Is an atomic bomb capable of 'burning' the Earth's atmosphere?

Recently, a film was released detailing the most memorable moment in the life of theoretical physicist Robert Oppenheimer, when he developed the atomic bomb during the Manhattan Project.

At the time, physicist Edward Teller revealed that one of his biggest concerns regarding the bomb was due to its potential to kill all of humanity. According to one theory, the bomb could start an unstoppable chemical reaction that could burn Earth's entire atmosphere.

In the film directed by Christopher Nolan, it is shown that Oppenheimer always had a flea behind his ear regarding the possibility mentioned by Teller. After all, could the atomic bomb really burn the entire Earth's atmosphere?

A new study published in the scientific journal Natural Sciences discusses this possibility, and the researchers explain that the issue was raised precisely because of the Oppenheimer film. In the articlescientists debate whether, theoretically, Earth's atmosphere could be ignited after the start of a major nuclear war.

“Teller's fear was that the detonation process of a fission bomb might involve rapid local heating of the atmosphere whereby due to a possible lack of cooling capacity, the temperature might rise to such an extent that the 14N nitrogen nuclei in the atmosphere can fuse with each other or with other components of light atmospheric isotopes, such as hydrogen 1H, carbon 12C or oxygen 16O”, is described in the study.

Earth's atmosphere on fire?

After much study and hundreds of experiments, scientists discovered that the reactions caused by the atomic bomb would not trigger a 'fire' in the Earth's atmosphere and a worldwide catastrophe that would wipe out all life on the planet.

Despite this, they found that the explosion caused the production of the radioactive carbon isotope 14C, an element easily absorbed by plants through the carbon cycle.

When the bomb was developed, Oppenheimer and other scientists believed there was a chance the atomic bomb would 'burn' the atmosphere.When the bomb was developed, Oppenheimer and other scientists believed there was a chance the atomic bomb would 'burn' the atmosphere.Source: Getty Images

At the time the two bombs exploded in Japan, scientists say there was a relatively small increase in 14C on the planet. Like this, They explain that the big problem would not be the 'burning' of the atmosphere, as that would be an unlikely scenario, but rather the possibility of a large deposit of 14C in nature.

“The radiocarbon spike in our atmosphere decreases rapidly because this long-lived isotope of carbon is absorbed by plants through the carbon cycle. As a result, it becomes part of all biological materials for thousands of years. This radiocarbon remains in our bodies, serving as a lasting reminder of the human arrogance that led to the development of nuclear weapons that Oppenheimer wanted to warn against,” the study concludes.

Did you like the content? Always stay up to date with the latest studies on nuclear physics here at TecMundo and take the opportunity to discover how nuclear war can cause more serious climate effects than scientists imagined.

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