It was 100 years ago this coming Monday that we humans got a little taste of what past species had to face. Tunguska is a region of Siberia so remote that I’m sure none of us would have ever heard of it except for the June 30, 1908 event. Around 7:14am a fragment from a meteor — most likely a stony asteroid — detonated three to six miles above the ground and leveled an estimated 80 million trees. Though there is no crater and no direct eyewitnesses of the explosion we can still piece together much of the science.
The difficulty modern scientists have of developing the picture of The Event is the same as it was 100 years ago — Tunguska is just so remote that scientists require weeks to months of travel just to get there. It took over a decade for the first expedition to reach it and it would be another decade before meaningful data could be collected. To put their difficulty into perspective, here is a plea for an expedition to another impact in the region from just 6 years ago! You can understand why details of the event are so vague.
We need to examine events like this with great scrutiny so we can determine how often they occur. If something like this happens over a populated area the destruction would rival a nuclear assault. How worried should we be? It’s never happened in the 15,000 years of recorded history. Would statistics say that such events are anomalies or are we due?
We look on the Tunguska Event as a signal that our existence is not a certainty; that we cannot control all the variables. We’ve had to find some way to survive through all the predators and diseases, all the famines and floods, all the volcanoes, tsunamis, and earthquakes. We don’t have natural armor, poisonous barbs, or sharp, pointy teeth. Without our smarts and opposable thumbs we wouldn’t have stood a chance as a species. But through smarts alone we’ve dominated our environment, and our impact on it is easily visible from space. Yet it’s from that space that our greatest challenges may lie. After surviving everything our world can throw at us, we still have that overwhelming, terrifying knowledge that extinction can come rapidly. By looking at the archaeological discoveries made over the last century we can see that mass extinctions have happened with stunning regularity. Now the question is, “Can our smarts improve our technology fast enough to win a battle with a massive impactor?”
We’re just now beginning to understand how dangerous our universe can be.