Big Bang Theory

Tomorrow, June 30th, marks the 100th anniversary of the Tunguska Event, an immense cataclysm that occurred, mercifully, in a remote and mostly uninhabited region of central Siberia. Its cause is still debated, but it is generally agreed to have been an “air burst”, equivalent to 10 or 15 megatons of TNT, that occurred at an altitude of about five miles.

Over the years various explanations have been attempted. The most likely is a strike by a meteoroid or comet fragment, but some have imagined that the cause was a black hole or blob of antimatter passing through the Earth, or even a UFO crash. A more recent, if dubious, hypothesis is that the Event was caused by a titanic release of methane gas.

Whatever it was, it was a stupendous detonation; if it had happened a few hours later, once western Europe had rotated into the descending object’s path, it might have pulverized a major city. As it was, very few died, and otherwise it merely knocked over a great many trees.

But now we learn (with a hat tip to reader JK) that there may have been other consequences as well. Vladimir Shaidurov, of the Russian Academy of Sciences, has raised the possibility that the Tunguska Event may be to blame for the apparent global warming of the last century. Water vapor is a more influential greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and Shaidurov suggests that it may have been not human emission of carbon dioxide, but rather the Tunguska object’s effect on high-altitude ice clouds, that altered the planet’s heat economy.

Learn more here.

Related content from Sphere


  1. JK says

    Sorry if I’m posting the same thing, had trouble with the “graphics.”


    I rather like the “Tunguska Event” as explanatory for the whole of Global Warming but I also consider that the Industrial Revolution “may” contribute to the whole of climate change. Climate change does occur: no one except the extreme Creationists among us can doubt this. However the “Tunguska Event” does not account for the early 1400’s “Mini Ice Age.”

    And there is this:

    Should take one to-Pacific Decadal Oscillation-easily googled. I seem to recall seeing a navigational study of Magellan’s voyage circumnavigating the globe. I think it had something to do with an El Nino event but well, timeframes and such you know.

    Posted June 30, 2008 at 12:40 am | Permalink
  2. JK says


    If the Netslayers come after you for me posting links to what I am allowing your esteemed commentors to research on their own, get hold of “Gypsy” and he will give you the proper address for any legal summons. Yes, I look at Drudge too. But actually I saw this first as a result of a request I sent to “Gypsy” which led to an unrelated discovery. I “think” a link he sent me, which got me into the Spanish Naval Archives, led to another unrelated reward.

    “Gypsy” was able to make an announcement on the beloved Milton’s List.

    However I’m not a big fan of Mlton. I can’t even spell his name correctly. But I can see a few days of correlating ahead of me, so I’ll think of North Carolina license plates.

    Posted June 30, 2008 at 1:27 am | Permalink
  3. Andrew says

    Nonsense! Climate scientists have a good idea of the climate forcing patterns observed in response to large, cataclysmic events. See for example the natural experiment provided by the 1991 explosion of Mount Pinatubo.

    The modern warming observed does not resemble in any way a response to a single event 100 years ago.

    Posted July 4, 2008 at 4:26 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Andrew, that’s certainly a reasonable objection. I’ll be curious to see how this hypothesis holds up under peer review.

    Posted July 4, 2008 at 10:16 pm | Permalink
  5. Malcolm says

    A further thought: perhaps one difference between a climatic disruption due to a volcano and one caused by an impact from space is the passage of the bolide through the high-altitude mesosphere (which is where it is suggested by Shaidurov that the effect occurs) moments before it explodes. It does appear that Shaidurov’s paper (which you can read here) takes into account that events at different altitudes will affect different layers of the atmosphere.

    Posted July 5, 2008 at 1:09 am | Permalink
  6. Andrew says

    Certainly the type of disruption could alter the direction and scale of the response but the pattern would be similar. A near term increase (or decrease) in the affected parameter, followed by some sort of a decay pattern.

    I just read over the pdf and was about to make some additional comments when I realized that the press release you linked to in the post is more than 2 years old. A quick search over at the real climate blog reveals that the experts have already closed the books on this hypothesis.

    Posted July 5, 2008 at 7:38 am | Permalink
  7. Malcolm says

    Thanks, Andrew.

