No, Iran Can’t Trigger a Nuclear Tsunami That Wipes Out Israel

Militaries have tried—and failed—to weaponize waves


by MATTHEW GAULT

On March 3, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke before the United States Congress and warned the world of a nuclear armed Iran. The press has written a lot about the speech, even before he delivered it.

“Never has so much been written about a speech that hasn’t been given,” Netanyahu said March 2 during a preview of his speech at the pro-Israeli lobby AIPAC.

Some of the stories were more credulous than others. One of the most provocative came from the Israeli military tabloid Debka File, which published an article about how Iran could use a nuclear bomb to trigger a tsunami in the Mediterranean, wiping out Israel in a single blow.

The title is frightening enough to get even the most hardened Internet cynic to click. Nukes are scary, yes, but could Iran develop one so powerful that it could cause a tsunami? What did Debka File know that everyone else didn’t?

Not much. “This nuclear bomb or device would be dropped from an IranAir civilian airliner on a regular run from Larnaca over the Mediterranean about 100 [kilometers] from the Israeli coast,” according to Debka File. “The delayed action mechanism would detonate the bomb and set off a tsunami.”

Fortunately for Israel, the site hasn’t done its research. No, a nuclear bomb couldn’t cause a massive wave to kill millions and cripple Israel’s economy.

This is an old pseudo-scientific theory, one that whackadoo tabloids parade out anytime there’s a natural disaster or nuclear threat.

Back in 2006, the Egyptian weekly Al Osboa reported that American and Israeli nuclear testing had caused an earthquake in the Indian Ocean. The 2004 earthquake triggered a tsunami that killed more than 200,000 people.

The oldest conspiracies are the easiest to debunk. There is just no explosive powerful enough—atomic or otherwise—that can displace the amount of water required to create waves powerful enough to destroy cities.

At left—the Tsar Bomba viewed from almost 100 miles away. At right—the fireball surrounding Tsar Bomba. Photos via Wikimedia. At top—the condensation cloud formed from a U.S. nuclear test in 1946. Army photo

The Allies carried out a lot of far-out experiments during World War II. One of the most obscure ones is New Zealand’s Project Seal, which allegedly tried to generate a tsunami with explosives.

It was the brainchild of Thomas Leech, a professor at Auckland University. Leech detonated explosives off the coast of the Whangaparaoa Peninsula in 1944 and 1955, according to reports dating back to the late 1990s in the New Zealand Herald.

The paper learned about the experiments after New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade released documents about the project. A sensationalized version of the story later circulated in 2013.

The experiments didn’t work. The explosions weren’t large enough to create more than small, pitiful waves—because it takes an incredible amount of energy to displace water on a tsunami scale. Human militaries have yet to build a device capable of doing so, despite their best efforts.

The Tsar Bomba was the largest nuclear bomb ever detonated. The Soviet Union tested the monstrous hydrogen bomb above the Arctic Circle in the Novaya Zemlya archipelago in 1961. The bomb had a 50-megaton yield and destroyed everything around it for 22 miles.

Impressive, but mother nature is far more destructive.

In 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck off the coast of Japan. The quake created massive waves that devastated three Japanese prefectures and caused a nuclear meltdown. The earthquake released a TNT-equivalent of 480 megatons of energy, spread along hundreds of miles of fault line 30 miles below the surface of the Pacific.

For its part, the Pentagon also researched how explosions interact with waves. During the Cold War, the U.S. tested nukes underwater, and needed to make sure that doing so was safe. But the research raised questions about whether America could weaponize waves.

“Initial interest in waves was primarily to appraise them as a … hazard to … testing,” stated the Handbook of Explosion-Generated Water Waves. The handbook is a dense and lengthy Office of Naval Research study from 1968 that summarized everything the Pentagon knew at the time time about blowing stuff up in the ocean.

“As large thermonuclear devices were developed,” the report continued. “Questions arose as to the tactical and/or strategic implications of the wave systems that were produced.”

Some of the data in the report came from Operation Hardtack I, a series of nuclear tests conducted in the Pacific in 1958. The military designed some of the tests to see just how much water a nuclear explosion could displace.

The Umbrella and Wahoo nuclear detonations occurred in shallow and deep water, respectively. Both explosions shot huge torrents of water into the air, but neither triggered devastating, coast-destroying waves.

“Theoretical and experimental studies revealed the relatively inefficient wave making potential of large explosions,” the handbook explained. “In many cases most wave energy is dissipated by breaking on the continental shelf before reaching shore.”

The thought of Iran armed with nuclear weapons is terrifying to many, especially its neighbors. The world needs to have a civilized discussion about what it means should the country ever develop the technology.

But conspiracy theories about tectonic super-weapons, tsunami bombs and nukes pushed out of the back of civilian airliners foul the air around the conversation. There’s enough to be afraid of without bullshit claims easily dismissed by a quick Google search.

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