Enough with the Hiroshima atomic bomb comparisons

The Associated Press is the latest news organization to compare an event to one of the most gruesome days in the history of civilization, with its science story today claiming the energy in the tornado in Oklahoma City this week “dwarfed” the atomic blast in Hiroshima.


Several meteorologists contacted by The Associated Press used real time measurements, some made by Schumacher, to calculate the energy released during the storm’s 40-minute life span. Their estimates ranged from 8 times to more than 600 times the power of the Hiroshima bomb, with more experts at the high end. Their calculations were based on energy measured in the air and then multiplied over the size and duration of the storm.

We heard the same sort of comparison a few months ago when a meteor exploded over Siberia. In those stories, we were told the meteor was more powerful than 30 atomic bombs.

While scientifically correct, perhaps, it’s a weak comparison for the purposes of journalism. Rather than add important context, it removes it. For one thing, it’s comparing energy released but not the impact of the energy released. And, clearly, comparing something to the atomic bomb is meant to create the impression that the tornado was a bigger force in total than the atomic bomb.

That’s nonsense.

The calculations cited include the duration of the tornado’s 40-minute lifespan. The explosion over Hiroshima was over in a matter of seconds.

At last check, twenty-four people died in this week’s tornado, a tragic number by any comparison. But is it really honest to suggest any comparison to a weapon that may have killed an estimated 90,000 to 130,000 people — 75,000 immediately and perhaps as many over the following years?

Such a comparison dishonors and diminishes the suffering of people like Michihiko Hachiya, whose 1955 Hiroshima diary was nothing we’ve ever witnessed before or since on such a scale.


In time I came to an open space where the houses had been removed to make a fire lane. Through the dim light I could make out ahead of me the hazy outlines of the Communications Bureau’s big concrete building, and beyond it the hospital. My spirits rose because I knew that now someone would find me; and if I should die, at least my body would be found. I paused to rest. Gradually things around me came into focus. There were the shadowy forms of people, some of whom looked like walking ghosts. Others moved as though in pain, like scarecrows, their arms held out from their bodies with forearms and hands dangling. These people puzzled me until I suddenly realized that they had been burned and were holding their arms out to prevent the painful friction of raw surfaces rubbing together. A naked woman carrying a naked baby came into view. I averted my gaze. Perhaps they had been in the bath. But then I saw a naked man, and it occurred to me that, like myself, some strange thing had deprived them of their clothes. An old woman lay near me with an expression of suffering on her face; but she made no sound. Indeed, one thing was common to everyone I saw – complete silence.

Whatever problems facing Oklahoma City, an increase in leukemia because of the tornado isn’t one of them. Neither is a significant impact on the mental development of children not yet born.

What happened in Oklahoma City was real and tragic and on a scale that takes your breath away. But no component of the tragedy in any fashion dwarfs what happened in Hiroshima.

  • annie

    Thank you, Bob. This bothered me too, and you perfectly explain why the comparison is misguided at best. While it may be part of an interesting physics class conversation, the scale of human suffering and the lasting impacts aren’t remotely comparable.

  • andy

    Thanks for posting this Bob. This is a perfect example of why I’m an avid News Cut reader.

  • Tyler

    Didn’t this story originate on breitbart.com? Enough said.

  • MN123

    Exactly! When did it become a contest as to which human horror is the worst? Thanks for calling this out.

  • Disco

    I would rather see the AP investigate why the Plaza Towers school had no storm shelter.

    Actually, they don’t need to investigate. It’s the same reason why we waited until the I-35 bridge fell and killed 13 people before replacing it.

  • Kirtan Doshi

    Oklahoma tornado :

    Several meteorologists consulted by the Associated Press estimated the tornado’s energy released during the storm ranged from 8 times to more than 600 times the power of the Hiroshima bomb, with more experts at the high end. Their calculations were based on energy measured in the air and then multiplied over the size and duration of the storm.

    Wikipedia :

    Some 70,000–80,000 people, or some 30% of the population of Hiroshima, were killed by the blast and resultant firestorm, and another 70,000 injured.Over 90% of the doctors and 93% of the nurses in Hiroshima were killed or injured—most had been in the downtown area which received the greatest damage. Out of some 70,000-80,000 people killed, 20,000 were soldiers. Most elements of the Japanese 2nd General Army were at physical training on the grounds of Hiroshima Castle when the bomb exploded. Barely 900 yards from the explosion’s epicenter, the castle and its residents were vaporized. The bomb also killed 12 American airmen who were imprisoned at the Chugoku Military Police Headquarters located about 1,300 feet (400 meters) from the epicenter of the blast. All died in less than a second.

    Really EXPERTS? was the tornado really as powerful as Hiroshima? Do you even know what you are talking about? we are not even talking about the after effects which lasted for over 50 years causing more than 200,000 deaths additionally. Jerks.