A Huge Explosion Devastated The Siberian Wilderness In 1908 - And We Still Don't Fully Understand It

On June 30, 1908, near the Stony Tunguska River, there was an epic and mysterious explosion in Siberia. It was so devastating that it stoked the imagination of millions around the world and still does to this very day. There are all manner of enigmatic, creepy, or unexplained events in Russia, however the Tunguska event pretty much takes the cake.

Although the site of the explosion has been studied for a hundred years now, there has only recently been a definitive answer as to why it happened in the first place. Some believe it was caused by a meteor, asteroid, or comet. Others think it was a nuclear test or a scientific experiment gone wrong. And of course, many people question whether aliens caused the explosion, while others consider it a totally inexplicable occurrence. In any case, the circumstances surrounding the Tunguska event are truly fascinating.

  • The Explosion Flattened 2,000 Square Kilometers Of Land

    The size of the blast was absolutely massive, and the devastation spanned roughly 2,000 square kilometers, or approximately 772 square miles. In comparison, Los Angeles is 503 square miles, and New York City is 304 square miles.

    Almost every tree in the region was leveled, and hundreds of reindeer were reduced to ash and char. Scientist Leonid Kulik’s first hypothesis even before arriving at ground zero was that a meteor fell from the sky and created the explosion. Later visits to the site have shown that the meteor actually exploded miles above the Earth.

  • People Were Knocked Over By The Explosion

    People Were Knocked Over By The Explosion
    Photo: swxxii / flickr / CC-BY-NC 2.0

    The closest town to the Tunguska event’s epicenter is a mere 35 miles away, and many people reported seeing and hearing the explosion, being blown off their feet, and experiencing windows shatter around them.

    At the time of the eruption, there was a small tent town populated by the indigenous Evenki tribe situated roughly 20 miles away. The explosion was so fierce that it rendered many of them unconscious. One tribeswoman, Akulina Lyuchetkana, recounted her tragic story in 1926.

    “There were three of us in the choum — my husband Ivan, me, and old man Vasilii, the son of Okhchen. Suddenly someone gave our choum a powerful shove. I got frightened, cried out, woke up Ivan, and we started to crawl out of the sleeping bag. We saw that Vasilii was crawling out too. Ivan and I hadn’t even managed to crawl out all the way and stand on our feet, when once again someone gave our choum a powerful shove, and we fell on the ground. Old man Vasilii fell on top of us, as if someone had thrown him. All around a noise was heard, someone was making a noise and banging on the ellyun. Suddenly it got very bright, a bright sun shone on us, a strong wind blew. Then someone fired a powerful shot, as if the ice were cracking on the Katanga [river] in winter, and right away a dancing whirlwind swooped down, grabbed hold of the ellyun, whirled it around, twirled it, and dragged it off somewhere. Only the dyukcha was left. I got completely terrified and lost consciousness, I saw a whirlwind dancing. I cried out and immediately came to life again.”

    She noted that her husband was thrown roughly 40 meters and was badly injured.

  • Most Scientists Think The Explosion Was Caused By The Airburst From A Meteor

    The first scientist who studied the site, Leonid Kulik, came to the conclusion that the devastation was caused by a meteor, which most likely exploded in the atmosphere before any large pieces hit the ground. Scientists have studied the site for years and were able to create a model of the meteor's trajectory.

    Astronomer Igor Zotkin conducted an experiment in the '60s where he created a scale model of the Tunguska event site using wires to represent trees. He detonated a small explosive moving downward on a 30 degree track over the model to replicate the trajectory of the meteor. The blast pattern that occurred in the model was similar to the pattern of destruction in Tunguska, substantiating the hypothesis that a meteor exploded above the site rather than on impact.

    In the '80s, Russian scientist Andrei Zlobin discovered rocky fragments near the Tunguska event site that contained telltale signs they were from a meteorite. Though the fragments weren't exactly the nail in the proverbial coffin, they helped cement the hypothesis that a celestial body caused the explosion in 1908.

  • Eyewitness Accounts Reported Seeing A Column Of Fire

    Eyewitness Accounts Reported Seeing A Column Of Fire
    Photo: Freidwall / flickr / CC-BY 2.0

    It took 13 years after the event for the Russian government to even attempt a scientific inquiry. It makes sense, as they were essentially dealing with the 1905 Russian Revolution, then World War I, and then a second Russian Revolution in 1917. They were too embroiled in war to spend money on anything but weaponry.

    When they did send someone out in 1921, the expedition was fraught with problems, and they never reached ground zero. The team did, however, collect as many eyewitness accounts as possible to help build their scientific explanation for the event. Many recalled a huge column of fire combined with what sounded like a barrage of cannons, which together caused the ground to shake beneath them. One of the most notable accounts is from Semyon Borisovich Semyonov, who was 40 miles away when the blast occurred.

    “I was sitting on my porch facing north and then in an instant a fiery flare took shape in the northwest from which there came so much heat that it was impossible to remain sitting — my shirt nearly burst into flame while still on me. And what a glowing marvel it was! I saw that it covered a space no less than two versts (one mile). But then that flare existed only very briefly; I barely managed to cast my eyes at it and see what size it was, then it shut down in an instant. After that shutdown, it got dark and at the same time there was an explosion that threw me from the porch, about a sazhen' (seven feet) or more, but I didn't remain unconscious for very long, and when I came to there was such a noise that all the houses shook as if they were moving off their foundations. The glass in the houses shattered, and in the middle of the square near the huts a strip of ground tore apart and at the same time the so-called iron hasp of the barn door also broke, although the lock remained intact.”

  • The Trees At The Epicenter Of The Blast Remained Standing But Stripped Of Bark

    The trees affected by the Tunguska event were stripped of their leaves, branches, and bark for miles. Most were completely flattened, but interestingly the trees in the epicenter of the blast, though they too were stripped bare, continued to stand upright. This was the first sign to Kulik that the explosion occurred above the ground, rather than upon impact.

    One of the tribal villagers who was only 20 miles from the event recalled how the trees looked around her on that fateful day.

    “I look upon our forest and don’t see it. Many of the trees are standing there without branches, without leaves. Many, many trees are lying on the ground. On the ground the dry tree-trunks, the twigs, the reindeer moss are all burning.”

  • The Meteor May Have Formed An Entire Lake

    The Meteor May Have Formed An Entire Lake
    Photo: mariejirousek / flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

    In 2007, an Italian team sent to explore the blast site hypothesized that a lake located five miles from the explosion may be an impact crater, as the lake was unmapped before 1928. However, it could simply be because the area was not mapped at all. Scientist Luca Gasperini believes that the lake was created by a piece of asteroid preserved in the explosion; he's certain that if the Russian government drilled the lake, they would discover the meteoric rock that created the body of water.

    Scientists contest Gasperini's findings, stating that if the lake was created by a falling piece of rock, there would be no adult trees in the area. Additionally, they believe there should be other small fragments of the meteor near the lake as well as signs of heat trauma on surrounding rocks. Sediment collected from the bottom of the lake was dated about 280 years, which many geologists believe prove that the century-old Tunguska event did not create the body of water.