The explosion that lit up the world – When night became day

On the 30th June 1908 an explosion hit the earth that was so big and so bright it left the sky glowing for days – turning night into day.

Around the world people were left dazzled and dumfounded at what was happening. They checked their watches confused about the time, played card games and read their newspapers and books into the early hours illuminated by the radiance of the night sky.

Artist’s conception of the Tunguska Event, as viewed from the town of Kirlensk (60 km distant) two seconds before the explosion. Courtesy William Hartman.

They marvelled at the views and pondered what on earth was happening.

A correspondent for the Yorkshire post described the scene…

“i was struck by the north-western sky, filled as it was a with a tangled mess of beautifully subdued colour, from cream to the most delicate pinks, greens and yellows. The air at the time was still and warm.

By eleven o’clock there was a strong steady glow of amber light over the north north west horizon.

It was curious to observe that the north fronts of buildings, with their windows, were strongly illuminated, the southern faces were immersed in deep shadow.

The street lamps looked pale as if morning were breaking.”

“Animals became uneasy, and scarcely appeared to know whether it was time to get up or not. Birds tweeted in a way that suggested they were moved by feelings compounded of fear and mystery. a distant cock crowed, apparently under the impression that the sun was about to begin his daily round. In doorways and at street corners the populace talked mysteriously, as evidenced by their subdued voices and enquiring glances at the strange light in the north.”

In Church Stretton people walked to the top of the Longmynd to gaze at the incredible scene.

“The Aurora Borealis.— Wednesday night will long remembered by those fortunate enough to be in Stretton to witness the extraordinary aurora borealis, which was seen to perfection. The scene was one of extreme beauty. The wood clad hills were as though bathed in golden light, and the dark firs and varying green of the trees standing out in bold relief. The sky was bright salmon-colour, with blue, and rather more yellow towards horizon. Small streamers gave the ruddy glow the effect tongues of fire from some mammoth furnace of Vulcan; practically there was no night. At half-past ten it was quite light and many people compared watches, thinking that there must be some error in their timekeepers. A number of visitors watched the phenomenon from the summit of the Longmynd; the scene of gorgeous beauty filled all with wonder and delight. “

Wellington Journal – Saturday 04 July 1908

So what did happen?

At the time people across the world thought it was the most incredible display of the Northern Lights. However scientific investigations revealed  that what people were seeing was the afterglow of an asteroid that hit the earth. It struck a remote area of Russia. I say struck, but it actually never touched the earth, exploding before it hit the ground, flattening 80 millions trees over an area of more than 800 square miles. It’s thought three people may have died.

The Tunguska event is the largest impact event on Earth in recorded history, though much larger impacts have occurred in prehistoric times. It has been mentioned numerous times in popular culture, and has also inspired real-world discussion of asteroid impact avoidance.

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