The Tungusta Event


(This 907th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on August 10, 2008.)


Photo of the Tungusta area

taken 19 years after the 1908 event


Sometimes events happen that should make us appreciate our great good fortune.


Consider the Tungusta blast of almost exactly 100 years ago in Russia, an event recently described as "the largest impact of a cosmic body to occur on the earth during modern human history."


On June 30, 1908, Siberian settlers in a remote area 600 miles northwest of Lake Baikal observed a column of bluish light, nearly as bright as the Sun, moving across the sky. Minutes later, there was a flash and a sound similar to artillery fire.


Two observers described what happened:


Farmer Semen Semenov, 40 miles from the explosion: At breakfast I was sitting at Vanavara trading post. I suddenly saw the sky split in two and fire appeared high and wide over the forest. The split grew larger, and the entire North was covered with fire. At that moment I became so hot that I couldn't bear it, as if my shirt was on fire. Then the sky closed, a strong thump sounded, and I was thrown a few yards. I lost my senses for a moment, but my wife ran out and led me to the house. After that such noise came, as if rocks were falling or cannons were firing. The earth shook. When the sky opened up, hot wind raced between the houses, like from cannons, which left traces in the ground like pathways, and it damaged crops. Later we found many shattered windows and in the barn a part of the iron lock snapped.


A peasant boy about 25 miles from the blast, probably the closest to it: My brother and I were sleeping in a hut by the river. Suddenly we both woke up. Somebody shoved us. We heard whistling and felt strong wind. Suddenly, I got shoved again, this time so hard I fell into the fire. We got scared and started crying out for father, mother, brother. We could hear trees falling down. Then the thunder struck. The Earth began to move and rock, wind hit our hut and knocked it over. My body was pushed down by sticks, but my head was in the clear. Then I saw a wonder: trees were falling, the branches were on fire, it became mighty bright as if there was a second sun, my eyes were hurting. We had difficulty getting out from under the remains of our hut. Wind came again, knocked us off our feet. We watched the tree tops get snapped off, watched the fires.


Indeed, an estimated 80 million trees were felled in the area within 30 miles from the blast site. A recent Sandia National Laboratory estimate of the power of the explosion places it at the equivalent of three to five megatons of TNT. That represents 240 to 600 times the power of the Hiroshima atomic bomb.


Although scientists differ about what caused the explosion, most agree that it was a meteor, perhaps the size of a residential house, that, slanting down toward the earth, exploded when it hit our atmosphere five miles high and broke up into tiny fragments.


Thank goodness that terrific blast occurred in one of the remotest land regions of this planet where no one lived. If it had taken place above an urban center, the death and destruction would have been enormous.


Could it occur elsewhere? Yes. In fact, on September 17, 1966, a similar blast took place over Lake Huron. Significantly smaller than the Tungusta event, it was still rated as equivalent to 600 tons of TNT. Small potatoes next to the Tungusta explosion, perhaps, but 1200 times the size of the 500 pound high-explosive bombs dropped over England and Europe during World War II.


Events like these should make us all feel very small and vulnerable. We get used to seeing on television earthquakes, hurricanes, volcano outpourings, floods, tornadoes, riots, tsunamis, terrorist bombings, forest fires and wars, all happening to someone else somewhere else and we begin to feel somehow immune to such disasters. But it is random episodes like this Tungusta event, as uncontrolled as they are unexpected, that I find most frightening. We should be very thankful for the peaceful surroundings we are so privileged to experience.-- Gerry Rising