Image of a meteorite crater in Arizona.
A hundred years ago this week, a gigantic explosion ripped open the dawn sky above the swampy taiga forest of western Siberia, leaving a scientific riddle that endures to this day.
Trees were knocked down and burned over hundreds
of square km by the Tunguska meteoroid impact
A dazzling light pierced the heavens, preceding a shock wave with the power of a thousand atomic bombs which flattened 80 million trees in a swathe of more than 2,000 square kilometers.
Evenki nomads recounted how the blast tossed homes and animals into the air. In Irkutsk, 1,500km away, seismic sensors registered what was initially deemed to be an earthquake. The fireball was so great that a day later, Londoners could read their newspapers under the night sky.
What caused the so-called Tunguska Event, named after the Podkamennaya Tunguska river near where it happened, has spawned at least a half a dozen theories.
The biggest finger of blame points at a rogue rock whose destiny, after traveling in space for millions of years, was to intersect with Earth at exactly 7.17am on June 30, 1908.
Even the most ardent defenders of the sudden impact theory acknowledge there are many gaps. They strive to find answers, believing this will strengthen defenses against future Tunguska-type threats, which experts say occur with an average frequency from one in 200 years to one in 1,000 years.
“Imagine an unspotted asteroid laying waste to a significant chunk of land… and imagine if that area, unlike Tunguska and a surprising amount of the globe today, were populated,” the British science journal Nature commented last week.
Comets move at far greater speeds than asteroids, which means they release more kinetic energy upon impact. A small comet would deliver the same punch as a larger asteroid. But no fragments of the Tunguska villain have ever been found, despite many searches.
Finding a piece is important, for it will boost our knowledge about the degrees of risk from dangerous Near Earth Objects, say Italian researchers Luca Gasperini, Enrico Bonatti and Giuseppe Longo.
“(I)f the Tunguska event was in fact caused by a comet, it would be a unique occurrence rather than an important case study of a known class of phenomena,” Gasperini’s team write in this month’s issue of Scientific American .
“On the other hand, if an asteroid did explode in the Siberian skies that June morning, why has no-one yet found fragments?”
The Italian trio believe the answers lie in a curiously-shaped oval lake, called Lake Cheko, located about 10km from ground zero.
Computer models, they say, suggest it is the impact crater from a meter-sized fragment that survived the explosion. A rival theory is given an airing in this week’s New Scientist .
Lake Cheko does not have the typical round shape of an impact crater, and no extraterrestrial material has been found, which means “there’s got to be a terrestrial explanation,” Wolfgang Kundt, a physicist at Germany’s Bonn University told the British weekly.
He believes the Tunguska Event was caused by a massive escape of 10 million tonnes of methane-rich gas deep within Earth’s crust. Evidence of a similar release can be found on the Blake Ridge off Norway, Kundt said.