Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on November 2, 2020.

Beirut Blast

New analysis from UK researchers describes the power of the fatal August explosion 


An analysis done by researchers at the University of Sheffield in England has found that the August 4 explosion that rocked the port of Beirut, Lebanon, was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history.

The analysis, published in the journal Shock Waves in September, found that in a matter of milliseconds, the explosion released approximately 1 Gigawatt hour of energy—equivalent to roughly 860 tons of TNT and enough energy to power 100 homes for an entire year, according to a statement released by the university. That amount of energy is the roughly the same as the amount of energy 3 million solar panels or 400 wind turbines can produce over the course of a year.


“After seeing the events unfold, we wanted to use our expertise in blast engineering to help understand what had happened in Beirut and provide data that could be used to help prepare for and save lives in such events should they ever happen again,” said Sam Rigby, the study’s lead author, in a university statement. “By understanding more about the power of large-scale accidental explosions like the one that occurred in Beirut, we can develop more accurate predictions of how different buildings will be affected and the types of injuries there are likely to be at different distances from the blast.”

The analysis would likely not have been possible without social media. As the incident unfolded in early August, hundreds of videos of the fire and subsequent blast were posted on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms. Researchers used that video, combined with audio and satellite imagery, to determine the speed and power of the explosion.

The blast occurred when a fire caused nearly 3,000 metric tons of ammonium nitrate, a common ingredient in fertilizer, to destabilize and explode. The ammonium nitrate had been stored in a warehouse in the city’s port for several years, despite warnings from officials that it was unsafe. “Six million pounds of a dangerous material like that sitting in a dynamic environment like a port for six years is an accident waiting to happen. And it happened,” Anas Alzaid, NFPA’s representative to the Middle East and North Africa, told NFPA Journal following the incident. The blast killed nearly 200 people and leveled buildings in a two-mile radius.

While the new analysis shows the Beirut explosion was much more powerful than other notable ammonium nitrate explosions in the past—it generated roughly 100 times more energy than the 2013 ammonium nitrate explosion at a fertilizer facility in West, Texas, according to media reports—it still fell short of the largest non-nuclear explosion in history, the December 1917 explosion in the port of Halifax, Nova Scotia. According to a book published on the incident in 1994, the Halifax explosion, which killed over 1,600 people, packed the equivalent of more than 3,000 tons of TNT, nearly four times higher than the Beirut explosion estimate.

To read the full University of Sheffield analysis of the Beirut explosion, go to and select “International News.”

Ulsan, South Korea
New effort aims to quantify problem of high-rise facade fires
Nearly 100 people were injured in October as flames raced up the facade of a 33-story high-rise in Ulsan, South Korea. As Birgitte Messerschmidt, director of Applied Research at NFPA, watched the news unfold, she knew the blaze was another in a long line of fires involving combustible exterior wall systems, including facades. “It was just classic, with the fire spreading up the building quickly and huge chunks falling off,” Messerschmidt said.

Coincidentally, the South Korea fire came on the heels of the release in September of a new online list of high-rise facade fires. The list, which was compiled by researchers at Imperial College in London and is housed on Wikipedia, represents an important step in quantifying the global problem of high-rise facade fires.

“It’s a simple start to try to answer this question of how many fires like that are out there,” Messerschmidt said. “If we can get information about not only the larger incidents but also the smaller ones, that’s valuable, because maybe it was smaller because there was effective construction or a sprinkler system in place.”

With individuals anywhere able to add incidents to the list, the effort also represents the first time a practice known as citizen science is being used to look into a fire problem, Messerschmidt said. Messerschmidt wrote about the lack of data pertaining to facade fires in a May/June article in NFPA Journal, “Data Void.”

Access the full Wikipedia list by going to and selecting “International News.” 


ANGELO VERZONI is a staff writer for NFPA Journal Top photograph: Getty Images