Thursday, July 31, 2014

Tunguska Event

Fig.1: Treebeard's not going to like this.
An old maxim goes, "If a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?" Well if about 80 million trees fall as a result of some kind of incredible explosion (fig.1), and no one knows exactly how it happened, do we really care? This is what happened on June 30, 1908 near the Podkamennaya Tunguska River in remote central Siberia. The blast leveled over 800 square miles of forest, measured 5.0 on the Ritcher scale, was about 1,000 times more powerful than the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima, and scored a perfect 2400 on its SATs. It is by far the most powerful natural explosion in recorded history (since those dinosaurs were too lazy and dead to write about whatever it was that made them extinct). Luckily enough, the blast occurred in the Pennsyltucky part of Russia and did not cause any casualties, which is more than I can say about my Uncle Lou's indigestion attack of '97 (R.I.P. Miss Pussykins).

It is believed that the explosion occurred around 7:20am Krasnoyarsk Standard Time (the time zone with which every watch should be synchronized). Due to the scarce population of the region, and the ethnic Siberian trait of being able to sleep through anything (good luck getting them out of bed if the fire alarm goes off), first-hand accounts are few and far between. Local newspapers reported about a "luminous white-blue body" striking across the horizon before an explosion like "artillery fire" shook the Earth, listed in-between the classifieds for new sled-dogs and the weather forecast (I bet it was cold). A statement from a local Russian man in 1930 stated, "At that moment I became so hot that I couldn't bear it, as if my shirt was on fire; from the northern side, where the fire was, came strong heat. I wanted to tear off my shirt and throw it down," which he unfortunately couldn't do since he was at a convenience store, where no shirt meant no service. The blast produced a shock wave, or "strong wind" as one man of the Shanyagir tribe understated, that knocked over several trees, homes, and Jenga towers within a thousand-mile-radius. Family Game Night had never been ruined on such a degree.

Fig.2: Located deep in the heart of Siberia, not even Carmen Sandiego would bother to steal the Tunguska Event.
Although the event occurred 1908, the site was not officially researched by scientists for nearly twenty years, with silly things like World War I and the Russian Revolution getting in the way. In 1927, a mineralogist (yes, that's a thing) named Leonid Kulik led his team out into the wilderness of Siberia to study the earth of the site, taking his mother's advice to dress in layers. It was slow-going at first, especially since the local tribes wouldn't go anywhere near the place; they believed the event was caused by the god Ogdy, who went on a temper tantrum after his salad was brought to him without the thousand island dressing on the side. When Kulik finally made it to the center point of the fallen trees, he was shocked to discover that there was no visible crater! Mineral tests demonstrated a high volume of iron deposits, typical of other meteor impact sites, but Kulik just couldn't get over the fact that there was no giant hole in the Earth. He decided to take out his frustrations by fighting the Nazis in World War II, which was a bad time since he was captured and died of typhus. Photographic evidence of his study was then burned in 1975 by a colleague at the USSR Academy of Sciences, who thought that the continued mystery of the event demonstrated Soviet ignorance. Silly commies!

Fig.3: Typical asteroid, not willing to pull over and 
ask for directions...
Since then, bored scientists with really nothing better to do have proposed theories as to what caused the Tunguska Event. The strongest hypothesis is that a wayward asteroid impacted the Earth's atmosphere; this actually occurs fairly regularly, producing nuclear-level explosions high in the air, but our good ol' atmosphere does a fine job as our bouncer not letting the riff-raff in. Unfortunately this asteroid was a little on the beefy side, estimated to have been anywhere between 200 to 600 feet wide, and had to pay for two seats on the flight to Earth. Our atmosphere did all it could to block the trajectory of the asteroid itself, but the impact created a large fiery air burst that was sent hurling down to the ground, creating a blast equivalent to 10-15 megatons of TNT (and still Wile E. Coyote couldn't catch that Road Runner). This explains why there was no crater discovered at the impact site, and yet all those trees decided to lay down for a nap!

