Interesting If True - Episode 19: Nukatron vs. Tunguskazilla!
Welcome to Interesting If True, the show that’s here to teach you something, but we won’t guarantee it’s worthwhile.
I’m your host this week, Jenn and with me are all three of the Stooges:
I’m Aaron, and this week I learned that Russia is basically Europe’s less-responsible Florida.
I’m Shea, and this week I learned that you see Lesbian parents, and you see Gay parents but you don’t really see transparents.
I’m Steve, and all trucks have beds, but not all beds are for sleeping… Camping is harder once you reach a certain age.
Another rousing story of weird… history…eee!
That’s right, I’m back and I need some Aaron-Russian-accent and possible pan-dimensional destruction. So with that in mind, June 30th of 1908 was a total blast in Eastern Europe. Don’t believe me? Just ask the thousands of people in the roughly 900 mile radius who witnessed a giant fireball and explosion. Well, they’re dead now, but we have over 700 first person accounts to check out.
Of course, as you may know, I’m talking about the massive Siberian boom known as the Tunguska Event. (Named for the Stony Tunguska River, the area where it was centralized was so remote that the first scientists didn’t reach it until 1927.) It had the estimated explosive power 650 – 1,000x greater than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima and flattened roughly 80 million trees.
This story has been making the rounds of ‘craziest unsolved mysteries’ for decades, and a lot of brains better than mine, this is still one of those stories without a real ending. Despite it being generally agreed upon a massive space rock was involved, even today there is no scientific consensus on what exactly happened.
Farmer Sergei Semenov was having breakfast that morning only about 40mi from the epicenter: ‘‘I was sitting in the porch of the house at the trading station of Vanovara at 7 a.m. and looking towards the north . . . suddenly the sky appeared like it was split in two, high above the forest, the whole northern sky appeared to be completely covered with blazing fire. At that moment I felt a great wave of heat as if my shirt had caught fire… after a minute, there was a loud bang in the sky, and I could hear a mighty crash. Subsequently, I was fiercely thrown to the ground about 5-6 meters away from the house and for a minute or two I lost my consciousness.”
The closest seismic recorders were over 600 miles away but picked up strong readings for over an hour. This same type of equipment registered tremors as far away as England (where the luminosity created from the event kept the skies so bright a person supposedly could ‘read a newspaper’ at midnight).
More first hand reports describe a fireball in the sky, larger or similar to the size of the sun, a series of explosions “with a frightful sound”, followed by shaking of the ground as “the earth seemed to get opened wide and everything would fall in the abyss. Terrible strokes were heard from somewhere, which shook the air.” The indigenous Evenks and Yakuts believed a god or shaman had sent the fireball to destroy the world. Various meteorological stations in Europe recorded both seismic and atmospheric waves. Days later strange phenomena were observed in the sky of Russia and Europe, such as glowing clouds, colorful sunsets and a strange luminescence in the night.
Luchetkan, a member of the indigenous Tungus people of the region, whose relative herded reindeer in the area of the blast, recalled, “Of some reindeer they found the charred carcasses; the others they did not find at all. Of the sheds nothing remained; everything was burned up and melted to pieces—clothes, utensils, reindeer equipment, dishes, and samovars…”
Even today the area where the explosion itself happened, despite no actual impact crater, hasn’t fully recovered:
So what exactly happened? There are a lot of good, and not so good, theories floating around so let’s discuss a few:
1.) A Collision with a Black Hole (or antimatter): According to this theory, first suggested in year 1941 by Lincoln LaPaz, the Tunguska event was likely caused by the annihilation of a chunk of anti-matter entering our atmosphere. While it may explain the lack of debris from a ‘splodey asteroid and the observed luminous phenomena, the existence of anti-matter “chunks” is considered theoretically impossible.
