Naturally, since I often write about supernatural horror in my fiction, I write a fair bit about paranormal subject matter on this blog. I find it interesting to look at all the strange stories people tell each other in order to elicit a scare. These stories, in my mind at least, reveal a fair bit about people, more than they reveal about the natural world at any rate.
Today, however, we will be discussing horrors of a different sort, horrors that today may seem distant but only twenty or thirty years ago were all too real. While today the threat of terrorism preoccupies the minds of those in the halls of power, not so long ago an even larger threat loomed larger over the lives of all Americans.
You see, before the 1990′s, the world was at war. Certainly, it was a cold war, but that did not make the terror any less real. Today’s generation laughs at the old “duck and cover” PSA’s, but fifty odd years ago that cutesy little song gave voice to very real fears of nuclear annihilation. The world’s only two super powers built nuclear weapons at a feverish pace, constantly attempting to one up one another in terms of technology and the power of their weaponry. MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) kept the powers in check, but it also demanded that the rivals build up their weaponry almost in step with one another. Even as the stockpiles of both conventional and nuclear weapons increased, both the USSR and the United States had their fingers on that big red button that, if pushed, would end the world as we know it.
The circumstances were ripe for one power or the other to build a weapon so stupendously powerful that, even today, it is a source of terrified awe. The dubious distinction of having produced the most powerful weapon in history went to the USSR, in the form of the bomb widely nicknamed the Tsar Bomba. Now, the Russians (and subsequently the USSR, which was comprised of 15 countries including Russia) had an obsession for big things. Russians produced the Tsar Kolkol (Tsar Bell), the largest bell in the world, and the Tsar Pushka (Tsar Cannon), the largest cannon in the world. It seems only fitting that the world’s largest country would have a propensity for making big things, and that said country would produce the largest nuclear weapon in history.
The Tsar Bomba was meant to be a show of force by the Soviet Union, and boy did it ever deliver. The device was a three stage thermonuclear weapon. An initial fission reaction involving Uranium-238 (the fissile material used in the bomb dropped on Hiroshima) would kick start the fusion of hydrogen, which would then result in further fusion reactions that would release immense amounts of energy. The bomb weighed in at approximately 60,000 pounds (27 metric tons), measuring 26 feet (8 meters) long and 6.9 feet (2.1 meters) in diameter. The weapon was so large that the plane carrying it, a Tu-95 heavy bomber, had to be modified in order to carry the bomb to its test site, a remote spit of land on the northern fringe of Russia. Designers initially intended the bomb to have a yield of 100 megatons, but fears of excessive fall out led them to halve the yield to 50 megatons.
Whew. Those are a lot of numbers. Let’s put some things in perspective. A megaton, when used in reference to explosive yield, refers to the explosive force of 1 million tons of TNT. The Tsar Bomba, then, exploded forces equivalent to 50 million tons of TNT. These numbers are very difficult for anyone to wrap their mind around, even a science guy who’s fairly accustomed to huge numbers. So, I poked around a bit and found a few references that put just how ridiculously powerful this thing was. I’m certain all of you recall that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the first (and thank God, only) cities to suffer nuclear attack. Both cities suffered unparalleled destruction within seconds of detonation, and tens of thousands were killed. Well, the Tsar Bomba was 1400 times more powerful than the bombs dropped over both those cities COMBINED.
…holy crap. I think that just blew my mind.
…anyway. To say that the Tsar Bomba’s detonation was massive would be an understatement. The bomb exploded 2.5 miles (4km) above the surface of the Earth. Everything within about 22 miles (35km) of the blast was annihilated. A fire ball about 2.5 miles (3.5km) seared the sky, resulting in a mushroom cloud 25 miles (40km) wide at its base that stretched 40 miles (64km) into the atmosphere.
Buildings for hundreds of miles around were destroyed or severely damaged in the resulting shock wave. The blast wave shattered windows as far away as 560 miles (900 km) away. The heat generated by the blast was enough to cause 3rd degree burns 62 miles (100km) from the blast site, and the fireball was visible 620 miles (1000km) away. The shock wave circled the globe three times before finally dissipating.
If such a weapon were dropped over a populated area, the results would be unthinkable. The Tsar Bomba would not be a city destroyer, but a region destroyer. A weapon of such magnitude could disrupt the function of an entire country, rendering a huge swath of land uninhabited within seconds. The fact that the Tsar Bomba was the cleanest nuclear weapon ever detonated (the fission phase was limited to cut the production of radioactive fallout) would be of little comfort for those caught within its huge destructive radius. With only a few modifications (and a huge increase in weight), the Tsar Bomba could have been made to yield 100 megatons, which would have resulted in a much “dirtier” explosion.
Luckily, such a weapon was not feasible. The Tsar Bomba was simply too large and too powerful to be a usable weapon. A great deal of the energy of the explosion was released into the atmosphere, and the weapon was so heavy that there was no feasible way to deliver it.
Of course, that shouldn’t leave you feeling too relaxed. While no weapon is as massive as the test device detonated in 1962, warheads with half that yield have been successfully mounted to intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM’s) that can be launched to any point in the world within a few moments. As if that is not terrifying enough, there are ICBM’s mounted with multiple, targeted warheads that can essentially carpet bomb a region with nuclear death. If anything, nuclear technology has become more deadly since the most powerful weapon in history was detonated.