    As it happened I had already run across the blog post you linked to; it seems to me that it focuses on effects in the troposhere and stratosphere, whereas the Shaidurov paper dealt with noctilucent clouds in the high-altitude mesosphere.

    Mind you, I’m not suggesting that I think that Shaidurov has confounded the anthropogenic-global-warmists here; for all I know they may well be right. I’m just trying to follow both sides of the discussion.

    This is sometimes compared to the ID/Darwinism squabble, but there is an important distinction: if there is any religion to be found on either side of this one, it is a certain moral-equivalent-of-war Progressivist collectivism that I see lurking in the shadows (not really in the shadows at all, in fact, much of the time.) ID proponents, meanwhile, are motivated by religious beliefs, to a man. In this case, though, it apears there are indeed enough legitimate climate scientists who think the anthropogenic aspect of climate change is exaggerated – and the social consequences of an economic over-reaction to warming’s being due to our activity could be so far-reaching, and so dire – that I am interested in presenting the occasional dissenting voice.

    Posted July 5, 2008 at 12:49 pm | Permalink
  8. Andrew says

    Go back to the blog post I linked to and read the response by Raymond T. Pierrehumbert to comment #29. In that response you will find the following:

    The errors he made in his argument were very elementary. He completely failed to understand the time scales involved in the atmospheric hydrological cycle, or the processes governing atmospheric water vapor. He also blundered by failing to realize that the mesosphere has so little mass that it is very optically thin, so that mesospheric water vapor has an essentially negligible effect on climate.

    Shaidurov is not a climate scientist. He decided to write a poorly researched manuscript on a topic which he knew nothing about and ended up with his foot in his mouth. He is undoubtedly a smart man but he’s made a fool of himself here.

    The distinction you make between evolution and climate change denialists is not important. Replace the word religion with ideology and the distinction goes away. Even if I concede the difference, the relevant similarities are strategic. Both groups have absolutely no scientific basis for there arguments and therefore press their opinions by dishonesty, misdirection and ‘science’ by press release.

    I’d be interested in seeing your list of legitimate climate scientists who think the anthropogenic aspect of climate change is exaggerated. The bulk of any such list would comprise of obtuse non-professionals shopping around poorly reasoned and/or previously refuted ‘theories’. These are traits they share with creationist.

    As for ideologues on the left that would seize on the risks associated with climate change to impose their political will on society, please don’t conflate their motivations with the overwhelming scientific support for the threat posed by increasing concentrations of atmospheric CO2.

    I also don’ think the dire consequences argument holds much water. The science is solid, the risks are clear and the most appropriate responses are will within the pale given that we are talking about a type of market failure (an externality) that typically requires government intervention to correct. Of course there will be winners and losers, there always are (think typewrites, horse drawn buggies and sail makers), but from a societal perspective, these consequences are far from dire. And, in these days of mideast unrest, $4 gas and peak oil, what exactly are the dire consequences of reducing our dependence on oil?

    Posted July 5, 2008 at 8:19 pm | Permalink
  9. Malcolm says

    Andrew, I certainly seem to have touched a nerve!

    If Shaidurov has indeed been writing nonsense, then by all means let’s move on, and let his paper perish in peer review, if it ever even gets any. I appreciate your diligence: if a scientific hypothesis is balderdash, then we are glad to know it. I thought it worth mentioning, but I certainly made no guarantee of its scientific merits, upon which Dr. Pierrehumbert is far more qualified to comment than I.

    I stand by my remarks about the distinction between the ID “debate” and this one; at the core of the ID agenda is a denial of the foundational theory of modern biology on the basis of a belief, based on no evidence whatsoever, in a supernatural agency. This element of the supernatural is nowhere to be found on either side of the climate-change debate; it is a radically different sort of dispute.

    I also think it is disingenuous to suggest that the bulk of perfervid ideology lies with the skeptics; at the very least, there is plenty to go around on all sides.

    Of skeptical climate scientists, the one who has made the strongest claim on my attention is Dr. Richard Lindzen, the Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Atmospheric Science at MIT, who complains (as in this Op-Ed piece) that the consensus of scientific opinion on this topic is maintained, at least in part, by an extremely hostile attitude toward heterodox papers.

