LAST UPDATED: September 16, 2019 by Ryan M
Yes, detonating a nuclear bomb in a desert really would turn its sand into glass. Well, at least a portion of it. We know this because that is exactly what happened when Trinity was detonated over the New Mexico desert in 1945.
After years of top secret research and development, Manhattan Project scientists tested their first nuclear weapon, a plutonium bomb code-named Trinity, on July 16, 1945. The bomb detonated with a force of 21,000 tons of TNT and the accompanying fireball reached temperatures of over 14,000 degrees Fahrenheit, hotter than the surface of the sun. The mushroom cloud of smoke went up more than seven miles into the sky. When the smoke cleared, there were small lumps of radioactive green glass littered on the ground for hundreds of feet around the blast site. Actually, it’s probably more accurate to say the ground was transformed. The brownish sand that blanketed the desert the day before had been replaced by this new alien looking greenish material.
These pieces of green glass were later termed trinitite, named after the Trinity bomb. The glass is also sometimes referred to as Alamogordo glass due to the bomb being detonated near the city of Alamogordo, New Mexico.
It was originally thought that the trinitite was created when the heat of the fireball liquefied the sand on the ground. However, in 2005, a study published in the Journal of Environmental Radioactivity contradicted that assumption. After conducting tests on trinitite samples, scientists at the Los Alamos National Laboratory concluded that the chunks of trinitite were formed when sand got scooped into the atomic fireball, liquefied due to the heat, and then fell back onto the sand and cooled.
In 1952, the Atomic Energy Commission began a clean-up of the Trinity test area in order to prepare it for public tours that were to begin in 1953. During the bulldozing process, the trinitite was “scraped up and buried,” according to the official history of the White Sands Missile Range. The area is now open to tourists twice a year, but it’s almost impossible to see a decent chunk of trinitite nowadays. However, you can still order trinitite on the internet from reputable dealers such as UnitedNuclear.com. The trinitite along with a certificate of authenticity will cost about $80 as of March 2018.
You can also view pieces of trinitite on display at the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the National Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas, Nevada, and the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, New York.
If you can’t buy trinitite or visit one of the museums, you’ll have to settle for viewing some trinitite at the online Trinitite Specimen Gallery.
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- In 1961, The Soviet Union detonated a hydrogen bomb that was so strong that it produced shock waves that were still registering on seismic detection equipment on its third trip around the world.
- The yield of one of the nuclear bombs currently deployed on a modern-day American stealth bomber is seventy times more powerful than the nuclear bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.
- A rare outer space nuclear test in 1962 had the unexpected side effect of turning large portions of the Earth’s atmosphere green and blue.
- RealClearScience.com – The Strange Glass Born in Nuclear Explosions
- ArtsTechnia.com – Trinitite: The radioactive rock buried in New Mexico before the Atari games
- Brookings.edu – 50 Facts About U.S. Nuclear Weapons Today