This story was first published on Outer Places.
Imagine dropping 44 million tons of radioactive dynamite on a piece of ocean, watching the 8-mile-high mushroom cloud rise into the sky, then completely forgetting about it. That's what would have happened if Greg Spriggs, a weapon physicist with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, hadn't saved over 15 years of classified footage of nuclear blasts from decaying in their vaults.
Each one of the films is essentially a front-row seat to the most destructive power ever unleashed by human beings, shot from different angles and distances.
Of about 10,000 film clips, 4,200 of them have now been scanned and preserved digitally, with 750 of those being declassified for the very first time. About 64 have been uploaded to YouTube (the video above is part of a playlist released by LLNL), and though some of them are blurry, black-and-white shots of circles, many of them are surreal, silent videos of the cataclysmic explosions themselves. Here's another one:
The story of how Spriggs saved these films is just as remarkable as the footage itself. It took years to collect the equipment and figure out the techniques to save the clips, which were on the brink of destruction when his team reached them:
"You can smell vinegar when you open the cans, which is one of the byproducts of the decomposition process of these films," Spriggs said. "We know that these films are on the brink of decomposing to the point where they'll become useless. The data that we're collecting now must be preserved in a digital form because no matter how well you treat the films, no matter how well you preserve or store them, they will decompose."
It's crazy to think that these massive explosions would have been completely lost to history except for some pieces of decaying film and a record in a Cold War file folder somewhere — and maybe a lot of residual radiation. The fact that many of these films have never been seen before by the public is even more concerning for Spriggs:
"It's just unbelievable how much energy's released," Spriggs said. "We hope that we would never have to use a nuclear weapon ever again. I think that if we capture the history of this and show what the force of these weapons are and how much devastation they can wreak, then maybe people will be reluctant to use them."
In the wake of the insanity of the Cold War, it's easy to forget how real these weapons were. Decades later, they're still awe-inspiring to watch.
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Featured photo via Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory