The first nuclear weapons deonation in history took place on July 15, 1945, at the White Sands Proving Ground in New Mexico. A month after the Trinity Test, the US dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, leading to Japan’s surrender and the end of World War II in the Pacific.
Since then, there have been over 2,051 other nuclear weapons tests around the world.
No other force epitomizes the absolute destructive power humanity has unlocked in the way nuclear weapons have. And the weapons rapidly became more poweful in the decades after that first test.
The device tested 70 years ago had a 20 kiloton yield, meaning it had the explosive force of 20,000 tons of TNT. Within 20 years, the US and USSR tested nuclear weapons larger than 10 megatons, or 10 million tons of TNT. For scale, these weapons were at least 500 times as strong as the first atomic bomb.
To put the size of history’s largest nuclear blasts to scale, we have used Alex Wellerstein’s Nukemap, a tool for visualising the terrifying real-world impact of a nuclear explosion.
In the following maps, the first ring of the blast is the fireball, followed by the radiation radius. In the pink radius, almost all buildings are demolished and fatalities approach 100%. In the grey radius, stronger buildings would weather the blast, but injuries are nearly universal. In the orange radius, people with exposed skin would suffer from third-degree burns, and flammable materials would catch on fire, leading to possible firestorms.
On August 25 and September 19, 1962, less than a month apart, the USSR conducted nuclear tests #158 and #168. Both tests were held over the Novaya Zemlya region of Russia, an archipelago to the north of Russia near the Arctic Ocean.
No film or photographs of the tests have been released, but both tests included the use of 10-megaton atomic bombs. These blasts would have incinerated everything within 1.77 square miles of their epicenters while causing third-degree burns up to an area of 1,090 square miles.
Romeo was the second US nuclear detonation of the Castle Series of tests, which were conducted in 1954. All of the detonations took place over Bikini Atoll. Castle Romeo was the third-most powerful test of the series and had a yield of 11 megatons.
Romeo was the first device to be tested on a barge over open water instead of on a reef, as the US was quickly running out of islands upon which it could test nuclear weapons.
The blast would have incinerated everything within 1.91 square miles.
On October 23, 1961, the Soviets conducted nuclear test #123 over Novaya Zemlya. Test #123 used a 12.5 megaton nuclear bomb. A bomb of this size would incinerate everything within 2.11 square miles while causing third-degree burns in an area of 1,309 square miles.
No footage or photographs of this nuclear test have been released.
Castle Bravo, detonated on February 28, 1954, was the first of the Castle series of tests and the largest US nuclear blast of all time.
Bravo was anticipated as a 6-megaton explosion. Instead, the bomb produced a 15-megaton fission blast. Its mushroom cloud reached 114,000 feet into the air.
The US military's miscalculation of the test's size resulted in the irradiation of approximately 665 inhabitants of the Marshall Islands and the radiation poisoning death of a Japanese fisherman who was 80 miles away from the detonation site.
From August 5 to September 27, 1962, the USSR conducted a series of nuclear tests over Novaya Zemlya. Tests #173, #174, and #147 all stand out as being the fifth-, fourth-, and third-strongest nuclear blasts in history.
All three produced blasts of about 20 megatons, or about 1,000 times as strong as the Trinity bomb. A bomb of this strength would incinerate everything within 3 square miles.
No footage or photographs of these nuclear tests have been released.
On December 24, 1962, the USSR conducted Test #219 over Novaya Zemlya. The bomb had a yield of 24.2 megatons. A bomb of this strength would incinerate everything within 3.58 square miles while causing third-degree burns in an area up to 2,250 square miles.
There are no released photos or video of this explosion.
On October 30, 1961, the USSR detonated the largest nuclear weapon ever tested and created the biggest man-made explosion in history. The blast, 3,000 times as strong as the bomb used on Hiroshima, broke windows 560 miles away, according to Slate.
The flash of light from the blast was visible up to 620 miles away.
The Tsar Bomba, as the test was ultimately known, had a yield between 50 and 58 megatons, twice the size of the second-largest nuclear blast.
A bomb of this size would create a fireball 6.4 square miles large and would be able to give humans third-degree burns within 4,080 square miles of the bomb's epicentre.
The first atmoic blast was a fraction the size of the Tsar Bomba, but it was still an explsion of almost unimaginable size.
According to the NukeMap, a weapon with a 20-kiloton yield produces a fireball with a radius of 260 meters, making its total width the size of 5 football fields. It would spew deadly radiation over an area 7 miles in width, and would produce third-degree burns in an area over 12 miles in width.
If dropped over lower Manhattan, a bomb of that size would kill over 150,000 people and produce fallout stretching all the way to central Connecticut, according to the NukeMap.
The first atomic bomb was tiny by nuclear weapons standards. But its destructiveness is sill nealry impossible to grasp.
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