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The anatomy of a mushroom cloud

The different, sometimes odd, effects of nuclear tests.
December 12, 2019
A mushroom cloud with a skirt-like at the bottom rising above clouds.

The Greenhouse George test (May 8, 1951; Enewetak Atoll) produced a "skirt."CREDIT: Los Alamos National Laboratory


By Eileen Patterson

Think “nuclear weapon,” and you probably picture a mushroom cloud—a stem supporting a puffy head. But photos from U.S. atmospheric nuclear tests (1945–1963) show more than the basic stem-and-head structure. A mushroom cloud rising above the desert.

Buster Charlie; October 30, 1951; Nevada Test Site.

The basic mushroom

The iconic mushroom cloud begins as a fireball, a luminous bubble of extremely hot air and vaporized weapon residues. The fireball rises like a hot-air balloon, pulling air, water vapor, and debris, into its base to form the mushroom stem. As the fireball rises, it cools, losing its glow, and the vaporized material and water vapor condense and spread, forming the mushroom head.

A bright, yellow-white mushroom cloud.

Castle Bravo; February 28, 1954; Bikini Atoll.


A test with explosive power measured in megatons (the equivalent of millions of tons of TNT) produced a cloud that rose rapidly (about 300 miles an hour) to great heights, pushing warm water vapor ahead of it. In the high, cold altitudes, the water vapor froze, forming one or more caps—ice caps.

A mushroom cloud with many layers to its stem.

Dominic Truckee; June 9, 1962; near Christmas Island.

Skirts and bells

Some tests produced “skirts” or “bells,” cone-shaped phenomena descending along the mushroom’s stem. These occurred when the dropping pressure and temperature of the high altitude caused humid air around the stem to condense into water droplets heavy enough to fall.

A small mushroom cloud flanked by smoke lines from rockets.

Teapot Met (Military Effects Test); April 15, 1955; Nevada Test Site.


The vertical lines in many nuclear test photos are smoke trails from rockets. The rockets were fired so the progress of the test’s shock wave could be recorded against the pattern of lines provided by the smoke trails.

A mushroom cloud rises out of the ocean near a beach with palm trees.

Crossroads Baker; July 24, 1946; Bikini Atoll.

A fake mushroom

This famous photo of the Crossroads Baker test (July 25, 1946) looks like a mushroom cloud but is not. Crossroads Baker was detonated 90 feet under water, so the “stem” in the photo is a hollow pillar of water. The “head” is a short-lived (just seconds), cloud of vapor, caused by moisture in the air condensing in the low pressure behind the explosion’s shock wave.

A bird's eye view of a round mushroom cloud.

Crossroads Baker; July 24, 1946; Bikini Atoll.

Slick and crack

Crossroads Baker also produced a “slick” and a “crack,” both caused by the underwater test’s shock wave’s first contact with the surface. The slick was an expanding circle of dark water resembling an oil slick, the source of its name. The crack was the shock wave’s disturbance of the water—a circle of white, ruffled water.

A mushroom cloud with a blue and yellow center.

Dominic Sunset; July 10, 1962; near Christmas Island.


A test in a warm, wet environment like the South Pacific sometimes produced rings of vapor instead of the type of vapor cloud seen in photos of Crossroads Baker. The rings were caused by the layers of humidity in the air.

Black and white photo of a fireball.

Tumbler-Snapper How; June 5, 1952; Nevada Test Site.


The fireball was gone in seconds, so photographing it during the tests required a rapid electronic camera called a rapatronic camera. Rapatronic photos of a test detonated on a tower, showed a fireball with “legs”—the tower’s guy-wires becoming a glowing plasma in the fireball’s heat. The phenomenon was called a rope trick.