Malden Island: H-Bomb Test Site

In the Pacific Ocean lies the tiny Malden Island which covers an area of around 39 square kilometres. The island is a triangular shape and is low lying, being not more than 10 metres above sea level at the highest point. The island is uninhabited and very remote. The nearest inhabited place is Tongareva which is 450 kilometres (280 miles) to the south west. It is one of the Line Islands and now belongs to the Republic of Kiribati.

Vegetation on the island is very limited as the island is generally arid. Species that exist here are typically unique to the island: there are 9 out of 16 indigenous species of vascular plants on the island for example.

The island has a number of Polynesian remains including temple platforms, called marae, house sites, and graves. Polynesians lived on Malden for several generations not many centuries ago. A population of between 100 and 200 could have produced all of the Malden structures. The local people most probably got their water from wells. Malden was first discovered by Europeans on July 30 1825, by English Captain Lord Byron, whilst navigating the ship H.M.S. Blonde. After the discovery guano diggers came to the islands to exploit the guano deposits from the sea birds. This introduced non native species of fauna to the island such as goats and rats. The island was later abandoned in the 1920s.

In the late 1950s atmospheric nuclear tests were carried out by the British over the island under the name of Operation Grapple. This was a series of British Nuclear bomb tests which included early hydrogen bomb tests. Operation Grapple consisted of nine detonations over Christmas Island and Malden Island between November 1957 and September 1958. An initial test over Malden Island on 15 May 1957 lead to further successful tests including the 1.8 megaton Grapple X test on 8 November 1957 over Christmas Island. The latter test resulted in nuclear fusion. An image of the test is on the
Britannica web site. The weapons were many times more powerful than those discharged at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and included a bomb with a yield of three megatons – the largest British nuclear test ever conducted. Britain’s first thermonuclear bomb was detonated during this testing period. Further details of the nuclear tests can be found on this webpage. According to the CTBTO web site there was a “high quantity” of radioactive fallout after the nuclear tests.

The fact that Malden Island was chosen for the nuclear tests was due to its very remoteness and lack of population centres. Today the island remains uninhabited but has not escaped the impact of mankind. There are legacies from the visits over the years: the Polynesian ruins, the introduced fauna from the guano diggers and radioactive fallout from the nuclear testing. The island has sustained a native population of unique flora that is most likely to remain if the island is not developed for any other purpose. The island has played a role in history through the creation of nuclear weapons.


About mappedit

Geographical practitioner with an interest in climate change, open mapping, sustainability, the transition movement, transport and many other things.
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