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Tunguska Echoes (skeptical)

James Oberg, UFOs & Outer Space Mysteries

original source |  fair use notice

Summary: A mighty midair explosion over a remote Siberian swamp is still sending echoes around the world, seven decades after it happened, Near the Tunguska River, in the summer of 1908, an object from outer space was annihilated in a detonation as powerful as a modern hydrogen bomb.

James Oberg (Skeptic)

author's bio

James Oberg
Donning Press, 1982
Chapter Seven, , pp. 132-145

A mighty midair explosion over a remote Siberian swamp is still sending echoes around the world, seven decades after it happened, Near the Tunguska River, in the summer of 1908, an object from outer space was annihilated in a detonation as powerful as a modern hydrogen bomb. If the object was a natural one, it serves as a warning of a repeated disaster over a populated region today; if the object was not natural, it serves as an interplanetary calling card, announcing to those who can recognize and decipher it that an attempt had been made at interplanetary contact.

The "Tunguska Event" remains a puzzle for science, even as it has become a fertile subject for science fiction and UFO speculation. Recently, two TV drama critics, Thomas Atkins and John Baxter, threw together a book called The Fire Came By (Doubleday, 1976, condensed in the February 1978 Readers Digest), which insists that the only possible explanation for the event is that it was an exploding nuclear-powered interstellar spaceship. Soviet scientist Aleksey Zolotov makes the world news wires about once a year with a new version of his claim to have discovered radioactivity at the impact site. The flying-saucer subculture has firmly canonized the Tunguska Event as physical proof of UFOs.

Not surprisingly, traditional astronomers reject that interpretation as fanciful and unscientific, as "not required," and 'as insufficient. The leading standard theory for the twenty-megaton (equivalent to twenty million tons of TNT) explosion is that it was a comet nucleus that exploded upon hitting the earth's atmosphere.

It is a first-rate scientific puzzle.Its uncertainties and mysteries provide plenty of dark corners in which all manner of far-out theories can safely lurk. And it is an excellent case study in how different schools of thought use and abuse facts.

So let's look at the Tunguska Event the way it is being reported (and exploited) today and the way it is being scientifically researched. Let's examine the media standards that have been used to inform or misinform the public about this puzzle.

At about 7:15 a.m. local time on June 30, 1908, hundreds of Russian settlers and Tungus natives in the forested hills northwest of Lake Baykal looked up in amazement. A brilliant white light was racing across the sky, casting shadows on the ground, and dazzling the eyes of many who tried to stare at it. Minutes after it passed, a distant rolling thunder came to the ears of the witnesses.

Witnesses twenty to forty miles from the impact point experienced a sudden thermal blast that could be felt through several layers of clothing. For several seconds, half of the sky lit up like a hundred suns. A few moments after the flash, the shock wave arrived, a crashing boom that broke windows and knocked people off their feet. The blast was recorded as an earthquake at several weather stations in Siberia, and the atmospheric shock wave bounced barograph needles in weather stations in western Europe. A forest fire was ignited that burned for days over several square miles of pine forest.

At sunset that day, the inhabitants of northern Europe were treated to a celestial spectacle that puzzled them for many years. It did not get dark that night. The night sky glowed with an eerie light, and at midnight it was possible to read a newspaper or to photograph the landscape. American observatories later noted that the atmospheric transparency was degraded for several months.

There are third-hand reports of an expedition reaching the site within a year, but all records were destroyed in the bloody civil wars which followed the Bolshevik revolution. It took twenty years for the next scientific teams to reach the point of impact of what was thought to have been a giant meteorite fall (the expedition was financed by the promise that tons of meteoric iron would be available for Soviet industry). But no crater could be found. Instead, it was discovered that the trees for miles around had been blasted--from above. Those nearer "ground zero" were still standing but were stripped of their branches and bark. Those further away were smashed down in a direction away from the center.

Years later, a Russian science-fiction writer named Kazantsev was struck by the similarity of the blast effects at Tunguska to those at Hiroshima, which he visited in 1945. A year later, he wrote a story in which the blast at Tunguska was represented as the result of an exploding nuclear power plant of a spaceship from Mars, which was seeking fresh water from Lake Baykal. Many fictitious elements of Kazantsev's imaginative story have since become confused with the real features of the Tunguska story.

Two other Russians adopted--and adapted--the story. A Moscow junior-college lecturer in astronomy named Feliks Zigel, taking time out from studying flying saucers and the Abominable Snowman, became a spokesman for the "spaceship theory" of Tunguska. Physics professor Aleksey Zolotov organized several college expeditions to the Tunguska site and made a series of announcements of "abnormal radioactivity," followed by embarrassed retractions.

