How many nukes does it take to destroy the world?

Wednesday, August 19th, 2009

How many nukes does it take to destroy the world? More than you might think. In fact, more than we have:


  1. Bongstar420 says:

    It might not immediately destroy everything, but what is not clear from this illustration is if civilization could persist the radiotoxicity that would be around for a century or two.

    How much persistent radio toxicity would result, and what would the probable distribution be?

  2. The persistent radiotoxicity is actually pretty low. Remember, the general rule is that the more radioactive the substance, the shorter the half life, and the quicker it’s gone. The studies I’ve seen indicate that it would be safe to plant a vegetable garden at a groundburst ground zero after 3-5 years. There are certain concentration effects, though, that could cause some areas to remain dangerous for much longer.

    It’s also heavily dependent on the targeting scheme used. Airbursts, like you use for destroying cities, produce very little fallout, since fallout is debris sucked up through the fireball where it is irradiated before being spewed out the top. Groundbursts, such as you would use for roads, powerplants, and military targets, produce lots of fallout and have a nasty downwind area.

    The fallout area is highly dependent on meteorological conditions. For instance, if it’s raining then it will be small but intense while if it’s windy and clear it will be large but dilute.

    This is just scratching the surface of a large and fascinating topic. To summarize: fusion bombs are pretty radiologically clean (especially in airburst mode), the radiation tends not to stick around (see: Hiroshima and Nagasaki, both hit by smaller but much dirtier bombs than we use now), and the post-attack radiation environment will be very unevenly dangerous. In terms of long term threats, disease and breakdown in the food supply are the predominant concerns.

  3. Toddy Cat says:

    Depending on the targeting scheme used, there could also be regional effects on climate, at least for a few months. Not enough to create a “nuclear winter”, but possibly enough to trigger some crop failures. Not the end of the world, but not pretty, either.

  4. Yes, “nuclear autumn.” The oddest aspect was that high-altitude temperatures would be increased enormously – to as high as the 70s F. At ground level the temperatures would be moderated – warm winter and cold summer, but only up to a year out from the exchange. Months; more likely.

    Note that all this is for a massive 1980′s WWIII exchange between NATO and USSR, wherein the majority of the globe’s nuclear arsenal would be expended and in which almost every country would catch a few, if only to keep them from taking advantage of the (former) great powers’ post-attack weakness. Under these criteria, 50% of the US population was expected to perish in the initial hours, with half the remainder dead within a few years due mostly to disease and starvation. Of course, this is only one of several game-theoretically possible ways that such a war might have played out.

    Nowadays the arsenals are far, far smaller and the number of weapons ready to “go” at any time smaller yet. At most a few thousand warheads could be involved in the initial exchange between two of the current big 3 (US, China, Russia). Figure that 80% of those will actually make it to the target and initiate (optimistic – likely fewer for the Russians and more for the US). Between 5 and 15% of the remainder would go off target and initiate somewhere random.

    This would wreck the countries involved quite thoroughly, but the initial population loss percentages aren’t likely to climb too far into the double-digits and large areas would probably be untouched. Most countries targeting schemes since the 70s seem to be balanced primarily towards counter-force, so most of those warheads will be expended trying to kill other warheads – targeted on missile fields, bomber bases, and the like. Of course, take all that with a grain of salt. The conditions under which such a war began would have the biggest say in its conduct.

    For a while now I’ve had a pet analogy I use for describing the net effects, as currently best understood: modern great-power nuclear confrontation would inflict on the belligerents in only a few hours what the Eastern Front did to Germany and Russia over 4 years.

    Of course, the moron governments we’ve had lately keep finding ways to cut the arsenal further and (with the exception of the USN’s SSBNs) the strategic services are seen as a career graveyard, greatly reducing their competence and responsiveness. This erodes the multistable deterrence that has to date prevented major wars. I suppose this is a “victim of your own success” issue.

  5. Slovenian Guest says:

    Speaking of, I recommend the very interesting glasstone blog. It’s about contradicting the widespread superstition that nuclear wars are unsurvivable and debunking hardened dogma of exaggerated nuclear effects.

    Duck & cover makes sense after all!

  6. It drives me crazy when people get smug about duck and cover. Apparently they think that nuclear initiations have no effects beyond the radius of total destruction when in reality most of the area subjected to blast effects are going to suffer the equivalent of anything from an F-4 tornado to a strong windstorm, dependent on the distance to ground zero. Most of the area affected by the thermal pulse will not be instantly fried, but simply suffer a similarly varying intensity of fires.

    Yet those same people don’t laugh at the futility of tornado or fire drills.

  7. Isegoria says:

    It’s almost as if this smug attitude toward duck and cover had some ideological component…

    I’m still amazed by the fact that the casualty rate at ground zero was not 100 percent.

  8. If there’s one thing my readings have instilled in me, it is the understanding that people can be surprisingly hard to kill. We’re stretchy.

  9. Isegoria says:

    That reminds me, I was just listening to an interview with Tom Givens, where he mentioned that the local trauma hospital takes in 3,100 gunshot victims per year, with roughly 100 fatalities. Handgun wounds aren’t especially lethal, when they’re not well aimed.

  10. Slovenian Guest says:

    Thank god that black people hold their guns sideways!

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