    You write:

    As for ideologues on the left that would seize on the risks associated with climate change to impose their political will on society, please don’t conflate their motivations with the overwhelming scientific support for the threat posed by increasing concentrations of atmospheric CO2.

    I quite agree that it is important to make this distinction. But I am indeed concerned at the degree to which ideologues on the left are in fact seizing on this scientific discussion to impose their will; when such wheels begin to turn, they have a way of crushing dissent and individual thinking. What we see now is an increasing convergence of politics and academia, of a sort we’ve seen before. The classic pattern is there: a looming crisis makes it essential that an enormous governmental apparatus be created, and organized according to the recommendations of a suitable panel of experts. Private enterprise must be brought to heel, and forced to comply with arbitrary and onerous regulation “for the good of all”. This in turn has the effect of crushing small enterprises who are unable, at the small scales they occupy, to afford the immense burden of compliance. Meanwhile, the matter at hand is freighted with enormous moral significance; it becomes reprehensible to express any doubt that the only way forward is for all the people to set aside their individual doubts or aspirations and join the righteous army of the future.

    I think also that it is disingenuous to imagine that there is not an enormous cost to be borne here; we are talking about the formation of enormous government bureaucracies at both the national and global level, forced curtailment of energy usage, and, as noted above, the killing off of a great many small businesses who cannot afford to comply with expensive regulatory mandates. (Large-scale government interventions, for example the Americans With Disablities Act — however well-intentioned — often have this effect, favoring big, established businesses over small ones.) Furthermore, a hysterical rush to act now at any cost might not be the right answer; we are assuming that the dollar we spend today on emission reduction is worth the same as, or less than, a dollar spent on repairing possible environmental damage a hundred years from now. But this arguably not the case at all. So there are, as you say, several aspects here that ought to be considered separately.

    1) Is the Earth actually warming?

    2) To what extent is that warming anthropogenic, and not the result of natural fluctuations in solar output, atmospheric humidity, ocean currents, etc.?

    3) What will the effects really be? There would certainly be some benefits as well as drawbacks — longer growing seasons in higher latitudes, fewer crops lost to frost, etc. — so any choices we make must make an accurate accounting of both sides of the ledger.

    4) What can we actually do about it, at what cost?

    5) Is the cost now worth the benefits later?

    OK, having said all of this, I freely acknowledge that I am no climatologist. As for 1) and 2) above, I don’t know the answers, but I do find it interesting that there does still appear to be some disagreement. But I am making no case here; it may very well be that the answer is that yes, the Earth is definitely warming, and due to human activity. I don’t want you to think that I am making any sort of assertion to the contrary.

    But I do see a hysterical political climate change, one that is most definitely due to human activity — and I think that it might even have reached the point, as these sort of things have in the past, to begin to have a chilling effect even in the ostensibly impartial practice of science. (Dr. Lindzen certainly seems to think so.) And I’m old enough, have read enough history, and have seen enough of human nature, for it to make me uncomfortable. If there is a chance that “the emperor has no clothes” here, someone should be saying so; I don’t want us to be flattened by yet another Progressivist steamroller. So I will most likely continue to give both sides of this topic my attention.

    I am in no way abandoning my confidence in science; I’d be the last person to do so, and as I say, I imagine that the “consensus” is probably correct. But there is a great deal more going on here.

    I sincerely appreciate your commenting on this, Andrew, and the spadework you’ve done. I genuinely want us to make the right decisions, based on the best possible understanding of the truth.

    Posted July 5, 2008 at 11:59 pm | Permalink
  10. JK says

    I apologize Malcolm, you too Andrew if I (and mesospheric discombobulations) have resulted in either of you losing sleep. But I must add, I’ve enjoyed the discussion, thank you.

    Posted July 6, 2008 at 3:03 pm | Permalink
  11. JK says


    I suppose this may have been produced by the Dr. Lindzen you mention. Yes Andrew, this study is two years older than the two years you decry in the first instance. But science does build on foundations built up over periods of time. And stuff has been done since this one.

    Posted July 6, 2008 at 3:52 pm | Permalink
  12. Malcolm says

    Thanks, JK.

    And at the risk of raising the temperature even further by fanning the flames of outrage, there’s this recent item from the WSJ.