These reports of radioactivity at the Tunguska site still persist, but they seem to be groundless. Only Zolotov can find them. Other expeditions, initially as dedicated as Zolotov to the spaceship theory, concluded in disappointment that there was no abnormal radiation beyond traces of fallout from secret Soviet H-bomb tests. Nor did the anomalous fast growth of trees, often a sign of radioactive exposure, impress a special team from the Soviet Forestry Ministry. They discovered that the faster growth followed the distribution of forest fires set off by the blast, to the exclusion of regions closer to ground zero (and hypothetical radioactivity) that did not happen to catch fire. Accelerated growth is an established effect of forest fires, and the Soviet scientists concluded that this had been the case at Tunguska.

In the West, carbon-14 expert and Nobel laureate Willard Libby reported on results of measurements of tree rings in Arizona. There was a small rise in the carbon-14 level following 1908, to be sure, but it was matched by other erratic ups and downs over the years and could have been a random jump. Libby calculated the force of the blast at Tunguska and the radiation that would have been released had the blast involved thermonuclear reactions. He concluded that the low levels ofcarbon-14 he found, even if completely attributable to the blast, could still only count for no more than fifteen percent of the whole force of the detonation. Other carbon-14 tests in Norway, meanwhile, showed absolutely no rise at all following 1908, so these tree-ring experiments are strong evidence that the Tunguska Event did not involve significant nuclear reactions, if any.

But wait a minute! That's not what the modern Tunguska myths tell. Why does the book UFOs Behind the Iron Curtain, by Ion Hobana, state explicitly that "Libby is one of the leading proponents of the nuclear theory?" Why does Zolotov still get worldwide attention when he periodically reissues his "discovery" of Tunguska radiation? Why does The Fire Came By declare that the thermonuclear nature of the Tunguska blast isinescapable and irrefutable? Why indeed?

In The Fire Came By, the spaceship theory has reached its zenith. I had the dubious honor of debating one of the authors on radio a few years ago when the book was being serialized nationwide by the New York Times. In the considered opinion of many listeners I "made mincemeat of the poor guy." He hadn't done his homework. He hadn't bothered with contrary evidence and didn't know how to begin to answer it (I had to let him off the hook several times myself, lest the "debate" grind to a halt). He was a TV drama critic who had seen a chance for a successful book, given the right slant and a minimum of responsibility. In terms of its commercial success, he guessed right. Despite friendly words exchanged at the end of the radio debate, he never responded to my letters requesting clarification and support of many of the major claims in the book. His point of view is often expressed in the news media, But I remain willing and eager to reopen the Tunguska debate with the authors or with any other proponent of the spaceship theory in order to get all the facts on record.

So, as a theory, the spaceship hypothesis loses out. Now, follow the arguments for the "comet hypothesis," perhaps not as exciting, but probably a lot more important. Tunguska was not an isolated event; it could happen again, and we better get ready for it.

The "glowing night sky" over Europe was the comet's dust in the upper atmosphere, lit by the midnight sun of the famous midsummer "white nights" (which I have seen from Sweden and Leningrad). An astronomer took a spectrogram and showed that the "eerie glow" was pure reflected sunlight. The comet-earth encounter geometry was such that the object came "out of the sun" and was masked in the daytime sky. Besides, it wasn't a very big comet. (It may have been a hunk of Encke's comet, in fact) When it hit, the tail was extending "down sun," towards the west, precisely across Europe.

And cometary or meteoric material often does detonate violently on contact with the atmosphere√° This is not a chemical or antimatter reaction--it's just the kinetic energy of the speeding object being converted suddenly to tremendous internal heat. Often, only a few hunks of ice and some fine sooty dust will be all that reaches the ground.

Aerodynamics experts in Moscow conducted an experiment about twenty years ago in an effort to simulate Tunguska's blast patterns. The scientists used a charge of explosives suspended over a board covered with miniature "trees" represented by matchsticks. In addition to the single blast point a string of smaller charges were added to reproduce the hypersonic shock wave of the object's ballistic passage through the upper atmosphere.

When the explosives were triggered, a blast pattern strikingly similar to the "butterfly" pattern of the actual Tunguska site was created in the matchstick forest. Although this experiment conclusively demonstrated that the strange pattern was due entirely to a large object that exploded naturally, the experiment's results were still being misinterpreted or misquoted years afterward. According to a 1978 TV program, "The evidence supported the Soviet contention that Tunguska was the result of a nuclear holocaust," a conclusion directly counter to that of the experimenters themselves and a statement that falsely implies that Soviet scientists in general contended that the event was nuclear in origin. They do not.

Meanwhile, every year the "Tunguska UFO" is reborn when some unsuspecting Western newsman in Moscow, searching for an interesting story, falls into the company of Feliks Zigel or Aleksey Zolotov. Within hours, the world's news wires are humming again with an old story that has more lives than the fabled cat: "Top Russian scientists have proved that an atomic UFO crashed in Siberia in 1908."

