Water bomb

By Phil Plait | September 26, 2012 10:30 am

Via Jenny Winder, I saw this video showing footage from underwater nuclear bomb tests in 1958. It’s astonishing.

The awesome power and energy released is difficult to wrap your head around. Think on this: a cubic meter of water weighs a ton. Now imagine taking a single cubic meter of water and lifting it, say, 100 meters in the air, accelerating it to several hundred kilometers per hour.

Now look again at that plume. How many cubic meters of water were are in it? Even being conservative I’d say it was in the millions, meaning millions of tons of water blasted upward and outward by the force of the explosion. It’s terrifying. And mind you, the test shown was for a relatively small blast: about an 8 or 9 kiloton yield (the equivalent of 8-9 thousand tons of TNT), whereas big nukes are capable of 20 megatons, over a thousand times the explosive yield shown.

I’m fascinated by big bangs – from the first one, to supernovae, and all the way down to bombs we humans make in our clever and plodding attempts to kill one another. Every now and again it’s good to get a solid reminder of just what these explosions are capable of.


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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Piece of mind, Science

Comments (34)

  1. That’ll mess up your quiet little fishing trip.

  2. ND

    I wonder how many whales across the globe became deaf.

  3. Nick L

    As impressive as that test was, there is still one thing from the Baker test during Operation Crossroads that puts it to shame:

    http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/09/Operation_Crossroads_Baker_Edit.jpg

    That vertical black smudge is the battleship Arkansas.

  4. DN Foster

    I’d highly recommend checking out Trinity and Beyond on Netflix Streaming, it’s a documentary narrated by William Shattner detailing the development and testing of nuclear weapons from the Manhattan Project (Trinity) to China’s first bomb. It’s an extraordinarily fascinating watch, though not exactly for the feint of heart, given it includes footage of livestock being cooked alive during some of the tests.

  5. Ray

    Cool video, but what was the purpose of the test? We had already done underwater nuke tests in the late 40s.

  6. TSC

    Ray @ #3: The US military had a bunch of new weapons designs, and wanted to test them before a testing moratorium was imposed.

  7. Sean

    Along those lines, http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2012/07/24/would-you-stand-under-a-nuclear-blast/

    This was also a ‘small’ explosion of about 1.5kt (it was an AIR-2 Genie rocket), at 18,500 to 20,000 feet, and everyone down below was just fine. The ‘lethal’ range was only a few hundred meters, while this one must have been lethal orders of magnitude further away (even compensating for kt-rating difference).

    What this reminds me of is how kinetic energy is hugely more destructive than airblast or chemical damage is. Look at tanks: most of whats fired now (in tank v. tank scenarios) is a kinetic energy penetrator (big tungsten rod), rather than explosive rounds.

    Short story: we’re gonna need a bigger boat…

  8. Wzrd1

    Erm, that test was either shot Maple at 213 kilotons or shot Aspen at 319 kilotons on 10-June-1958 and 14-June-1958 respectively.
    The hint is the date of the film on the preparation for the shot. I’d go with Maple.

  9. Justin

    As awful as their intended use is, nuclear bombs are immensely interesting. For a good description of the physics of the effects (evolution of fireball, blast wave, thermal radiation, etc.) check http://nuclearweaponarchive.org/Nwfaq/Nfaq5.html#nfaq5.3 from The Nuclear Weapon Archive.

    Amazing tidbit that I don’t remember how to explain at the moment: “The brightness per unit area of a fireball does not diminish with distance (except for the effects of haze), the apparent fireball size simply gets smaller.”

  10. cory

    Who was speaking (the photographer?) I”m curious how they secured the cameras while the whole island was swept by that third wave.

  11. Krylon

    I’m always torn apart when seeing videos of nuclear weapons tests. On the on hand it is just sad how much effort, cleverness and resources our species invests in hurting killing our fellow men. On the other hand, if you are able to ignore that sad aspect for just a moment, the images and the scales at which nuclear explosions manifest are breathtaking.
    But still – if that much money and effort had been put into eradicating world hunger or, say, Tuberculosis, it would have been a much better investment.
    It’s a amazing how we, as a species, can be so clever and so boneheaded at the same time…

  12. Nanobot101

    @Krylon, I can’t help but agree with your statement. Humans(Sigh)

