Tour the Great Wide World of Mushroom Cloud Imagery

Nuclear testing yielded far more, and more diverse, images of mushroom clouds than those that are commonly shown

A historical altered photo showing a mushroom cloud over the United Nations and New York City waterfront H. ARMSTRONG ROBERTS/Corbis

Every news article, editorial or book that reports about North Korea’s nuclear tests, advocates for the Nuclear-Test Ban Treaty, or explores the history of nuclear weaponry needs a great, stunning image of a nuclear blast’s mushroom cloud. But people selecting these nuclear test images tend to ignore the wide diversity of possible photos.

All of the above links, for instance, have photos from one 1970 French test. Plus, internet users often mislabel the photos they do use or use fake images by accident, contends Alex Wellerstein, a science historian who runs the nuclear secrecy blog Restricted Data.

He writes:

There were over 500 atmospheric nuclear tests conducted during the Cold War, and most of these were photographed multiple times. (There were over 50 dedicated cameras at the Trinity test, as one little data point.) The number of unique photographs of nuclear explosions must number in the several thousands.

Some mistakes aren’t just a lack of creativity. One video labled as the Tsar Bomba on YouTube is actually a CGI rendering with unrealistic physics. Wellerstein points out real footage of that event for comparison.

Of course, some slideshows and photo features do a great job at illustrating the history of testing.  They delve into the details—where, when and how big the explosion was. They also note how long after the denotation the snapshot of the cloud was taken, as the mushroom cloud evolves. Or they look at a well-known test from a different perspective.

It may seem like a small point to belabor, but Wellerstein adds that the photo rut illustrates that "our cultural understanding of nuclear weapons has stagnated. The same visuals of the bomb, over and over again, mimic the same stories we tell about the bomb, over and over again." In an effort to move the dialogue forward, he provides some "unusual clouds" in his Nuclear Testing Calendar for 2015. More photos can be found at the Trinity Atomic Web Site, the Nevada National Security Site and Here, we have assembled just a few of the many publicly available photos of intriguing mushroom clouds from nuclear bomb tests.

Operation Buster-Jangle was the first joint test series between the Department of Defense and Los Alamos National Laboratories. This photo shows the Charlie test a 14 kt test on October 30, 1951. Courtesy Los Alamos National Laboratory/Trinity Atomic Web site
The first U.S. airdrop of a thermonuclear weapon, Cherokee, was supposed to explode over Namu island but the flight crew dropped it over another island by mistake. As a result much of the data from the test was lost. courtesy U.S. Government/
Dominic Aztec was dropped from a B-52 at 2,610 feet 10 miles south of Christmas Island in April 1962. Photo public domain courtesy U.S. Department of Defense/
Smoky from Operation Plumbbob at the Nevada Test Site. Fires burn on the hillside here and the cloud is just starting to separate from the stem. Photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office
One of five high altitude tests, Starfish Prime exploded 250 miles — in outer space — above the Johnston Island in the Pacific Ocean. It produced a yield equivalent to 1.4 megatonnes of TNT and lit up the sky. This debris fireball was visible three minutes after the explosion. Courtesy Los Alamos National Laboratory/Trinity Atomic Web site
The cloud from the Boltzmann test, part of Operation Plumbbob in 1957 at the Nevada Test site. Photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office
This photo is a later picture in a series of the well-known 1970 Licorne test by France in French Polynesia via Pierre J./ (CC BY 2.0)

Also, here's a video of the British Grapple-Orange Herald atmospheric nuclear test, which happened on May 31, 1957, on Malden Island. The British claimed that this was their first H-bomb, but the test was actually a fusion boosted fission nuclear weapon test. The original news reel is from Universal City Studies, donated to the public domain in 1976 and currently kept at the National Archives.

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