The tiny black hole theory (first suggested by American scientists Albert A. Jackson and Michael P. Ryan in 1973) is also full of…holes. Most specifically, the planet would have an ‘exit wound’ somewhere around the North Atlantic as the black hole plowed through the middle.
2.) A Comet (or at least a piece of one): Pretty popular one. Danish researchers have explained that this explosion may have been caused by a large fragment that fell from a comet passing close to Earth. Kaare Lund Rasmussen and his team from Geoscience Research Institute reached this conclusion by examining century-old peat samples from the region. (Because it was apparently a swampy comet?) They postulate that it was mainly composed of ice at this point, which explains the lack of debris. However detractors claim a space object made mostly of ice would have been incinerated long before it came so close to the Earth’s surface.
3.) Agda, the local Thunder God: Personal favorite. Akulina, an Evenki woman, who was closer than 20 miles to epicentre at the time of explosion, recounted her experience to scientists. ”A mighty wind flattened our tent, while we had been sleeping. A brilliant ourburst of light blinded us, the wind was breaking trees like they were sticks. As a rising whirlwind lifted us off the ground, I lost consciousness”. After she woke up, she remembers seeking her husband, Ivan, being lifted up by blast, and slammed into one of the remaining upright trees, 130 feet from the remnants of the camp they had slept in. He died few hours later from fractures, shock and blood loss (one of only two known human fatalities). ”Our reindeers also vanished, and we haven’t found them since”.
The shamans of her village immediately chalked this up to the actions of a miffed Siberian Thor. “Dissatisfied by the tribal disputes, Agda reputedly sent ”demons with shining eyes and fiery tails”, to punish the disobedient Evenki men.” The villagers took this seriously. Immediately after the event, the area was declared a sacred and forbidden zone by Evenki tribesmen, who then reportedly expelled or killed dozens of Soviet scientific expeditions that ventured into the area over the next several decades.
4.) Nuclear powered UFO, apparently driven by joyriding teenaged aliens who promptly crash it.
Of course, everyone from dime store sci-fi pulp novelists to the X Files tried to link this to ALIENS.
Good luck disproving this since evidence doesn’t seem to be real important.
When it’s all said and done, however, the generally agreed upon theory is that on the morning of June 30, 1908, a large space rock, about 120 feet across, entered the atmosphere of Siberia and then detonated in the sky.” says Don Yeomans, manager of the Near-Earth Object Office at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in his decade-old study.Mid-Show Bumper
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It’s da Bomb yo!
Jenn did a story about a Russian explosion then tapped me for a patron story. And because I’m completely secure with my masculinity, I choose a bigger explosion. Much bigglier. The biggest explosion in fact!
Because I have absolutely nothing to compensate for, comrade.
Steve likely knows this story, what with being a history buff and all, but for the rest of you, I’d like to introduce the Russian Tsar, known as Bomba. AKA, Big Ivan, codename Vanya.
Tsar Bomba was a product of the times. It was 1961.
Starting on a Sunday, 1961 was, as MAD Magazine pointed out, a strobogrammatic year (meaning if you flip it over it’s the same!), Dwight Eisenhower gives his last address to Congress warning of the growing military-industrial complex—which totally didn’t fall of 60 years of deaf ears—and in Canada, despite being a committed Western partner, Trudeau sold China 60 million dollars of grain (about 1 billion at current prices and inflation) to help alleviate starvation from the Great Leap Forward. But we’re concerned with the cold war and Russia’s need to make everything bigger.
The USSR recognized it needed to up its nuke game to swing as much dick as the USA—you know, basic Cold War stuff. So in Autumn of 1954 what is now the All-Russian Scientific Research Institute of Technical Physics and long-ass names began research into how to make the bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima look like fire-crackers.
And so, Tsar Bomba was built.
Bomba was a 27 metric ton, 8 meters long and 2 meters tall hydrogen bomb. It was so big that the Tu-95V (a Russian cargo plane) had to have it’s bomb bay doors and fuselage fuel tanks removed just to fit the damn thing. The parachute itself weighed almost a ton. The chute was only added to slow the bomb’s descent such that the flight crew would have a 50/50 shot at out running the blast all action movie style.
