark.?
It was then that the enormous force of the blast threw the farmer from his porch and knocked him unconscious. When he regained his senses, a mighty, thundering noise swept across the tundra. ‘It shook the whole house and nearly moved it from its foundations said.
Farmer Semenov was lucky. If he had been nearer the center of the holocaust he would not have lived to tell his strange and frightening talc. And but for the fact that the disaster occurred in the remote Tunguska River valley, the devastation would have been even more appalling than it was.
The inferno laid waste an area the size of Leningrad. Herds of reindeer were incinerated. Virtually all the trees in an area more than 40 miles across Were ripped from life, earth and thrown from the center of the blast to lie like the spokes of a giant wheel. Nomad tribesmen 45 miles away were hurled to the ground, their tents ripped away by a searing wind.
What was the cause of this awesome devastation? And could something like it happen again?
It was not until 22 years after the explosion that anyone got close to finding out the answers. In 1930, Professor L. A. Kulik, of the Soviet Academy of Science, spent almost a year in the area with a small team of investigators. It. was his third attempt to reach the scene of the blast. His two previous expeditions had been abandoned because the marshy forests were impenetrable. Professor Kulik eventually found a landscape pock-marked with craters. He found nearly 2,000 square miles of uprooted, rotting tree trunks. And, most important of all, he found eyewitnesses of the blast. They told of a vivid ball of fire sweeping across the sky – ‘so bright that it made even the light from the sun seem dark’.
f People who had been more than 50 miles away from the center of the explosion spoke of Violent vibrations’ followed by ‘a fiery body trailing a wide band of light across the sky’. One said: i was washing wool in the River Kan when I heard a noise like the whirr of the wings of frightened birds. The water in the river began to form waves. Then there was a jolt so violent that one of my friends fell into the river.’ Soane 250 miles away in the town of Kirensk, people had seen a pillar of fired! followed by ‘several thunderclaps and a crashing sound. And even 600 miles | away at Turukhansk, a witness reported ‘three or four dull thuds, like distant! artillery’. Many of the witnesses could have been describing a nuclear explosion. Several observers described a fireball followed by a mushroom-shaped pillar of smoke many miles high. But could an atomic blast have occurred nearly 40 years before the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
Some scientists have indeed suggested that the explosion could have been nuclear. They put forward the startling theory that a spaceship of visitors from another planet became damaged on entering the earth’s atmosphere. The nuclear fuel became critically overheated and set off an explosion equivalent to that of a 30-megaton nuclear bomb.
Australian journalist John Baxter and American scientist Thomas Atkins followed up the work of Russian scientists and supported the exploding- spaceship theory with the following evidence:
- In a nuclear explosion, the earth’s magnetic field is disturbed. After the
Siberian blast, it was.
- Nuclear blasts leave a particular pattern of destruction. The Russian ex- 1 explosion did just that.
- The atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945 caused weird plant mutations The Siberian disaster caused similar mutations.
- Nuclear explosions leave behind tiny green globules of melted dust called trinities. These were found after the Russian blast. And, according to Russian experts, these trinities contained traces of metal not normally found in the Tunguska region, and not usually part of the make-up of meteorites.
- Finally, the two refer to eyewitness evidence from people who saw a large bluish, cylindrical object racing through the sky with a roaring sound, leaving a vapour trail behind it, just before the blast.
Other, less extraordinary, solutions put forward by scientists include. The comet theory. Comets are thought to be giant balls of frozen gases and debris. One could have entered the earth’s atmosphere– although there were no reported sightings – and generated such heat that it exploded in mid-air.
The anti-matter theory. Some scientists think that a mass of anti-matter material that corresponds to that found on earth but made up of positive particles (positrons) instead of negative particles (electrons) – could have plunged into the earth’s atmosphere. As soon as it came into contact with atoms of ordinary matter there would be an enormous explosion.
The black hole theory. Black holes are thought to be stars which have collapsed to a tiny size. Because of their immense mass – the weight of the earth could be contained in a black hole the size of a tennis ball – their gravitational pull is strong enough to prevent light escaping, so the objects cannot be seen – there is only a black hole in space where they exist. It has been suggested that a black hole hit Siberia.
The meteorite theory. One of the most popular theories, although it was at first discounted, is that a giant meteorite fell to the earth. Meteorites are entering the earth’s atmosphere at the rate of 200 million every day, although most burn up before reaching the planet’s surface. A meteorite that fell on Ari¬zona in prehistoric times left a crater three-quarters of a mile across. Scientists at one time claimed that, as there was no crater in Siberia, the explosion could not have been caused by a meteorite. But it has since been discovered that a meteorite made of rock, rather than metal – which is more common – could explode just before hitting the ground, so causing extensive damage but no crater.
Whatever caused the Siberian blast, one thing is certain. The fact that it happened in a virtually uninhabited area was a stroke of good fortune. If the object from space had plummeted on to a major city the result would have been the greatest disaster in the history of mankind.