When the barbecue goes cold and the cooler runs empty, at that point there’s only one thing that separate a good Independence Day from a great one: a massive fireworks display.
According to the American Pyrotechnics Association (APA) (PDF), Americans bought up 234 million pounds of fireworks in 2011. All those fireworks are a lot of firepower.
There’s something about the spectacle of colorful bursts of light set to music that make fireworks difficult to resist. The power of an explosion seems to capture some primal fascination that we can’t explain save for one irrefutable preference: the bigger, the better.
First created in China in the 10th century, fireworks may be the oldest explosive in human history. Nature still may be engineer larger bursts of explosive energy than humans, but humans are capable of creating big bursts.
If we’re going to look at the some of the largest man-made explosion in history, it’s hard to get beyond nuclear weapons. So rather than crowd this list with nuclear blasts, let’s just stick with the most powerful nuclear weapon ever detonated: the Tsar Bomba.
Theoretically, the Tsar Bomba had a yield of the equivalent of 100 megatons of TNT (one megaton is equal to one millions tons). When tested on Oct. 30, 1961, the bomb yielded a blast of between 50-57 megatons and produced a mushroom cloud that rose 40 miles into the sky. The Tsar Bomba detonation was so large that it caused damage as far as 600 miles away.
Equal to 3,300 of atomic bombs that landed on Hiroshima, the Tsar Bomba detonation was the largest man-made explosion in human history.
In the early morning hours on Dec. 11, 2005, a fire ignited at an oil storage depot in in Hertfordshire, England and led to a series of explosions of 20 petrol tanks, each of which held 3 million gallons of fuel.
The explosions were so loud that they could be heard in other countries, including Belgium the Netherlands and France, and even caused a tremor equal to a 2.4-magnitude earthquake, according to BBC News. It might even be the largest man-made explosion of the 21st century so far.
The N1 was supposed to be the Soviet Union’s answer to NASA’s Saturn V, the rocket that would bring astronauts to the moon. The N1 attempted four launches, all of which failed.
The most spectacular of all the failures, however, was the launch that occurred July 3, 1969, the same month that Apollo 11 landed on the lunar surface. A loose bolt in a fuel pump led to the explosion of the rocket 23 seconds into launch, bursting with the energy of the nearly 2,500 tons of liquid oxygen and kerosene it had aboard.
The rocket’s failure created the largest non-nuclear man-made explosion in history.
Before the dawn of the atomic bomb, the Halifax explosion, which took place Dec. 6, 1917, had been the largest in human history. A French cargo ship, the SS Mont Blanc, was carrying nearly 2,700 tons of explosives when it collided with the SS Imo, a passenger ship, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.
Ships carrying hazardous wartime materials hadn’t previously been allowed into the harbor, but the threat posed by German submarines made sailing them elsewhere a greater risk. Some 2,000 people died in the resulting blast. According to a report following the explosion, buildings within a half mile were totally destroyed and those within a mile radius were “very largely rendered uninhabitable and dangerous.”
In 1985, the United States Defense Nuclear Agency conducted a test to simulate the blast of a nuclear weapons while using conventional explosives. The test was called “Minor Scale,” but the result was anything but.
At the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, the agency detonated 4.8 kiloton of ammonium nitrate-fuel oil (ANFO), creating the largest planned, non-nuclear, man-made explosion in history.