The first Tunguska expedition

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In early February 1927 Kulik left Leningrad (as St Petersburg was again renamed in 1924) with one assistant named G.P. Gyulikh. Travelling by the Trans-Siberian

Express, on 12 February he reached the remote Siberian station of Taishet, some 900 kilometres south of the Tunguska explosion site. After buying food and supplies and other equipment, Kulik and his assistant left Taishet by horse-drawn sledges. Battling frequent snowstorms and bitter temperatures, it took them five days to reach the small village of Kezhma, about 215 kilometres south of the explosion site, where they replenished their food and supplies, and left with three carts on 22 March.

No one has better described inhospitable Siberia than the Russian writer Anton Chekhov. He was 30 years old when in 1890 he made an incredible trip, mainly by horse carriage and river boat, across Siberia to the island of Sakhalin, a penal colony in tsarist Russia. 'Why is it so cold in this Siberia of yours?' With this question of his coach driver, Chekhov's journal of his expedition, A Journey to Sakhalin, begins. 'Because that's the way God wants it', replies the driver. He travelled in relatively more inhabited areas of Siberia, yet Chekhov complained: 'Siberian highways have their scurvy little stations ... They pop up every 20 or 25 miles. You drive at night, on and on, until you feel giddy and ill, but you keep on going, and if you venture to ask the driver, how many miles it is to the next station, he invariably says, "Not less than twelve".'

Kulik did not have the luxury of a coach or the opportunity to complain to someone. He and his assistant were now travelling through the most rugged taiga, split with creeks, gullies, bogs and swamps and steep hillsides. They had to take many detours to ford rivers because it was too dangerous to cross flimsy suspension bridges.

They were now in a 'vast and sinister' primeval forest in which 'the weak and imprudent often perish', as described by the Russian writer Yuri Semyonov in his book The Conquest of Siberia (1944). Nevertheless, three days later they arrived in Vanavara, the most northerly outpost of civilisation, a tiny trading station of only a few houses and stores, situated on the high right bank of the Stony Tunguska River.

Kulik had been carrying a letter from Suslov to the local Soviet political officer with a request to put Kulik in touch with the Evenki Ilya Potapovich. To Kulik's dismay, Ilya Potapovich flatly refused to guide him to the 'thunder god's home', the forbidden and sacred land. To the Evenki people, the fiery body was a visitation from Ogdy, their god of thunder, who had cursed the area by smashing trees and killing the animals. No one dared approach the site for fear of being cursed by Ogdy. Kulik's dogged determination eventually won over Ilya Potapovich's reluctance when he offered him two bags of flour, several rolls of cloth and building materials for the roof and floor of his house.

Kulik was keen to continue the journey immediately, and the day after arriving at Vanavara he set out with his assistant and new guide. Their horses were tired after the long journey, and being overloaded they could not make their way through the snow-covered forest. They were forced to return to Vanavara and await better weather.

On 8 April Kulik's party set off again. This time they were better prepared and their packhorses were loaded with enough food to last about a month. They travelled along the Stony Tunguska River for about 30 kilometres downstream until they reached the Chamba River. They then followed this river for about 10 kilometres and by nightfall reached the hut of the Evenki Okhchen, who agreed to join them as a second guide.

The next morning they reloaded all their supplies onto Okhchen's flock of ten reindeer and set off over a reindeer track along the Chamba River. Two days later the track came to an end. The five days' arduous journey had taken its toll. Exhausted and sick with scurvy and various infections from months of poor food, Kulik was still determined to go on. They hacked their way with axes through the virgin taiga. On 13 April the expedition crossed the Makrita River, where they found the beginning of a mass of fallen trees, uprooted as by an explosion. In the distance could be seen the twin-peaked mountain called Shakrama by the Evenki people. On 15 April Kulik climbed the mountain and saw the explosion site stretching to the horizon before him. 'This is where the thunder and lightning fell down', pointed out Ilya Potapovich, 'and burned down my relative Onkoul's grain store'. (The remains of the grain store were indeed discovered by Kulik's third expedition.)

Kulik saw an oval plateau 70 kilometres wide where the forest had been flattened, all the trees stripped and snapped off in the direction of the blast. 'The results of even a cursory examination exceeded all the tales of the eyewitnesses and my wildest expectation', Kulik wrote in his diary. 'One has an uncanny feeling when one sees 50-to 75-centimetre thick giant trees snapped across like twigs, and their tops hurled many metres away to the south.'

Figure 5: Charred and fallen trees near the blast site as seen by Kulik. (Photo by N.A. Strukov, Moscow, 1928.)

Kulik wanted to explore the centre of the blast area, which he assumed lay beyond the distant snow-covered ridges to the north where the forest had been completely destroyed, but his Evenki guides were extremely superstitious and refused to walk through the taiga burned by their god Ogdy. He had no choice but to return to Vanavara.

Kulik was exhausted but determined to find the fall point. Back in Vanavara on 22 April, he hired Russian peasants from Kezhma village and planned a new route to the explosion site. The expedition left Vanavara on 30 April. After three days' journey by sledge they again reached the Chamba River. This time Kulik decided to build rafts and navigate first up the Chamba and then along the Khushmo River, which were flooded with the thawing snow. Ten days later the expedition reached the mouth of the Churgima River, a tributary of the Khushmo. On 20 May they finally arrived at the edge of the devastated taiga. Kulik decided to camp there.