    Posted July 7, 2008 at 12:20 am | Permalink
  13. JK says

    Good article Malcolm,

    I had trouble deciding as to weather of make repartee employing Marc Bolan but I figured no one but a (kinda) music historian of sorts would catch my bang a gong reference so:

    “Civilization, in fact, grows more and more maudlin and hysterical; especially under democracy it tends to degenerate into a mere combat of crazes; the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.”

    H.L. Mencken

    Posted July 7, 2008 at 7:51 am | Permalink
  14. JK says

    Oops, I seem to have commited some mis-spelling and poor word choice.

    Apologies in advance Andrew.

    Posted July 7, 2008 at 7:55 am | Permalink
  15. Andrew says

    Ok, I’ll take the bait.

    Stephens essay is worthy of the worst creationist apologist. If I may, I’d like to amend my previous statement to say science by op-ed rather than by press release.

    Lets look at the second two paragraphs where he lays out his ‘scientific’ (rolls eyes) argument.

    When discussing CO2 and climate change, we are taking about small, long-term changes in global temperature. The hottest year or years on record in any given region (including the lower 48) do not represent a proxy for changes in global climate. Some proponents may use this type of information to make a point (does Gore? I have not seen his movie), but it is not part of the data on which the scientific consensus is based. This type of argument has analogies to creationists methods of focusing on irrelevant points aimed at making the opponents look dishonest. Yes, the peppered moth data was manipulated. Yes, Haeckel doctored his embryo drawings to exaggerate the similarities between taxa. Neither of these facts diminish in any way the strength of evidence for evolution.

    The ocean cooling data requires some explanation to be put it into context. In the global climate system, the ocean represents a giant heat sink. If the globe is warming, the oceans should be warming. This is a testable hypothesis. The process is slow and the absolute changes are difficult to measure, but in theory we should be able to test this directly. The seemingly most simple thing to do would be to just measure changes in water temperature over time. It turns out that this is incredibly technically challenging. Satellites can measure the global ocean surface, but this is not good enough because satellites only measuring the temperature of the top mm of water. Argo, is an attempt to get some better information. It is a terribly ambitious endeavor. Over 3000 autonomous floats, bobbing up and down through the top 2000 meters of the global oceans taking measurements and reporting back by satellite. Each float needs to be independently calibrated and deployed. Entire dissertations are written on the best algorithms to use in processing the raw location, temperature and pressure data and how to best use the data to infer global ocean temperature. While 3000 floats sounds like a large number, they are trying to use this relatively sparse set of observations to estimate the average temperature of over 300 million cubic miles of water!

    There is, fortunately, a simpler way to infer increases in global ocean water temperature. If the water is warming, the volume should increase due to thermal expansion. This means with adjustments for short term tidal and weather related changes and for variation in input volumes, changes in sea-level can be used as a proxy for changes in water temperature. Sea-surface measurements have the added advantage, over the Argo data, of being able to be measured by multiple independent methods. The sea-level data is clear. It strongly indicates a steady rise in global average ocean temperature. Relative to the Argo data, it is the more robust test of the ocean warming hypothesis. This is another example of a strategy employed by the creationists. When the underlying science is complicated, make a simple, inaccurate or incomplete statement and leave it to your opponent to take on the job of delivering an involved and technical explanation during which time the audience’s eyes glaze over and they tab back over to

    I am not going to delve into the Antarctic sea-ice stuff, suffice to say that he is employing the same tactic once again. His statement does not stand on its own. If he wants the recent Antarctic sea-ice expansion to be evidence for global cooling, the onus is on him to lay out the argument. I will also leave the new Nature paper alone, I have not read it. It is interesting to note that the guys at Real Climate are so skeptical of the results that they are willing to bet it is wrong. We will just have to wait and see.

    The rest of the essay is simply drivel. He needs to add a fourth option to his list of reasons for concern over climate change: The weight of scientific evidence shows that it is happening.

    One final point. If Lindzen is right and there is some vast conspiracy to suppress dissent, why was the Argo ocean temperature data made public? Why did Nature publish the German groups modeling paper? You know why? Because there is no conspiracy. Lindzen is full of it.

