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Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba is a writer and journalist based in Mexico City. She has extensive experience writing and editing environmental features, travel pieces, local news in the…

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Just How Powerful Was The Biggest Bomb Ever Dropped?

74 years ago, at 8:15 am local time On August 6, 1945, the city of Hiroshima was wiped off the map. 70,000 people were killed in a single instant (the death toll would double by December), and an entire metropolis was razed to the ground when the United States dropped an as-yet untested nuclear bomb into the city center as the citizens of Hiroshima began their day. The uranium-235 gun-assembly bomb, nicknamed “Little Boy” by the United States military, released about 15 kilotons of energy at the moment of detonation, which is equivalent to 15,000 tons of TNT. The bomb created a towering mushroom cloud approximately 25,000 feet tall and the radius of destruction was over 1.5 kilometers in size. 

"The impact of the bomb was so terrific that practically all living things - human and animal - were literally seared to death by the tremendous heat and pressure set up by the blast," Tokyo radio was quoted by a report in The Guardian on August 9, 1945, three days after the explosion. "All the dead and injured were burned beyond recognition. Those outdoors were burned to death, while those indoors were killed by the indescribable pressure and heat."

Nuclear bomb energy

Energy Breakdown from a Nuclear Weapon

Source: atomicarchive.com

Just three days later, the United States sent an even bigger bomb, nicknamed the “Fat Man”, toward the city of Kokura, home to one of the biggest weapons arsenals in Japan, after the initial target city of Kyoto had been discarded because of its cultural importance. Lucky for the city of Kokura, the cloud cover above the city proved too thick for a successful mission, and the bomb was rerouted to the decidedly unlucky city of Nagasaki. The explosion of the “Fat Man” was even bigger than that of the “Little Boy,” releasing a massive blast of 21 kilotons of energy. 

The unleashing of weapons this powerful changed the course of human history. Destruction this decisive and indiscriminate was a new and terrifying frontier that paved the way for decades of Cold War and a nuclear arms race that would lead to the detonation of a bomb that would go on to make “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” look like child's play--barely more than a couple of firecrackers.

Looking back, we question how the wholesale slaughter of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, not to mention the millions more left to suffer the long-term implications of nuclear fallout, could ever have come to pass. And indeed, it’s easy to imagine a scenario in which the bombings had never happened. “The bombings were as questionable back then as they are today,” reports Al Jazeera. “Six out of seven five-star US generals and admirals at the time felt there was no need to drop the bomb because Japanese surrender was imminent.” The largely senseless violence of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and their billowing mushroom clouds cast a shadow of fear and anxiety over the world, made concrete by the invention of the Doomsday Clock. “In 1947, the scientists involved in the Manhattan Project created the Doomsday Clock, which represents the likelihood of a man-made global catastrophe, with midnight symbolizing the destruction of civilization as we know it.” Related: Big Oil Hit Hard By Supreme Court Rejection

As the Doomsday Clock ticked, the United States and Russia hurried to stay ahead of it, continuing to develop their nuclear programs despite knowing that the detonation of another nuclear weapon could almost certainly only lead to mutually assured destruction. The culmination of this nuclear arms race was a monster of mythic proportions.

On the morning of 30 October 1961, the Soviet Union sent a Tu-95 bomber from an airfield on the remote reaches of the Kola Peninsula, located within the Arctic Circle, toward its target in Novya Zemlya, a largely unpopulated archipelago in the frigid Barents Sea north of the USSR. 

“The Tu-95 was a specially modified version of a type that had come into service a few years earlier; a huge, swept-wing, four-engine monster tasked with carrying Russia’s arsenal of nuclear bombs,” reports BBC’s Future. On this day in 1961, “the Tu-95 carried an enormous bomb underneath it, a device too large to fit inside the aircraft’s internal bomb-bay, where such munitions would usually be carried. The bomb was 8m long (26ft), had a diameter of nearly 2.6m (7ft) and weighed more than 27 tonnes. It was, physically, very similar in shape to the ‘Little Boy’ and ‘Fat Man’ bombs which had devastated the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki a decade-and-a-half earlier.”

This bomb was the first and last of its kind. A bomb so massive that it could not be used without causing world-ending destruction and the nuclear holocaust the Cold War generation so feared. It was the Tsar Bomba--the King of Bombs.

“Tsar Bomba detonated at 11:32, Moscow time. In a flash, the bomb created a fireball five miles wide. The fireball pulsed upwards from the force of its own shockwave. The flash could be seen from 1,000km (630 miles) away,” says Future. “The bomb’s mushroom cloud soared to 64km (40 miles) high, with its cap spreading outwards until it stretched nearly 100km (63 miles) from end to end. It must have been, from a very far distance perhaps, an awe-inspiring sight.”

Tzar Bomba

On the ground in Novya Zemlya, villages as far as 34 kilometers away were completely destroyed. Roofs and walls crumbled in villages hundreds of miles away. The blast wave reverberated around the Earth a total of three times. The unfathomable blast of the Tsar Bomba unleashed a previously unthinkable amount of energy. Exact figures were kept tightly guarded by the Soviets, who intended to keep the test a secret--but such a secret cannot be kept when the shock of the blast is felt around the world. The scientific consensus is that the bomb’s blast released approximately 57 megatons of energy or 57 million tons of TNT. “That is more than 1,500 times that of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs combined, and 10 times more powerful than all the munitions expended during World War Two.” The really scary part? The original plans for Tsar Bomba had intended for the bomb to be twice as powerful.

So why are we not living in a worldwide nuclear winter? Lucky for humanity, the blast had been far enough above the Earth’s surface that there was relatively little nuclear fallout. The Tsar Bomba was followed by sweeping condemnation from around the world. Armageddon had never been so near. Related: Two Dead Following ISIS Attack On Iraqi Oil Field

Unlike the nuclear bombs that the United States dropped on Japan at the close of World War Two, the Tsar Bomba was a thermonuclear weapon, also known as a hydrogen bomb. This means that in the process of the Tsar Bomba’s detonation, nuclear fission is just the beginning. Instead of agreeing to walk away from such a powerfully destructive form of explosives, however, hydrogen weapons continue to exist in the arsenal of countries such as the United States. Popular Mechanics reports, “Modern nuclear weapons, such as the United States' B83 bombs, use a similar fission process to what is used in atomic bombs, but that initial energy then ignites a fusion reaction in a secondary core of the hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium. The nuclei of the hydrogen atoms fuse together to form helium, and again a chain reaction results in an explosion—this time a much more powerful one.”

Hydrogen bombs are still out there, and as the United States’ international relations continue to deteriorate under the Trump Administration, the Doomsday Clock is still ticking. In fact, last year, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the hands of the Doomsday Clock to two minutes to midnight, where it currently remains. This is the closest to midnight we have ever been, thanks to “continuing climate change, US and Russian nuclear modernization efforts; information warfare threats and other dangers from ‘disruptive technologies’ such as artificial intelligence, synthetic biology and cyberwarfare.” 

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com

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