Once upon a time in the Nuclear Old West

There is a place in the middle of the Old Wild West, which in the recent past earned the nickname of “the most bombed place on Earth”.

We are in the Nevada Test Site (USA) 105 Kilometers northwest from Las Vegas, where from 1951 till 1992, the US government carried out almost 1000 nuclear bomb tests.

Sentinel-2 image over the Nevata Test Site, the bigger crater is called Sedan

Initial atomic tests were carried out by the US mainly over Pacific islands but soon they become too expensive requiring a major logistic effort and an extensive amount of time. For this reason a number of continental test sites were considered on the basis of low population density, safety, favourable weather conditions, security, reasonable accessibility including transportation routes, and favourable geology. The Nevada Test Site “won” this competition against five other US candidates. In 1951 the area was already a military restricted zone whereas cowboys were only a distant memory.

November 1951 nuclear test at Nevada Test Site. Test is shot “Dog” from Operation Buster, with a yield of 21 kilotons of TNT – (Wikipedia)

At the very beginning most of these tests, known as atmospheric shots, took place above ground, making the characteristic mushroom clouds that soon became synonymous with nuclear explosions. Then scientists and engineers began to consider underground testing to reduce atmospheric contamination by the radioactive fallout.

Underground testing often left visible sign on the surface in the form of subsidence craters (also called ‘sinks’). These are depressions on the surface that come about when the roof of the blast cavity collapses in to the void left by the underlying explosion.

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3D view of the area using Sentinel-2A image and a Digital Elevation Model

The results of this human insanity are still visible from satellite after 60 years from the first blasts.  Images above recently captured by Sentinel-2A show the Nevada Test Site surface totally scarred by hundreds of craters. Each one belongs to one underground nuclear test. The biggest visible in the upper part of the image is called “Sedan” and is the result of a 104 Kilotons bomb detonated in 1962 officially for “peaceful research purposes”. They wanted to see whether nuclear bombs could be used to create reservoirs.

Overview of the whole test site

Nowadays the area still hosts classified work from the US government; access is restricted to a small number of carefully checked visitors each year, who are not allowed to take photos.




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