As more and more evidence piles up indicating that the Tunguska blast was actually caused by a small comet's impact, the handful of "spaceship buffs" seem to have grown more desperate, but no less effective, in corralling the public's attention.Zolotov, for example, has vowed to let his Tolstoyan beard grow until the world adopts his theories. (Needless to say, no professional Soviet geologists or astronomers think much of such tactics or theories.) Zigel's latest publicity tactics are exemplified in an Associated Press story out of Moscow on October 22, 1978, based on an interview Zigel gave Tass. He boasts that the book The Fire Came By independently corroborates his own theories, when in fact the authors are actually only quoting Zigel's assertions. Nor are the authors "University of Texas scientists," as the story claims:they are TV drama critics currently enjoying the commercial success of their latest dramatization (some would say fictionalization), while refusing to debate the subject with informed specialists.

Once again, there is no evidence that AP made even the slightest effort to verify the sensational claims with reputable scientists in the Soviet Union or America, It's an old familiar pattern, and it will take more power than that of the multimegaton Tunguska blast to sweep it away.

The same pattern was replayed on American television recently. Narrating against a background of a man-made nuclear explosion, Leonard Nimoy told viewers of the television documentary "In Search of the Siberian Fireball" that "the evidence now indicates that a nuclear explosion may have occurred on Earth as early as 1908." The show produced by Alan Landsburg Productions and first televised in November, 1978 interviewed some scientists who supported the comet theory, but clearly the program's sympathies were with more exciting suggestions. Thomas Atkins, missing coauthor of The Fire Came By (Doubleday 1976) and Henry Gris, coauthor of The New Soviet Psychic Discoveries (Prentice Hall, 1978) both argued that an alien spaceship had caused the Tunguska event.

"There is evidence," Atkins wrote, "to indicate that an extraterrestrial vehicle may explain the Siberian explosion. Though the proof is neither complete nor absolutely conclusive, the theory appears increasingly acceptable."

Gris, who refers to the object as the "Tungusky (sic) Miracle," quotes extensively from the testimony of Aleksey Zolotov. He told Gris in Moscow in 1977, "When you hear the descriptions you cannot help forming the opinion that this was no meteorite, but a giant UFO. The explosion (people in the area) saw was a perfect duplicate of what a nuclear blast looks like....Everything points to a nuclear origin....I have no doubt it was sent by inhabitants of outer space to attract our attention."

One selling point for the Baxter-Atkins spaceship book was that the foreword was written by Isaac Asimov. "I found the book fascinating ... and, in my opinion, worth a hearing," he later wrote in his regular column in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. But he added a disclaimer: "My friend James Oberg, who has studied the matter closely, thinks I am overgenerous in the opinion, and he may be right."

A most important fact about the craterless mid-air Tunguska blast is that it has happened before and since, at places other than Tunguska. Over western Canada in 1965, a l0-kiloton midair explosion sprinkled meteoric dust over freshly fallen snow, prompting astronomer Ronald Oriti to suggest that the Tunguska Event could have been simply a larger object of the same type. The iconoclastic books of Charles Fort chronicle numerous cases of midair explosions, falling, ice, and "black rains." Secret United States barographic nuclear blast monitors have been picking up strange random explosions in the upper atmosphere several times a year, often of kiloton size or larger. Even a moderate-sized comet air blast today might not be recognized, resulting only in a spate of angry phone calls to the nearest Air Force base. It is possible that many of the "earthquakes" of recorded history, which killed tens of thousands and which leveled cities, may actually have been Tunguska-sized blasts over inhabited areas. The old records must be re-read with this new perspective.

This underscores the real danger: there are few uninhabited wastelands on earth today, and even the open sea is covered with human traffic. The records of nature suggest that such giant blasts, or larger ones, can be expected again.

The idea of a Tunguska explosion occurring again, as a human tragedy instead of a scientific (and pseudoscientific) curiosity, is not so far-fetched. But to defend against such future cosmic bombs it is first necessary to recognize them for what they are. Here the spaceship theory and the distortions, omissions, and fabrications of its proponents (both well-meaning and otherwise) remain a major obstacle, and a major danger.

Ultimately, both radar and optical sensors on earth and in space will watch for incoming objects. Missiles based deep in space, armed with multimegaton warheads, will stand guard. Science fiction has long prepared for this scenario, and fact science is now preparing for that eventuality to come to pass. The fictional science and pseudoscience of the "Tunguska spaceship" should be discredited and dismissed as quickly as possible so that we can get on with defending the earth against future "Tunguska comets."

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The Tunguska Event - Siberia, 1908