Satellite Imagery Offers Shocking Views Of Devastated Beirut Port

The explosion left a massive crater and caused significant damage across Lebanon’s capital Beirut, killing dozens and wounding thousands.

byJoseph Trevithick|
Middle East photo


Satellite imagery and other aerial footage of the Port of Beirut, as well as other areas of the Lebanese capital, are steadily emerging showing devastating damage from an explosion there yesterday. Authorities have said that the significantly larger second blast was the result of the detonation of more than 2,700 tons of pelletized ammonium nitrate in a warehouse on one of the docks, which was triggered by other explosive material at the site, possibly including fireworks. 

The incident, the exact timeline and cause of which remains under investigation, occurred on Aug. 4, 2020. Video from the incident shows a fire at the warehouse in question that leads to a smaller initial explosion. Something, which might be fireworks, is seen cooking off afterward, shortly before the absolutely massive secondary explosion that also created a gigantic shockwave and towering red cloud. Lebanese authorities say that at least 135 people died and 5,000 more were injured in the disaster. You can see more dramatic footage of explosions and otherwise get up to speed on this incident in The War Zone's initial coverage here.

Satellite imagery that The War Zone obtained from Planet Labs shows that detonation left a crater in the dock where the warehouse once stood that is nearly 500 feet wide and is now full of water. The explosions also occurred right next to a set of grain elevators that held approximately 85 percent of the country's grain stockpile. 

A close up of the crater where the warehouse full of ammonium nitrate once stood., PHOTO © 2020 PLANET LABS INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. REPRINTED BY PERMISSION
The port infrastructure around ground zero has been very badly damaged or totally destroyed. The concrete grain silo did block some of the explosion's effects directly to the west. , PHOTO © 2020 PLANET LABS INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. REPRINTED BY PERMISSION

You can take a look at a full high-resolution copy of the entire satellite image the Port of Beirut that The War Zone obtained here. The one below is a reduced resolution version.


The grain elevators sustained heavy damage and the remaining grain is now inedible, with reports that Lebanon may have only around six weeks worth left in other stocks elsewhere in the country based on average demand. The country is already seeing significant food shortages as a result of a protracted economic crisis that has been exacerbated by political upheaval and the COVID-19 pandemic.

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The cruise ship Orient Queen, which was moored on a dock opposite from where that building was at the time of the explosion, is now seen sunk in the shallow water. Two crew members reportedly died in the incident. Other ships in the port, including one belonging to the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), were damaged and their crews injured.

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The Port of Beirut is effectively out of commission following the blasts and commercial ships are already being rerouted to the port in the city of Tripoli to the north. However, its unclear how readily those facilities will be able to accommodate the increased traffic.

Severe damage to structures on land is readily visible in the satellite imagery more than a mile in all directions from the epicenter of the blasts. Various levels of damage extend well beyond that with reports that the secondary, which drew comparisons to the Halifax disaster in Canada in 1917 and other large industrial accidents, rattled windows on the island of Cyprus 100 miles west in the Mediterranean Sea.

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At least two hospitals were hit, as was Lebanon's presidential palace and the country's parliament building, among many others. There have been widespread power outages and some 300,000 people are now reportedly homeless. 

There is never a good time for a disaster of this magnitude, but it has the potential to especially severe first and second-order impacts on Lebanon, which some, including senior government officials, have already warned is on the verge of becoming a failed state. In addition to the immediate rescue and recovery efforts, the aforementioned looming grain shortage and the loss of the country's main port facility could be devastating in their own right.

An airbridge is already forming with various countries sending aid and emergency personnel, or are planning to do so. This could become vital in the weeks and months ahead.

Lebanon's Prime Minister Hassan Diab has already declared today to be a day or mourning and promised to hold anyone responsible for the explosions to account. The massive amount of ammonium nitrate in the warehouse has been seen as some of a metaphor for the dysfunction of the Lebanese government. The highly explosive material sat there unsecured for more than six years after being seized by customs officials from a ship in late 2013. A member of that vessel's crew had reportedly described it as a "floating bomb."

Beirut Customs chief Badri Daher has said he alone made six separate requests over the years to move it to safer storage somewhere else. An official document reportedly warned just six months ago that if something wasn't done soon there was a risk that it could "blow up all of Beirut." For a country with a sad history of terrorism, as well as being embroiled in internal and external conflicts, it's certainly hard to understand how this dangerous material could have been left to rot for so long.

Lebanese authorities say they have placed a number of officials who worked at the Port of Beirut since 2014 under house arrest as part of the ongoing investigation. In the meantime, work continues to clear the debris and search for survivors.

We will continue to update this post as more information becomes available.

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