The next day as he followed the direction of the fallen trees for a few kilometres he reached a marshy basin between 5 and 7 kilometres in diameter and surrounded by low-lying hills. In their legends the Evenki people referred to the area as the South Swamp, but to Kulik it resembled a gigantic cauldron and he named it the Great Cauldron. Here the devastation was greater than what he had seen from Mount Shakrama. Kulik decided to transfer his camp there. Over the next few days he walked around the hills, climbed them and measured the direction of fallen trees. Kulik was now convinced that he had found the epicentre of the fall. He wrote later: 'There could be no doubt. I had circled the centre of the fall. With a fiery stream of hot gases and cold solid bodies, the meteorite had struck the cauldron, with its hills, tundra and swamp.'

Everywhere, for a distance of more than 30 kilometres from the centre, was like a forest of 'telegraph poles', dead trees still standing, but their twigs and branches blown away. 'The taiga has been practically destroyed by being completely flattened', he recorded in his diary. 'The trees lie in rows on the ground, without branches or bark, in the direction opposite to the centre of the fall. This peculiar "fan" pattern of fallen trees can be seen very well from some of the heights that form the peripheral ring of trees.'

Tunguska Expedition
Figure 6: The forest of 'telegraph poles' as seen by Kulik. (Photo by I.M. Suslov, Moscow, 1928.)

There was another remarkable feature: within the central blasted area was a ring of upright trees, completely stripped of foliage. The fact that they had remained upright while all trees outside the ring had been flattened, Kulik thought, marked some kind of node or region of rest where air waves cancelled each other.

There was also the evidence of fire; some of the trees were charred, but this evidence of burning was unusual: in a forest fire, trees are usually burnt on the lower part of their trunks, but these had been burnt uniformly and continuously. Kulik believed that a great rush of hot air produced by the change of kinetic energy into heat energy when the meteorite crashed into the Earth blew the trees down and scorched them.

In some areas Kulik also found forest growth about twenty years old. 'From our observation point no sign of forest can be seen, for everything has been devastated and burned, and around the edges of this dead area the young twenty-year-old forest growth has moved forward furiously, seeking sunshine and life', he wrote in his diary.

Kulik also noticed circular giant ridges, like waves in water, which he believed were formed when the solid ground heaved outwards under the impact of the meteorite. The whole scene was like a giant picture of what happens when a brick from a wall falls into a puddle of mud. Kulik had expected to find the evidence of a giant meteorite in the central part of the basin, but found that the area was dotted with dozens of holes 'exactly like lunar craters'. These funnel-shaped holes ranged from 10 to 50 metres across and up to 4 metres deep. Their edges were mostly steep, the bottoms flat and swampy.

'I cannot say how deeply the meteorites had gone into the tundra and the rocks', he wrote in his account of the expedition, Beyond the Tunguska Meteorite. 'It was impossible for me to go right round the whole area ... or do any digging. We had food left for only three or four days, our road was a long one and our one thought now was to get back safely. It was flight in the full sense of the word.'

He arrived at Vanavara at the end of June after nine days of travelling. There followed another three weeks on a raft on the Stony Tunguska River to the town of Yenisei, and then a comfortable journey by steamship to Krasnoyarsk and by train to Leningrad. Kulik was already dreaming about his next expedition.

In his report to the Academy of Sciences he wrote:

'This picture [of shallow holes] corresponds exactly to the theoretical conditions of fall of a swarm of large meteorite fragments, the larger specimens of which exceeded 130 tons. In all probability these fragments were of iron meteorites ... giant craters such as the Arizona crater are strewn with fragments of iron meteorite.' He concluded his report by pointing out: 'Since this fall occurred on the territory of the Soviet Union we are duty bound to study it.'

On 13 March 1928 the 'duty bound' Academy approved the second expedition with the aim of continuing the study of the Tunguska meteorite. The Academy seemed to agree with Kulik's exhortation in his report: the significance of the Tunguska fall 'will be fully appreciated only in history and it is necessary to record all the remaining traces of this fall for posterity'. However, the Academy granted limited funding that allowed only for mapping the blast area and magnetic survey of the holes. Kulik was also expected to recover meteorite fragments for the Mineralogical Museum.

Kulik's first expedition also attracted the attention of the Western press. In a detailed scientific article entitled 'The Great Siberian Meteorite: An Account of the Most Remarkable Astronomical Event of the Twentieth Century', in Scientific American (July 1928), Chas P. Olivier of the International Astronomical Association wrote: 'Fortunately for humanity, this meteoric fall happened in a region where there were no inhabitants . but if such a thing can happen in Siberia there is no known reason why the same could not happen in the United States.' The Literary Digest of 30 June 1928 also warned: 'Had chance directed this enormous visitor from space to the site of a city or a thickly settled country the world would have experienced an unparalleled disaster; one, we must not forget, which may yet happen should another such meteorite ever arrive.' After more than three-quarters of a century, these doomsday warnings remain 'current' - just swap the word 'meteorite' with 'asteroid'.

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