Our modern, sophisticated understanding of explosions has been a long time in the making. From the Chinese to the Arabs to the Greeks, nearly every empire has contributed its fair share to the art of blowing things up. However, it’s only in the recent few decades that we’ve truly gained almost complete mastery over it. We now deploy explosives to change landscape, level entire buildings, and – of course – wage even deadlier wars.
In the spirit of gauging how powerful explosions have gotten over time, we’re counting down the largest explosions ever recorded in history. Of course, we’ll leave out all the nuclear tests and the two atomic bombs used in WW2 to level the playing field.
8. Ripple Rock, British Columbia, Canada – 1958
The underwater twin peaks of Ripple Rock in British Columbia used to be perhaps one of the most hated set of rocks in the world, as well as one of the deadliest. Basically, they were too tall. At low tide, the peaks loomed barely 10 feet below the surface, creating all sorts of problems for any ship trying to pass. All in all, the underwater peaks had caused the deaths of at least 114 people over the years in a variety of ways, making it one of the most dangerous routes for ships at the time.
In 1955, the Canadian government decided that they’d had enough of these rocks, and started making plans to blow them up. They built shafts and tunnels underneath them and filled those with explosives, an operation that would take nearly three years to complete. The resulting blast in 1958 threw more than 630,000 tons of rock and water about 1,000 feet high into the air – as it went on for over 10 seconds – making it one of the largest controlled, man-made explosions ever.
7. Staffordshire, England – 1944
Ranking the largest explosion in England during the Second World War is a tall task, as it was the site of quite a few famous large explosions you may have heard of – like the massive German bombing campaign preceding the Battle of Britain. The largest, however, remains an accidental explosion in the British town of Staffordshire in 1944.
It happened at a gypsum mine that doubled as a bomb-dumping site, with about 4,000 tons of various explosives and other types of ammunition at the time of the explosion. While we still don’t know the exact cause, some reports suggest that it was accidentally set off by someone trying to remove a detonator from a bomb at the site. Whatever the cause, the resulting blast was so huge that the giant crater it left behind – known as the Hanbury Crater – still exists. According to some reports, it’s at least 100 feet deep and 1,200 feet across, making this a solid contender for the rank of the largest man-made explosion before the advent of nukes.
6. Oppau, Germany – 1921
Back in 1913, an industrial plant in Oppau, Germany was the first to use an industrial process known as the Haber-Bosch process – perhaps one of the most important industrial innovations of all time. Developed by the scientists Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, it was the first time anyone was able to produce ammonium nitrate – one of the most widely-used chemicals across industries – without any additional resources.
Apart from ammonium nitrate, the plant was also producing ammonium sulphate. Together, they formed a plaster-like substance inside the walls of the plant’s silos, which the workers had to manually extract with pickaxes.
In one of the grossest miscalculations ever made by competent scientists, they soon started to use small charges of dynamite to loosen the mixture, working under the bafflingly baseless assumption that ammonium nitrate isn’t that explosive when mixed with other substances. They actually got away with it for a while, too, as over 20,000 small charges had already been used without incident, though it was only a matter of time before they ran out of their shockingly huge stash of luck.
On September 21, 1921, a technician preparing for yet another one of those charges caused the nearly 4,500 tons of the mixture in one of the silos to finally explode, instantly killing everyone in the immediate vicinity. It was heard as far as Munich and London – both hundreds of miles away from Oppau – as it destroyed close to 80% of all the buildings in town. By the end of it, the explosion had killed 561 people and injured another 1,952, along with around 7,500 more that were left homeless.
5. Tianjin, China – 2015
The 2015 explosion at the Tianjin factory in China was one of the recent explosions that were widely reported and shared on social media, which is why we know exactly how powerful it was. While the intensity of the explosion itself wasn’t comparable to some of the other entries here, the high population density in the region amplified the total damage, making it one of the deadliest disasters in Chinese history.
According to reports, 173 people died in the series of explosions that leveled an entire region of the port (you can still see the crater). Buildings in a 1.5 square mile radius suffered some kind of damage because of the disaster, as it caused an estimated loss of close to $800 million.
4. Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada – 1917
Apart from being a major commercial port town in the region, Halifax in Nova Scotia is also the site of one of the largest explosions in history. It happened in December 1917, when a Norwegian steamship – carrying mostly relief aid – collided with a French ship carrying around 3,000 tons of various types of explosives.
As you’d expect, the resulting explosion was massive, as the shockwave destroyed more than 1,600 buildings and leveled a one-square-mile region within moments. More than 2,000 people – mostly workers and their families living near the dock – lost their lives, making it one of, if not the, most devastating man-made tragedies in Canadian history.
3. Beirut, Lebanon – 2020
Like the Tianjin explosion, the Beirut blast was recorded and shared by a large number of people around the world, so we have a fairly accurate idea of how powerful it was. In fact, the various videos of the shockwave that accompanied the blast helped experts around the world calculate its sheer power. By all of those estimates, it was by far one of the largest explosions ever recorded.
The humongous blast – caused by around 2,700 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored at the port – shattered windows and caused damage as far as 10 miles away. According to a team of British scientists, the yield of the blast may have been as high as 1.1 kilotons; that’s just about one-twentieth the strength of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, making it one of the most powerful non-nuclear blasts in history.
2. The ‘Minor Scale’ Explosion – 1985
While we have a fair idea of exactly how powerful nukes can be now, it wasn’t always the case. During the Cold War, a good chunk of nuclear tests were conducted only to see exactly what would happen, as nuclear science was still in its early stages. Understandably, it wasn’t always feasible to drop an actual nuke every time you wanted to see how deadly they’d become, which was a problem for the scientists, as those guys want to know everything.
To solve it, there have been many tests meant to replicate and study the effects of a nuclear bomb, only without any nuclear material. The most powerful of them was the Minor Scale explosion in New Mexico back in 1985. While it wasn’t like many other accidental explosions on this list, it was certainly the largest intentionally caused explosion in history. Around 4,744 tons of ammonium nitrate was used in the blast, which turned out to be around 1.5 times as powerful as the above-mentioned Beirut blast.
1. Texas City, Texas, USA – 1947
As far as accidental man-made explosions go, perhaps few compare to the sheer scale of the destruction caused by the 1947 explosion at the Texas City port. Caused by around 2,300 tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer accidentally catching fire on a French cargo vessel, the explosion was so powerful that it sent a huge 2,000 ft high mushroom cloud into the air, shattering windows as far as 50 miles away.
That was just the initial explosion, as it was the fallout that really puts it on the top of any list of the biggest non-nuclear, man-made explosions that we know of. In the chain reaction of events that followed because of the blast, many oil tankers at the port caught fire and kept burning for days. It also caused a nearby ship – the SS High Flyer – full of sulfur to explode, as well as leveled quite a few buildings in the vicinity, leaving around 2,000 people homeless. The mushroom cloud destroyed two planes flying immediately above the explosion, and the falling debris caused even more fires and other types of damage in the industrial areas nearby.
The disaster killed between 400 to 600 people, including all of the fire-fighting volunteers trying to control the initial fire. To date, the Texas City Disaster – as it has come to be known – is the most destructive industrial disaster in United States history.