    As for your earlier longer response Malcolm, I fear I won’t be able to find the time to give it the attention it deserves. I think there is much room for us to find common ground regarding appropriate responses to the threats posed by a changing climate. Your list of questions is a useful way of looking at the important issues, but lets begin with #3. #’s 1 and 2 are not worth discussing. The scientific consensus is real and the data robust. Increased CO2 is driving changes in the global climate. We are responsible for the increases in CO2.

    Posted July 7, 2008 at 12:54 pm | Permalink
  16. JK says

    Thanks Andrew, I hope you wrote that in a room that had air conditioning.

    Posted July 7, 2008 at 2:47 pm | Permalink
  17. Malcolm says

    Thanks, Andrew. “Bait” it was: I knew that linking to that Stephens essay would bring you back with another thoughtful comment. Do forgive me for that.

    Obviously, Brent Staples is no climate scientist, and is in no position to adjudicate any scientific claims. He is, however, a thoughtful observer of the human and political climate, and his list of factors that have contributed to the social attitudes surrounding this issue is, I think, a fair assessment.

    I don’t for a moment think that there is an actual conspiracy, in the literal meaning of the word, to suppress dissent in the scientific and academic communities; I doubt that is what Lindzen is imagining either. Rather, I think that what is happening is the result of a common mindset on the Left that is eager to foreclose on 1) and 2) so they can get on with large-scale responses to the “emergency” — for the reasons listed both in Staples’s essay and my earlier remarks.

    That the Argo data and the Nature paper were published is proper, and heartening — but to dismiss Lindzen simply as “full of it” seems a bit much; his credentials are certainly unimpeachable, and he has been in the thick of this fray from the beginning.

    As I said above, I am genuinely interested in understanding, as well as I can, the relevant science; the Real Climate site seems to be a good entry point for learning more about both sides of this issue. I must repeat that I am in no way making any sort of assertion that claims of anthropogenic global warming are false: I simply haven’t the expertise to say such a thing, and I don’t even lean toward that opinion. It seems quite reasonable to me that human activity has indeed had an effect on the earth’s climate. It is only the febrile hype and hysteria, leading in turn to a familiar call for large-scale progressive reforms — along with the undeniable existence of well-credentialed, yet demonized (“full of it!”) dissenting voices, that provoke and motivate me here. As Staples puts it:

    “…the main theme that emerges is that what the developed world needs is a large dose of penance … our successes are undeserved and [our] prosperity is morally suspect. In this view, global warming is nature’s great comeuppance, affirming as nothing else our guilty conscience for our worldly success.”

    So yes, as you say, it may well be that 1) and 2) are already resolved; I certainly don’t claim that they aren’t. I’m trying to understand that part for myself. The science is not simple, which I am sure means that most people understand it not at all; yet there are a great many who are already off to the races with grandiose social-engineering proposals based on unexamined conclusions to items 3), 4), and 5) — and that worries me rather a lot. So I’m going to continue to be a bit of a gadfly on this topic, I think.

    I do thank you for joining in this conversation, though. Your comments are helpful, and welcome.

    Posted July 7, 2008 at 3:07 pm | Permalink
  18. Malcolm says

    Here’s a good example of just what I’m talking about:

    Climate change makes island kids bony, stunted

    What they mean is that a drought has caused a famine. There have been cyclical droughts in this region for thousands of years.

    Posted July 7, 2008 at 4:00 pm | Permalink
  19. Malcolm says

    And this:

    Earth begins to kill people for changing its climate

    Wherein we read:

    The authors of the report delivered at the UN headquarters in New York at the session of the UN Economic and Social Council did not specify the reason why natural disasters started happening more frequently in the world today. They said, however, that the frequency of catastrophes could be linked with the global climate change. It was also said that the death toll in developing states exceeds the number of casualties in developed states 20-30 times.

    “The consequences of disasters become more and more destructive, whereas the countries are unable to overcome them effectively without the assistance from the international community. We believe it is necessary to set up a foundation to help the victims of natural disasters with the budget of 4 or 5 billion dollars” …

    Posted July 7, 2008 at 5:15 pm | Permalink
  20. JK says

    I realize this is extemporaneous but:

    As to the Argo data and that there’s only 3000 or so data collectors well…, personally if I were the one who had to go out and service the things, I would prefer they be placed just offshore of Malibu, Waikiki, maybe a few off Pattiya. But since I am not the sonobuoy service guy they were placed in pretty “currenty and upwelly places.” Mighty inconvenient I’d say.

