History Snippets: Hydrogen Bomb

Hydrogen Bomb, Enewetak Atoll 1952

Hydrogen Bomb, Eniwetok Atoll, Marshall Islands 1952. “I am become death, destroyer of worlds.” — J. Robert Oppenheimer, known as “father of the hydrogen bomb.”

Previously we discussed natural disasters, setting the stage and scale for a glimpse at global man-made disaster. An obvious candidate is the hydrogen bomb.

The photo above is from an early US nuclear test, which vaporized the island where the device was detonated. A more powerful 1961 Russian device produced a fireball 5 miles in diameter, and a mushroom cloud rising to a height of 40 miles. The Soviets had also planned but scrubbed a larger-scale test, but their own scientists warned that the plane dropping the test bomb could never escape the blast. Further, fallout would not be constrained to the test area or even Soviet borders.  Cold-war testing the device had potential for starting a “hot war”.  The larger device was built and stockpiled, but never detonated.

The largest of these devices can kill directly and instantly beyond a radius of 100 miles – even with radar or satellite warning of a launch, there is no hope of escape. Rock underneath the blast area is turned to ash by the intense heat. Atomic weapons also kill, by fallout, many more victims outside the enormous blast areas..

Two more primitive and much weaker devices were used to incinerate enemy cities over 60 years ago, ending World War II. No one on the planet has ever used these devices in anger since. There is no popular support for use of weapons which, used in a full-scale exchange between opposing forces, will assuredly result in massive changes to the planet and the extinction of most of its life forms.

At peak burst power, the 1961 Russian test released 1.4% as much energy as the Sun in that same instant of time.

Paradoxically, the same principle by which bombs work as devices of destruction may someday be used to safely harness the fusion power of the sun to provide abundant heating, power and energy to all of mankind.

The total energy released by the largest hydrogen bombs cannot match nature’s average volcanoes, let alone supervolcanoes. Fallout from the man-made device can cause also climate change through “nuclear winters”, but lethal radiation poisoning over vast areas make the nuclear device a man-made doomsday candidate for extinction-class catastrophes. One man-made event, represented by a device that could fit into a very sturdy farmer’s ox-cart, might still rival the Santorini event in long-term destructive power.

It is easy to wish the devices had never been built, but the simple fact is that the physics became widely known prior to World War II. If the Nazi scientists had realized only a few kilograms of material are required, before the secret American war project, the outcome of history might have been dreadfully different.

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