  13. 10^6 tonnes of water raised 100 meters by an 8 or 9 kt warhead seems perfectly reasonable,

    mgh = (10^9 kg)(9.8 m/sec^2)(100 m) = 10^12 J
    1 kt = 4×10^12 J

    until 3-D losses are considered. “shot Maple at 213 kilotons or shot Aspen at 319 kilotons” fills the lacuna. More interesting would pop 10 megatonnes in a deep sea trench. Water’s latent enthalpy of vaporization is suppressed by local hydrostatic pressure. Plausible deniability demands a 21 December 2012 shot. Plasma ball inflation, collapse, and rebound will set cavitation planetary records. International treaty bars popping a nuke in space to verify that said detonation is initially invisible (everything is heated to emit soft x-rays – no visible light until later).

  14. @7 Krylon: I’m always torn apart when seeing videos of nuclear weapons tests. On the on hand it is just sad how much effort, cleverness and resources our species invests in hurting killing our fellow men. On the other hand, if you are able to ignore that sad aspect for just a moment, the images and the scales at which nuclear explosions manifest are breathtaking.
    But still – if that much money and effort had been put into eradicating world hunger or, say, Tuberculosis, it would have been a much better investment.
    It’s a amazing how we, as a species, can be so clever and so boneheaded at the same time…

    Ditto here. And if it weren’t for our propensity to build mountains of weapons (and use them), nukes would be available for so many potentially positive scientific uses. The big one of course would be a Project Orion-type spacecraft. Were it not for the cold war, MAD, and the nuclear test ban treaties that came from it, we could have had interplanetary colonies from Mercury to the moons of Saturn by now.

  15. Brian Too

    @7. Krylon,

    These things were sold on the basis of there being an existential threat to our country(s). The threat was, of course, that the other guys had or were going to have such a capability.

    Hunger or TB, while bad in areas, did not constitute an existential threat. And mostly, the areas affected were in lesser developed countries not the official responsibility of the countries developing the nukes.

    That’s the way you develop expensive weapons systems that, for the most part (in the case of nukes), cannot be used. On the other hand hunger and disease treatment/prevention programs can be used, and on a very extensive basis too.

  16. carbonUnit

    I wonder what size asteroid would produce a similar event on impact?

  17. shunt1

    @10. Joseph G:

    “…nukes would be available for so many potentially positive scientific uses. The big one of course would be a Project Orion-type spacecraft. ”

    Yes, when you see the actual power available with that energy source, if properly applied, it would have achieved so much.

    If that energy source was used as thrust (Project Orion) instead of as an explosive, the possibilities would have been amazing.

    Oh well….

  18. Grand Lunar

    And from AtomCentral (filmmaker Peter Kuran), no less.

    He has several documentries on the subject of nuclear tests.

    And it is incredible to see the footage.

  19. @carbonUnit You can play with it yourself at http://impact.ese.ic.ac.uk/ImpactEffects/ but my quick attempts show that a typical 5m diameter asteroid results in a ~8 kiloton blast.

    To get to the 200+ kiloton range quoted by @Wzrd1, we’d have to increase that to roughly 25m.

    According to the simulator, such a blast (in this case in air, because it doesn’t substantially make it to the surface) produces a wave between 1 and 16 feet in height. Seems about right for the video.

  20. Jess Tauber

    You sure this wasn’t just the destruction, with a basilisk fang as trigger, of one of Voldemort’s horcruxes? I think I can make out the imago of his face in the blast cloud…

  21. astrojenny

    Thank you for the shout out Phil. Much appreciated : )

  22. stjobe

    @8 Wzrd1: At 0:10 you can see an info board, lower right it says “Operation Hardtack”, and a date of June 9th.

    Wikipedia has a 8kt blast for Operation Hardtack on June 8th, test name Umbrella and location Enewatak. “Shallow depth underwater shot (150 ft.)”.

    The youtube video is entitled “Wahoo and Umbrella”.

    Both Maple and Aspen were fired at Bikini Atoll.

  23. Robin

    @Justin (#9):

    Your statement isn’t clear. The emittance of the fire ball (i.e. the amount of light coming off the surface per unit area of the surface) might be constant-ish, but it’s radiant flux density falls off with the square of the distance from the fireball. Which metric are you referring to?

