Nuclear bomb map reveals how likely you are to survive a nuclear attack
If the recent, worrying update to the Doomsday Clock is anything to go by, we shouldn’t have too long to wait for nuclear annihilation.
On 25 January, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the hands of the symbolic Doomsday Clock forward to two minutes to midnight. The Doomsday Clock was devised at the end of World War II and midnight on the clock represents a nuclear disaster or apocalyptic event. The closer the Doomsday Clock moves to midnight, the more real the threat is.
For reference, Donald Trump’s proximity to the USA’s arsenal of some 6,800 nuclear warheads moved the clock to two-and-a-half minutes to midnight in 2017.
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Then, Trump seemingly stoked the nuclear fire once more by posting a threatening tweet aimed at Russia and Vladimir Putin over the chemical weapons attack in Syria.
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Elsewhere, Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un took to state TV/Twitter at the start of the year to boast about the size of their respective nuclear buttons. Kim Jong-un boasted his button was on his desk and he had completed his nuclear arsenal, which led Trump to retaliate with claims his button is “bigger and more powerful.” North Korea fired a missile over Japan last year, causing emergency alarms to ring out across the country. The missile landed in the sea off Hokkaido and South Korea’s military is said to have fired back in response. The US condemned the test and the UN Security Council met to discuss the ongoing threat.
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At the end of August, state media in North Korea claimed Kim Jong-un successfully tested a nuclear weapon that could be attached to a long-range missile. The weapon is also claimed to have been a hydrogen bomb more powerful than the atomic weapons dropped during the Second World War and is said to be small enough to fit onto a missile. Yet, more recently there seems to have been some sort of truce. Jong-un met with Trump in Singapore and the former had pledged denuclearisation.
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Before this recent escalation and subsequent softening, there had been more than 2,055 known nuclear detonations – but only two of those were in an actual conflict: the bombs dropped by the USA on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Time hasn’t stood still, so what would happen if a thin-skinned world leader were to aim one of those nukes at a city today?
If you’re having a cheery day, you probably don’t want to press play on the video below from AsapSCIENCE. And you certainly don’t want to read my summary either, but for everyone else, here are the gritty details.
For simplicity, AsapSCIENCE has taken a one-megaton nuclear bomb as its weapon of choice. That’s 66 times larger than the bomb that devastated Hiroshima, which may seem far-fetched until you realise that it’s like an underwhelming indoor firework compared to the 50-megaton Tsar bomb that Russia dropped on Mityushikha Bay in 1961, which released the nuclear energy of 3,333 Hiroshima bombs.
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So, what damage would this one-megaton bomb do? How long is an incomprehensibly destructive piece of string? In short, it depends on a number of factors, including the time of day, the weather, the type of land where it hits, or if it detonates in the air. But there simply isn’t a happy answer to the question, no matter how favourable the conditions.
This so-called “Nuke Map“, created by Alex Wellerstein, gives a more accurate idea. It lets you virtually drop a bomb anywhere in the world and you can select the strength of the bomb in question to see the extent of the damage.
There is also an app called Nukey McNukeface (really), designed for Android, that will reveal if you’re in North Korea’s nuclear strike zone. Nukey shows you a 100km radius from major US and world capitals, but the designer admits that the app is 100% accurate “and is merely for fun”. Data and ranges are said to be based on news reports.
Around a third of the energy of an atomic bomb is released through thermal radiation. This travels at around the speed of light, so the first thing you’ll see is a blinding flash of light and heat. For a one-megaton bomb, you’ll likely be temporarily blinded if you were standing 13 miles away on a clear day, or 53 miles away on a clear night.
Still, temporary blindness aside, you would escape the more serious health complaints: if you were standing seven miles away, you might need to be treated for mild first-degree burns. Stand within five miles of the blast zone, and you’re looking at more serious third-degree burns.
There’s a good chance that would be fatal, but not as good a chance as if you were closer to the blast zone itself. The centre of the Hiroshima bomb was estimated to be around 300,000˚C. For perspective, cremations are carried out in furnaces that reach 1,200˚C, so there’s literally no chance of surviving that.
Your chances improve the further out you get, basically, but even if you get serious burns, you may be killed another way before you can be treated. Within a four-mile radius of a one-megaton bomb, blast waves can produce 180 tonnes of force and winds of around 158 miles per hour. That speed reaches 470mph in a half-mile radius. As a human, you might survive that pressure – but you likely wouldn’t survive any nearby buildings collapsing on you.
That’s before we even get on to the radiation poisoning. Radiation of 600 REM has a 90% chance of death. That drops by half when you hit 450 REM, but you’re not out of the woods then, with increased chances of cancer and potential genetic mutations.
But let’s say you’re not anywhere near the blast. You’re safe then, right? Well, not quite. Overlooking the fact that it wouldn’t be a nuclear war without retaliation, radioactive fallout can travel for hundreds of miles. Yes, its effects diminish after a couple of weeks, but that’s a couple of weeks when you’re going to want to stay in your fallout shelter.
What do you mean you don’t have a fallout shelter?
Again, that’s just a single-megaton bomb, and nukes are a little like Pringles: not only are they potentially deadly – you can’t have just one. A 2007 study examined what would happen if India and Pakistan engaged in a small-scale nuclear war of their own. Small-scale because, comparatively, both nations have fairly small arsenals of around 250 (remember, Russia and the USA have nearly 14,000 between them). The conclusion of this study? With “just” 100 Hiroshima-sized bombs, 20 million would immediately die, five million tonnes of smoke would hit the stratosphere, and we’d enter nuclear winter. Global temperatures drop and agriculture would struggle causing famine and yet more deaths. A 2012 study projected that a 100-bomb nuclear war would cause two billion people to starve.
There are, of course, exceptions to the rule. One Japanese man managed to survive being caught in both the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. He eventually died in 2010, aged 93.
All the same, there are plenty of reasons to be alarmed when the American president is quoted as welcoming a nuclear arms race. When it comes to nuclear wars, it’s not the case that the side with the biggest arsenal wins – more that everybody loses.
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