Of course, like every fact-driven, evidence-laden, scientific proof made by experts in the field, there are the crazies out there who challenge this hypothesis with their hair-brained theories and "It came to me in a dream" premonitions. So let's give them their due by poking fun at their ideas:

  • Atmosphere pulls a Bill Buckner: While most astronomers agree that an asteroid crashing into the Earth's atmosphere caused the Tunguska Event, some claim that the huge chunk of space rock was too much for the atmosphere to handle, letting a piece of it go between its legs for the game-winning single. Thus the explosion was a section of the asteroid actually making an impact in Siberia, not merely the air burst. Their biggest piece of evidence is the nearby Lake Cheko, which is conjectured to be the original crater filled up by its proximity to the Podkamennaya Tunguska River (you have to rinse off that space smell somehow). Though some studies of the lake-bed, including one in 2009, demonstrated that its origins came about 100 years ago, others have determined the lake is at least 5,000 years old! Sadly, the only evidence to go by other than soil deposits are the stories of local fishermen, who are known to exaggerate a detail or two ("This lake's so old, my great-grandpappy once caught a 20-ton megalodon in these here waters!").
  • Comet me, bro: Others reject that it was an asteroid at all, but a wayward piece of a comet that found its way to Earth after taking a wrong turn at Albuquerque. As comets are composed of ice and dust, it could have vaporized upon hitting the atmosphere and produced the air burst explosion, further explaining why no crater has been found. The fact that Encke's Comet made its triennial trip by the Earth's orbit around the time of the Tunguska Event backs up this claim, as it may have left behind a present just to show Halley a thing or two. Unfortunately for these dreamers, most astronomers believe a comet fragment would have disintegrated faster than the Wicked Witch at Sea World upon touching the atmosphere, dampening any hope for an explosion. Also, cometary material has been few and far between at the impact site, while one could make a five-course meal from all the asteroidal iron detected there.
  • Fig.4: "He whose crust is eroded
    be the one who exploded."
  • Not so silent, but still possibly deadly: Sick of astronomers getting all the attention, some geologists suggest the Tunguska Event was caused by the Earth's failed attempt at a one-cheek-sneak. Natural gas bubbling under the surface may have built up enough pressure to shoot straight up to the surface, resulting in a blast that even my Uncle Lou would be in awe of. The naturally weak crust in that part of the world would seem to verify this "up the basement rather than down the attic" hypothesis. Nevertheless, these so-called "verneshots" (named for Jules Verne and his completely factual books on such matters) have never been officially recorded, with most experts believing the Earth is a pro at "holding it in."
  • Nothing really antimatters: Scientists from the L. Ron Hubbard School of Crazy Schemes have proposed other explanations for the Event. In the 1950s, the idea that a meteor made from antimatter picked up traction, because a huge rock made of actual matter would have been too anticlimactic. Others have suggested that it was a black hole passing through Earth, making more of a mess at its Siberian rest stop than I did after the vending machine ate my dollar in the middle of Kentucky. More eye-roll-inducing proposals include a UFO crash, a natural H-bomb produced through nuclear fusion, and my personal favorite: a wayward blast from a death ray invented by Nikola Tesla. Folks from the looney bin really do make life more interesting.
  • Siberia got a little lonely: No matter how the explosion occurred or where the source of it came from, I think there is one undeniable fact: Siberia was just begging for a little attention. I mean, the most exciting thing to happen in Siberian history was the Bering Strait Land-bridge, which is notable for allowing people to get the heck out of Siberia. Otherwise, there's not much going on there. The place was just begging for something like this to happen, though it must have hurt its feelings even more that no one came to check in on it for another twenty years. So, there you go, you attention hog; you got me to compose a history about you. Don't ever get used to it.

While the Tunguska Event is the largest and most notable mysterious explosion in recorded history, it does not stand alone. In 1930 a event of about half the explosive power of Tunguska occurred in the remote reaches of the Amazon Rainforest on the Brazil-Peru border, and in 1963 a large air burst was detected in the ocean between South Africa and Antarctica. I would say that it's nice that the meteors are considerate enough to aim for places no one lives, but the most recent example in 2013 caused nearly 1,500 injures and $33 million worth of damage in Chelyabinsk, one of the few heavily inhabited places in Asian Russia (nice aim, jerkwad). Nonetheless, the destruction would have been much worse without the example of Tunguska, which thereafter forced scientists to start thinking about asteroid impact avoidance (as if they didn't have enough to worry about). Recent technology such as low-frequency radar detection, infrared satellites, and giving Optimus Prime a giant baseball glove gives us greater protection and awareness of what goes on high in the sky. We might not know for sure what happened in Tunguska back in 1908, but at least now we have Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck to protect us if anything like that happens again.

Fig.5: On second thought, we'll just take Bruce Willis.
And so Second Two of the Records of the Canned Historian begins with an ancient "What the heck?" in Stonehenge, and ends with a more recent "What the heck?" in the Tunguska Event. I will be taking somewhat of a break for the next couple months, though maybe I'll put out a few videos here and there. As always, thank you so much for your continued support and/or tolerance. I promise this will not be the last you'll hear of Sima Dave! Remember friends: those who don't study the past are doomed!

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