The aircraft was also painted with a special, reflective, heat resistant paint meant to stop it melting.
Now, we need to talk about scale. The bombs dropped on Japan, Fat Man and Little Boy—which, can we take a moment for these names, what the fuck?—were approximately 20 and 15 kilotons respectively. We know the story, cities were demolished, an estimated quarter million people died, and everyone involved basically looked at the person next to them and said “wow, we should never do that again”. The bomb Khrushchev wanted would have been 3000 times as powerful if scientists and advisers hadn’t talked him down to a mere 1570 times as powerful.
So… fast forward to October 30th, 1961, and it’s testing time. Bomba was flown over the remote Sukhoy Nos, the tip of an island in northern Russia. It’s latitude is just above Canada, about mid-Greenland above western Russia. The Barents Sea separates it from Finland and Sweden—I’m guessing about 1500 miles away. Basically, in the arctic circle. The bomb is dropped at 34,500 feet, or 10,500m, and detonated at approximately 4000 meters. By this time, the aircraft that dropped it was about 70 miles away…
When the bomb exploded it… it destroyed everything.
The blast radius was larger than Paris.
The explosion was, depending on your source, between 50 and 60 megatons. Not only is this still the largest explosion a human has ever caused, it wasn’t even on the charts back in the day. They had some math but the realities were until outside imagining.
The airplane that dropped it was about 130 miles away by the time it went off but the blast wave caused the aircraft to suddenly drop over a half mile. Luckily the pilots righted things and managed a safe landing.
Ground zero was a veritable hell-scape.
They did the math and predicted that a fireball would hit the ground. Unfortunately, because it wasn’t insane-bizzaro land math they forgot to account for the fireball being nearly 5 miles (8km) wide. Then you have the add the bomb’s blast wave, which was so strong it hit the ground—annihilating everything—and bounced off, pushing the fireball upward. Basically, the explosion exploded.
The mushroom cloud was 42 miles high, that’s seven mount Everests. It went right on past the stratosphere and into the mesosphere. Once finished growing the peek was 59m (95km) tall and 25 miles (40km) wide at the base.
The US geological survey sensed the explosion three different times as it echoed around the world and initially registered as a 5, 5.5 on the Ricketier scale.
The nearby village of Severny, about 35m (55km) away just ceased to exist. For hundreds of miles wooden houses collapsed and brick houses lost their roofs. One observer saw the flash, though tinted goggles, nearly 300 miles away. The shockwave was felt in the Dikson settlement which was 430m (700km) away. Windows were shattered over 500m away.
Thanks to the effects of Atmospheric focusing or lensing—where atmospheric densities on the blast-wave are refracted horizontally, like light through water—windows were blown out of buildings in Norway and Finland.
A soviet camera man said “the spectacle was fantastic, unreal, supernatural.” If you want to see for yourself there’s a link in the show notes to a Russian documentary on YouTube with footage:
Beyond the ‘splody problems Tsar Bomba was a radiological nightmare. It still, today, accounts for more than 10% of all radioactivity from nuclear explosions. The blast was greater than the combined force of all the weapons used in WWII, including Fat Man and Little Boy, combined. Or, put another way, it had a yield of about one quarter of the 1883 Krakatoa eruption.
Which seems like a lot until you realize that they built in a uranium super-charger of sorts that could have doubled its output.
Basically, this was the thermonuclear equivalent of someone pulling out a grenade launcher at an actual, literal, pissing contest. Everyone in the area immediately put their dicks away, ran for the hills, and swore never to question Ivan’s masculinity again.
I’m Jenn, and I’d like to thank all our listeners, supporters, and my co-hosts.
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Music for this episode was created by Wayne Jones and was used with permission.
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