  24. David Weingart

    Technically, of course, 1 cubic meter of water is a tonne, not a ton :)

  25. scgvlmike

    #11 Krylon: I’d venture to say that the same amount of money that’s been spent on weaponry since WWII -has- been spent on eradicating diseases, to varying levels of success, and on feeding the hungry. We’ve eradicated smallpox in the wild, and made significant progress in addressing dyptheria, malaria, cancer, HIV infection rates, diabetes (artificial insulin, anyone?), hypertension, benign prostatic hyperplasia (of particular interest to us middle-aged men), physical deafness (as opposed to nerve deafness), etc, etc, etc. In addition, regarding feeding the hungry, the green revolution wasn’t done on the back of free research, but on by dedicating hundreds, if thousands, of researchers worldwide into tackling the inefficiencies and waste in farming and transportation of farm products.
    In large part, the remaining hungry don’t go without because there’s not enough food, but because inefficient governments can’t move fast enough to get the food to the people in need– or are corrupt or evil enough to deliberately block the transportation of food to the starving, or are too weak to prevent warlords from highjacking or destroying the food.

    There’s no reason a modern society can’t address multiple problems at the same time. It’s not we have a single scientist and can only address what that one person can do. We have many scientists, each with their own specialty, for good reason.

  26. “And mind you, the test shown was for a relatively small blast: about an 8 or 9 kiloton yield (the equivalent of 8-9 thousand tons of TNT), whereas big nukes are capable of 20 megatons, over a thousand times the explosive yield shown.”

    And to think that even that is teeny tiny compared to a good volcanic blast, or the impact of a sizable asteroid. It is so hard to wrap one’s head around such energetic events.

  27. kat wagner

    What Krylon #11 said. What the hell we gotta prove this stuff for? Yeah, we’re badass but so? Let’s clean up this place, feed hungry people, make it cold again.

  28. Nigel Depledge

    David Weingart (24) said:

    Technically, of course, 1 cubic meter of water is a tonne, not a ton

    Perhaps, but if you’re going to get technical, it’s a cubic metre, not a cubic meter (after all, who cares what shape my measuring device is?).

    Yes, in British English, metre and meter are homophones.

  29. Blathering Blathiscope

    Surfing to Jenny Winder’s site has given me the most interesting internet surfing I’ve done.

    Go to her site. Surf.

    https://plus.google.com/116017061364727182937/posts/LNp54HCBYez

    Awesome!

  30. Kaleberg

    I remember reading Vannevar Bush’s Modern Arms and Free Men in which he downplays the usefulness of atomic bombs as weapons. He felt they weren’t all that more powerful than conventional arms. (The bombing raid on Tokyo, using conventional ordinance. just prior to Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed over 200,000, more than the two nuclear weapons combined.) Also, ICBMs hadn’t been developed yet, so he felt that conventional anti-aircraft and anti-ship weapons would more than keep America safe from atomic attack.

    There was one exception that he did worry about, an atomic bomb detonated under water would create a radioactive water plume that he felt was extremely deadly. Vannevar Bush was the scientist and engineer who played a central role in building America’s WWII “arsenal of democracy”, so I assume he knew his weapons. His recommendation was to have a good anti-submarine defense.

    I don’t all the details of how and why an underwater nuclear detonation would be so particularly deadly, but I’m guessing that this kind of test was part of the effort to find out.

  31. Nigel Depledge

    Kaleberg (31) said:

    The bombing raid on Tokyo, using conventional ordinance. just prior to Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed over 200,000, more than the two nuclear weapons combined

    But exposed significantly more American airmen to risk of being shot down.

  32. Nick L

    Kaleberg Said: “I remember reading Vannevar Bush’s Modern Arms and Free Men in which he downplays the usefulness of atomic bombs as weapons. He felt they weren’t all that more powerful than conventional arms. (The bombing raid on Tokyo, using conventional ordinance. just prior to Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed over 200,000, more than the two nuclear weapons combined.) ”

    You know, someone on CNN’s Cold War series had the perfect rebuttal for that sort of reasoning. (This was at the dawn of the MAD era though)

    It went something like: “World War 2 killed 20 million people. However, it didn’t do it in one day.”

  33. joseph

    Can someone provide a transcript for this? Yeah, I know, Google has “asstomatic captions.”

    “Wall who handled all over the first to underwater shots was more amazing in some ways the rockets were set up that was a pan at the time he reached services erroll station…”

    Yeah. Thanks, Youtube (it’s been what, two years now?)

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