The blast that shook the ionosphere

The blast that shook the ionosphere
The epicenter in Beirut, before and after the explosion. Credit: Bhaskar Kundu, et al. Scientific Reports. February 2, 2021

Just after 6 p.m. local time (15.00 UTC) on August 4, 2020, more than 2,750 tons worth of unsafely stored ammonium nitrate exploded in Lebanon's port city of Beirut, killing around 200 people, making more than 300,000 temporarily homeless, and leaving a 140-meter-diameter crater in its wake. The blast is considered one of the most powerful non-nuclear, man-made explosions in human history.

Now, calculations by Hokkaido University scientists in Japan have found that the atmospheric wave from the led to electron disturbances high in Earth's upper atmosphere. They published their findings in the journal Scientific Reports.

The team of scientists, which included colleagues from the National Institute of Technology Rourkela in India, calculated changes in total electron content in Earth's ionosphere: the part of the atmosphere from around 50 to 965 kilometers in altitude. Natural events like extreme ultraviolet radiation and geomagnetic storms, and man-made activities like , can cause disturbances to the ionosphere's electron content.

"We found that the blast generated a wave that traveled in the ionosphere in a southwards direction at a velocity of around 0.8 kilometers per second," says Hokkaido University Earth and Planetary scientist Kosuke Heki. This is similar to the speed of sound waves traveling through the ionosphere.

The team calculated changes in ionospheric electron content by looking at differences in delays experienced by microwave signals transmitted by GPS satellites to their ground stations. Changes in electron content affect these signals as they pass through the ionosphere and must be regularly taken into consideration to accurately measure GPS positions.

The blast that shook the ionosphere
The ionospheric disturbance caused by an explosion can be detected by differential ionospheric delays of microwave signals of two carrier frequencies from global navigation satellite system (GNSS) satellites. Credit: Bhaskar Kundu, et al. Scientific Reports. February 2, 2021

The scientists also compared the magnitude of the ionospheric wave generated by the Beirut blast to similar waves following natural and anthropogenic events. They found that the wave generated by the Beirut blast was slightly larger than a wave generated by the 2004 eruption of Asama Volcano in central Japan, and comparable to ones that followed other recent eruptions on Japanese islands.

The energy of the ionospheric wave generated by the Beirut blast was significantly larger than a more energetic in a Wyoming coal mine in the U.S. in 1996. The Beirut blast was equivalent to an explosion of 1.1 kilotons of TNT, while the Wyoming explosion was equivalent to 1.5 kilotons of TNT. The total electron content disturbance of the Wyoming explosion was only 1/10 of that caused by the Beirut blast. The scientists believe this was partially due to the Wyoming mine being located in a somewhat protected pit.

More information: Bhaskar Kundu et al. Atmospheric wave energy of the 2020 August 4 explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, from ionospheric disturbances, Scientific Reports (2021). DOI: 10.1038/s41598-021-82355-5

Journal information: Scientific Reports

Citation: The blast that shook the ionosphere (2021, March 17) retrieved 2 October 2023 from
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Explore further

Beirut explosion was one of the largest non-nuclear blasts in history, new analysis shows


Feedback to editors