The Tragic Physics of the Deadly Explosion in Beirut
A blast injury specialist explores the chemistry of the explosions
On August 4, 2020, a massive explosion blasted deadly waves through downtown Beirut. Then, video of the fireball rippled around the world almost as quickly. Now, details of the blast that started in a fireworks storage area by a small storage building at the end of a Beirut pier trickle in as the world waits to hear what the final death, injury, and destruction tallies will be. However, in a way, the world already has some idea what to expect, because similar blasts have occurred before.
As a biomedical engineer with a doctorate in the patterns of injury and trauma that follow an explosion, scraping together information from accidental blasts is part of my daily work. The more mundane explosions are rarely this size, but the same principles of physics and chemistry apply. Science, along with a few case studies from history, let me do some preliminary calculations to puzzle out this explosion, too.
In 1917, an accidental detonation of 6 million pounds of hodgepodge high explosives in the harbor of Halifax, Nova Scotia, left a swath of wreckage that, at least until Tuesday, was the largest nonnuclear explosion ever created by humanity. As we learn more about Beirut, which could possibly challenge that record, the story of Halifax tells us what we might expect to learn about the ensuing trauma, and the modern cell phone videos, along with the blast physics gleaned by scientists in the intervening century, tell us why those patterns of trauma occurred in quite the way they did.
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