    Additionally there are USGS detectors out there (which detectors admittedly are serving another purpose but the data from those can add to the research-and it seems an effort to do so is afoot) but I would prefer to see a greater data set than what I have thus far been presented.

    I’m no expert in climate science either, heck I don’t know that I would proclaim myself to be an expert in anything. But in my reference to T. Rex “Bang A Gong” above, that is not an isolated example. Look what Gilgamesh got for banging the tocsin so often.

    Posted July 7, 2008 at 6:52 pm | Permalink
  21. Malcolm says

    By the way, JK, thanks for that Mencken quote.

    Posted July 7, 2008 at 7:02 pm | Permalink
  22. JK says

    It is helpful at times, strategic. But I have noticed your knowledge of same. I’m just waiting for Santayana.

    Posted July 7, 2008 at 7:49 pm | Permalink
  23. bob koepp says

    I doubt that CO2 is the main driver of the moderate warming we saw during the last three decades of the previous century. That could only be because I’m an ideologue. Silly me.

    Posted July 8, 2008 at 3:38 pm | Permalink
  24. Andrew says


    It depends on your motivation. Can you articulate a clear problem with the scientific reasoning behind the proposed role for CO2 or do you suspect the entire climate science community is manipulating the data for some nefarious purpose?


    I agree that the two news articles are awful and should not implicate climate change in such a direct way. that second one is particularly nice. Any Russian speakers out there? Something must be getting lost in translation. But, we really do need to distinguish the media hype from the strong scientific support for the importance of anthropogenic CO2.

    I also think you are being too easy on Stephens. A dishonest attack on the evidence for warming is the basis for that entire essay. His lack of scientific training is no excuse. his ‘mistakes’ would have been easily avoided if honest analysis was his goal. If he had written an essay that starting with this: “Given the growing evidence for a human role in increasing global temperatures, the clamoring from the left to take drastic action grows louder. It is like a religion to them and we must devise arguments to counter their influence. This is essential in order to avoid the rise of a eco-communist state…” Or some such language, I would not have a beef with him. That is not the essay he chose to write. He chose to attack the science with baseless and easily deflected assertions and for that he deserves to be condemned.

    As for Lindzen, the sad truth is that he is full of it. His fancy title and past accomplishments do not render him immune to impeachable offenses. It is a fallacy to suggest otherwise. His essay is loaded with misinformation, half-truths and misleading statements.

    Posted July 8, 2008 at 7:53 pm | Permalink
  25. Malcolm says

    Hi Andrew,

    I rather doubt that Stephens is being deliberately dishonest; I think that he genuinely thinks the ideological tilt has become so pronounced that it is indeed, as people like Lindzen claim, skewing the science itself. (Keep in mind that the influence of the far left in academia, where much of the science is done, is arguably all but hegemonic.) The issue, which has become a central battleground of the ideological struggle between free-market capitalism and socialist collectivism, is so politically charged that if there ever were a topic where one might have good reason to worry about the impartiality of science, this would be it.

    As for Lindzen’s essay, what, in particular, do you see as misinformation? If he’s actually making stuff up, I’d certainly like to know; I was assuming he could be trusted.

    Posted July 8, 2008 at 10:08 pm | Permalink
  26. bob koepp says

    Andrew – I have problems with the scientific reasoning behind the claim that CO2 is the main driver of recent warming. I’m completely unconvinced of the reality of the feedback mechanisms postulated to get the numbers to come out right since there doesn’t appear to be independent evidence for such mechanisms. By my lights, this renders the feedback hypothesis ad hoc.

    I have a very similar problem with the way the several hundred year lag between warming and CO2 increases in the paleoclimate record is “explained away”.

    Posted July 9, 2008 at 9:51 am | Permalink
  27. JK says

    Well I find myself back arguing that atmospheric water does have effects not appreciated by the “We’re gonna be toast types.”

    Posted July 16, 2008 at 2:48 pm | Permalink