Tunguska meteoroid turns 100 years old. Part 1

KP journalist visits the region where the 20th Century’s most mysterious cosmic visitor exploded

Request: Clamp down your cattle

The below message was hung all over Vanavara — the nearest inhabited area to where the Tunguska meteoroid fell. The 100th anniversary of the event will be celebrated from today forward. Vanavara is a village inhabited by hunters and fishermen with a population of 3,000. All expeditions begin here and head “to the meteoroid,” as they say, the taiga area where the explosion occurred in 1908.

“Respectable Vanavara residents!”

We’d like to ask you to clean your homes and farmsteads before June 1, 2008. You must repair your fences and paint your palings. Make sure that everything has an architecturally aesthetic look. The fine is 3,000 rubles.

Further along the text reads: Make sure all your dogs are tied up. Don’t let your cattle out of the yard and don’t scatter about your cans and bottles.

But the prohibitory notice ends on a peaceful note: “Let us enjoy our internationally and scientifically significant anniversary events in a clean, beautiful and hospitable village!”

Ogda, the fire-god

Even today, no one knows what happened. On June 30, 1908 at 07:00 in the morning, residents of Central Siberia woke to a strange sound in the sky. Those who were outside saw a fireball whirl by high in the sky. Some witnesses say there were several balls that resembled “burning logs.” The object was blinding to the eyes and accompanied by a loud thunder that “shook the plates off the tables and broke the glass.”

A loud explosion ensued somewhere above the taiga. Seismic stations in Siberia, Europe and the U.S. registered a blast wave had hit the Earth twice. The following evening, the residents watched as the sky glowed strangely in the northern hemisphere. Cities like Tashkent saw “White Nights.”

The phenomenon lasted several days. Newspapers wrote about the mysterious occurrence. But recreating an accurate picture of what had transpired was complicated as no one knew where the explosion had occurred.

Valentina Bykova, Inspector of the Tunguska State Reserve:

An Evenki tribe was located several kilometers outside Vanavara on the day of the explosion. Later they recounted how they had seen something flying through the sky. There was an explosion on the horizon, and everything was soon engulfed in smoke.

The Evenki people honor the law that in the event of a forest fire they must focus all their attention on stifling the potential catastrophe. The men hurried towards the fire, but stopped short. Their path was crossed by two hills where they gathered stones to sharpen their knives. But the top of one hill was missing and a lake had formed in place of the other. The water burned and revolved in a circle.

Soon a local trader Karp Suzdalev arrived to look at the lake. Apparently, he also advised the Evenki to keep quite about the incident. He told them that news about what had happened would bring expeditions to the area and the crowds would scare the animals and burn down the taiga. The hunting grounds would also be destroyed, he said. The Evenki were already afraid the evil fire-god Ogda would come down from the sky, so visiting the area became taboo.

The lake that formed as a result of the meteoroid was later named in Suzdalevo’s honor. During the explosion, an earthquake had occurred and the seismic plates had shifted. The result was the landscape’s drastic alteration.

Research into the Tunguska phenomenon began in 1921. The naturalist Leonid Kulik had read about the incident in a magazine in 1915, but only arrived at the epicenter of the explosion 6 years later.

Kulik’s way

Kulik eventually became the most renowned researcher into the Tunguska meteoroid. He visited Vanavara several times and headed deep into the taiga to explore the area. The wooden huts, bathe houses and granaries that had been built by the courageous researchers and their fellow travellers back in the 1920s remain today.

The area of the Tunguska explosion is now known as the Tunguska State Preserve. Entrance is allowed only with the administration’s permission. The epicenter is located 66 kilometers from Vanavara.

Bykova and I headed to the area along the river with our Evenki guide. The waterway leading to the “The Harbor” — the area once inhabited by Kulik — traversed the Podkamennaya Tunguska, Chamba and Khushma rivers.

Deserted crystal mine

Kulik organized 6 expeditions to the area where the meteoroid had exploded. He planned on building an aerodrome and sending planes to Vanavara. He also wanted to build a narrow-gauge line leading to a swamp that he thought formed as a result of the meteoroid falling.

Kulik hoped to dry the swamp and extract the meteoroid’s fragments. He believed they were full of precious metals such as nickel. Kulik dreamed to build a sprawling scientific center in the area where researchers would study the Tunguska phenomenon year round. He requested financial assistance from the Soviet Scientific Committee and Academy of Sciences on numerous occasions. He also made scandalous interviews, argued with his Moscow superiors and knocked on the doors of highly ranked officials.

At one point in time, the renowned academic Vladimir Vernadskiy sponsored Kulik’s research in the area. Unfortunately, though, Kulik didn’t have the funds to proceed with large-scale work. He had too few Russian workers and the Evenki were hesitant to go to the area even for generous compensation. Many leading scientists doubted the meteoroid’s value and enjoyed the authorities’ backing.

Kulik would have bitten his lips in envy, though, if he had known how much money was to be invested in the area after World War II.

The deserted Priisk Khrustalniy (Crystal) village is located on the Chamba River halfway down the waterway from Vanavara to the epicenter. The village was built in 1957 near a rare calcite field. The mining activities were overseen by the military. They never had a shortage of workers or equipment with 300 people always on the job. Two mine shafts worked simultaneously spanning several kilometers. Other facilities were also built,including a narrow-gauge line, electric station, boiler room, club, two helicopter pads and residential homes and barracks.

However, manufacturing became unprofitable in 1983 due to floods. The workers were evacuated and the equipment was abandoned. An older resident in Vanavara said scientists from Tomsk and Krasnoyarsk had spoken with the military numerously requesting funds to build a Tunguska research base. They refused. READ MORE

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