The 1950s were an optimistic time. Houses and cars were affordable, the economy and the birthrate were booming, and—oh yeah, America was detonating hundreds of nuclear bombs in its own backyard.

Much has been written about the Nevada Test Site—aka the Nevada Testing Grounds—since the last bomb was detonated in the early 1990s. In fact, it's probably one of the most storied sites in American science.

But, to me, it's always been hard to get a sense for exactly how big the testing grounds were, and what kind of impact these tests had on the landscape outside of Las Vegas.


The data visualization team as Esri recently set out to make an interactive that would convey the sheer magnitude of the project—and the incredible scars it left on a 1,360 square mile patch of Nevada desert.

Their new site, America's Nuclear Moonscape, walks you through the hundreds of detonations in chronological order, showing you where and why the bombs went off:


One crater is instantly noticeable from above:

This is the granddaddy of them all, the Sedan Crater, which was made on July 6, 1962, during Operation Plowshare—an Army project that sought to determine whether nuclear bombs could be used for "peaceful," non-combat purposes. For example, why not use a bomb to carry out the excavation of a reservoir, or an open pit mine?

The extreme hazards soon become clear. After drilling 636 feet down into the desert, the engineers detonated a bomb with the equivalent power to more than a hundred kilotons of TNT. It spewed 12 million tons of dust into the atmosphere, creating a 300-foot-deep hole and shooting two separate plums of nuclear fallout thousands of feet into the air.

Those plumes drifted over Iowa and North Dakota, along with an Indian Reservation, blanketing huge areas with radioactive fallout—the health effects of which are still being debated today.

To give you a sense of the scale, see that white blob on the right edge? That's a building. And Sedan is far from the only massive crater—here's a zoom in on others:

It's easy to see these massive craters as scars, or tributes to how amazingly good we are at changing the world around us. On the other hand, though, plenty of important discoveries about nuclear energy and radiation were made here.

Either way, it was the tests carried out on this strip of flatlands that spurred the American public to cry out in protest, in the 1990s—eventually leading to the widespread reforms that still protect us today. [Esri]