Since science has progressed to the point of harnessing the forces of nature, mankind has been using scientific advancements for the greater good of humanity. But scientific advancements have also, undeniably, contributed to great tragedies. The awesome power of nature in and of itself is indifferent to the human condition — without warning, it can destroy entire civilizations of people and ecosystems that have taken centuries and even millennia to build and sustain. When man-made inventions go wrong, or are used in intentionally dangerous ways, this can combine with natures’ formidable force to create horrific devastation.
History can be changed in a matter of seconds by both manufactured and natural phenomena. The nuclear meltdown in Chernobyl; the bomb flying over Hiroshima; the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs — even the very beginnings of the universe. Through aeons, explosions both natural and man-made have changed the world and the fate of every human in it.
Fatal disasters that occur in nature can rarely be controlled, but people do have control over their own power. If nothing else, we can look back on recent history and learn from the potential advantages but also the pitfalls and dangers of emerging technologies. Surely, natural disasters will happen time and time again, despite our best efforts. Human-made disasters, however, are a completely different matter. Here, we’ve detailed seven cataclysmic explosions – some preventable, some tragically inevitable – and how they changed the world as we know it today.
7. The Chernobyl Nuclear Plant Disaster
Even if nuclear technologies are some of the safest in the world, there is no guarantee that disaster can always be avoided. When Chernobyl’s flawed reactor exploded in 1986, about 5% of radioactive elements from the reactor’s core was released into the atmosphere. Two workers were killed on the night of the explosions and 28 people died in the following weeks due to acute radiation poisoning. Large radioactive elements were released into the air for 10 days after the accident as emergency personnel fought the effects of the explosion. Although some scientific studies in the past warned of the global health effects due to the accident, the World Health Organization reported that “apart from this ‘thyroid cancer’ increase, there is no evidence of a major public health impact attributable to radiation exposure 14 years after the accident.” Still, the explosion serves as a reminder of the fallibility of technological innovation.
6. Hiroshima and Nagasaki
The United States and Japan were engaged in tremendous conflict during World War II. Both sides faced off with the military might of their respective armies and weapons. When The Empire of Japan attacked Pearl harbour in 1941 in one of the biggest attacks on American soil, the U.S. retaliated by dropping two atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The B-29 Bomber carrying the uranium 235 nuclear weapon (nicknamed “Little Boy”) flew over Hiroshima on August 06, 1945. The bomb was dropped and, upon detonation, instantly killed up to 140,000 people and injured tens of thousands of others. Only three days later, another B-29 Bomber returned to Nagasaki and dropped a plutonium bomb (nicknamed “Fat Man”), killing 75,000 residents of 286,000. The two explosions are forever known throughout history as the biggest and most devastating man-made disasters ever known.
5. The Tunguska Event
The Tunguska event had so much power that a person 40 miles (35 kilometres) from the point of impact could be hurled to the ground by the intense heat wave. The asteroid hurdled from space in 1908 and landed in Siberia, Russia. Scientific expeditions 19 years later uncovered the grisly evidence of the impact: All of the trees in the impact zone laid bare, all of them pointing in the direction of the blast. In the vicinity of ground zero, all of the trees were standing upright, but all of the bark was stripped away, suggesting that rapidly moving shock waves had occurred. The 220 million pound asteroid travelled to earth at more than 33,000 miles per hour, heating the air around it to 44,000 degrees Fahrenheit. This is remembered today as an example of the destructive forces of not only what’s on the planet earth, but what lies outside of it, too.
4. The Mount Tambora Eruption
In Sumbawa, Indonesia, there stands Mount Tambora – an active stratovolcano that stands at 14,000 feet high. In 1875, the massive volcano exploded in the biggest volcanic eruption ever recorded. The power of the eruption scores a 7 on the Volcanic Explosivity Index, a level described as “mega-colossal”, only one level lower than the “apocalyptic” super volcano. The volcanic fallout of sheer energy and ash destroyed millions of acres of crops, leaving people to starve or flee the land. Still, approximately 12,000 people were killed in a matter of hours by the eruption The volcanic eruptions was so powerful that it could be heard from over 2,000 miles away. It created “global climate anomalies” such as a “volcanic winter” – the year of 1918 became known as the “Year Without Summer”.
3. The Krakatau Eruption
Between the islands of Sumatra and Java in the Indonesian arc, Karakatoa volcano erupted in a gargantuan explosion. The blast was so powerful that it could be heard more than 4,000 kilometres away and over 1/13 of the earth’s total surface. It caused giant underwater earthquakes that in turn generated tsunamis that reached 40 meters high (above sea level), leaving only havoc in its wake as it carried coral rock weighing up to 600 tons. About 165 villages were destroyed by the waves and a total of 36,000 people died. Despite the unparalleled force and destruction of the volcano, it left vivid afterglows in the sky as far as New York City, so bright that some firetrucks were called. In some parts of the world, sunsets could last for more than 3 hours.
2. The Cretaceous-Tertiary Extinction Event
How the dinosaurs became extinct has been long debated by scientists. Today, there is a general consensus by palaeontologists that they did not die from evolutionary causes—they were actually killed by one of the biggest explosive impacts in the history of planet earth: the Cretaceous-Tertiary Extinction Event. Just as its name suggests, the event was so powerful that it killed massive populations of dinosaurs, and other animal and plant life, totalling to more than 50% of the world’s species. Whatever left alive could not survive the nuclear winter and devastating imbalances in the planet’s delicate ecological systems. The asteroid that hit the earth was about 6 miles (10 kilometres) in diameter and struck an area that is now known as the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico. Without the asteroid that paved a new way for new life, would humans have ever evolved to become the species they are today?
1. Big Bang
The Big Bang Theory has become famous in science and popular culture as the origins of the entire universe. Astrophysicists and general scientists agree that all of the matter and energy of the universe—including the galaxies, stars, and planets—exploded from a tiny point that released a magnificent explosion of energy. It occurred about 15 billion years ago and started the expansion of the known universe. The Big Bang was so massive that it’s difficult to even conceive or imagine, let alone quantify in numbers that humans can fully comprehend. If the Big Bang were a nuclear explosion, the force would equal approximately 13 to the power of 54 megatons—that’s 13 with 54 zeros after it. An explosion that would obliterate entire galaxies is the same one that also created everything that can, will, and ever exist.