Chris DeGraw / Digital Trends
One of the most classic tropes in science fiction is the insidious plan to destroy the planet with a massive bomb towards the end of the world. You’ve almost certainly seen it before. The Trope has appeared in some of the world’s most popular film franchises, from Mission Impossible to Planet of the Apes. Sometimes the bomb in question ends all life on Earth, but in other cases it is powerful enough to blow the entire planet to pieces.
The mere ubiquity of this troop begs the question: are weapons of this size and power possible in the real world? Sure, nuclear weapons are deadly and dangerous, but do they have a realistic doomsday potential? Could someone build a nuclear weapon big enough to wipe out the planet? What would it take To get an answer, Digital Trends spoke to Brian Toon, an atmospheric researcher at the University of Colorado Boulder whose research led to the discovery of nuclear winter.
According to Toon, it is helpful to think about the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs if you want to know what force it takes to blow up the planet. The energy released by this collision was equivalent to an explosion of 100 million megatons. Toon says the chance that we will ever build an atomic bomb this powerful is practically zero.
How can he be so sure? Well, the largest atomic bomb ever detonated, the Tsar Bomba of the Soviet Union, had a yield of only 50 megatons. That is more than 1,570 times more powerful than the bombs the US dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki together. And while the explosion that caused Tsar Bomba was the largest human-made explosion in history, it was still only 0.0000001 percent as powerful as the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs.
Even if we could cobble together enough fissile material to create a bomb with the same destructive power as the asteroid mentioned above, it wouldn’t be enough to destroy the planet. “The asteroid that killed the dinosaurs didn’t do anything to orbit or blow up the earth,” says Toon. “It made a hole in the Yucatán Peninsula and covered parts of the United States with a pile of stones from the crater and [exterminated] A fair fraction of all the species on the planet, but it didn’t do anything serious to the planet itself. “
Not so sure of destruction
So apparently we can’t blow up the earth with a massive atomic bomb – but could we destroy the planet in any other way with such a bomb? Another popular movie proposition is that nuclear war leads to what is known as a nuclear winter. That’s the idea of nuclear explosions that inject soot into the stratosphere and block the sun. Could a massive bomb do this all by itself?
According to Toon, the answer is no. One large bomb would not be enough to cause a nuclear winter. He says that for a nuclear winter to take place, dozens of bombs would have to be dropped in cities around the world at around the same time. Even if you were to completely decimate one of the largest cities in the world, it wouldn’t create enough soot to cause a nuclear winter.
“Toon says setting the Earth’s atmosphere on fire before the first atomic bomb exploded was a serious problem.”
“If you want a nuclear winter, you have to burn a lot of material, mostly in cities,” says Toon. “It’s a bit difficult to quantify, but it’s believed that if you used typical sized nuclear weapons in 100 cities – major cities – you would likely create a nuclear winter.”
So a nuclear winter with a single bomb is unlikely – but how about setting the earth’s atmosphere on fire like the bomb on the planet of the apes supposedly could? Surely a huge bomb could do that, right? As it turns out, that’s not particularly likely either.
Toon said setting the earth’s atmosphere on fire before the first atomic bomb exploded was a serious problem. At the time, physicists feared that detonating the bomb could start a chain reaction that would set the atmosphere on fire, but they decided to test the bomb anyway.
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“People feared it would start a chain reaction in the atmosphere – a fusion reaction – and basically burn all the water on the planet and destroy the earth,” says Toon. “They needed to know how likely it was that the atoms in the atmosphere were actually absorbing the particles that came from the fusion reaction, and they weren’t 100 percent sure what it was, but someone said there was a one-in One – million chance of destroying the entire planet. “
According to Toon, these physicists decided that a million chance is worth the risk and they set the bomb off. This explosion did not set the Earth’s atmosphere on fire, nor did the many atomic bombs we have fired since then. So it seems pretty unlikely that our theoretical super bomb would do this.
What Toon fears about atomic bombs is less extravagant, but very dangerous. He says both the United States and Russia have worked to improve their nuclear weapons capabilities in recent years, and we could be approaching another arms race if things escalate further.
“It could become one, and it would be very expensive and worthless if you didn’t happen to be someone who works for companies that make weapons,” says Toon.