Nuclear bomb explosion map shows what would happen if one exploded near you

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Discussions around the threat of nuclear war have intensified in recent weeks, as Sweden and Finland appear ready to join NATO and Russia says it will not accept their membership.

Commentators are divided on whether Russian President Vladimir Putin will go so far as to use these weapons, with some calling them “empty threats”, while others say the risk is real if he feels cornered.

But what would happen if a bomb exploded? What would be the immediate impact and how far would the radiation zone extend?

Alex Wellerstein, nuclear weapons historian, associate professor at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey, created a nuclear bomb simulator to show just that.

the NUKEMAP is designed to show the effect of a nuclear explosion in any location on the globe. It consists of a map in which users can select a location and model the local impacts of an explosion, while taking into account various factors, such as the power of the weapon and whether or not it explodes on (or near) from the surface or upwards. the air.

A screenshot of the NUKEMAP tool created by Alex Wellerstein showing the impacts of a hypothetical nuclear explosion of the “Tsar Bomba” weapon on New York and its surroundings.
NUKEMAP by Alex Wellerstein https://nuclearsecrecy.com/nukemap/ / Map data © OpenStreetMap contributors, CC-BY-SA, Imagery © Mapbox

The simulation estimates the potential number of deaths and injuries resulting from a given explosion, as well as an approximate model of where any nuclear fallout will spread and the dimensions of the mushroom cloud.

In the description of the simulator, Wellerstein said the purpose of the educational tool was to help people visualize the impact of nuclear weapons in simple terms to help them understand the magnitude of these explosions.

“We live in a world where nuclear weapons issues regularly make the headlines, but most people still have a very poor idea of ​​what an explosive nuclear weapon can actually do,” Wellerstein said in a statement. communicated on the simulator’s website.

“Some think they destroy everything in the world at once, some think they are not much different from conventional bombs. The reality is somewhere in between: nuclear weapons can cause immense destruction and destruction. ‘Huge loss of life, but the effects are still understandable on a human scale.’

The explosion of a nuclear bomb
Image showing a US Navy nuclear test on Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands. The NUKEMAP simulator shows what would happen if a nuclear bomb exploded near you.
iStock

The creator said allowing people to view effects in arbitrarily chosen geographic locations could help them understand what a nuclear weapon would do to places they know.

“I created NUKEMAP because it’s very difficult for anyone, even me, to intuitively understand the size of nuclear explosions, let alone the differences between different types of nuclear weapons,” Wellerstein said. Newsweek. “NUKEMAP is designed to make understanding nuclear explosions easier for everyone, since virtually everyone knows how to use online mapping software these days.

Accurate modeling of nuclear fallout, in particular, is “very difficult”, according to Wellerstein, given that there are many relevant variables, including the type of terrain over which the explosion detonated and weather conditions.

Nuclear fallout is the “short-term” radiation – defined here as radioactive residue from the explosion that remains active for the next few weeks or months (as opposed to years) – that “falls” from the mushroom cloud after the detonation of the bomb .

This is slightly different from the immediate radiation that is produced when a nuclear weapon explodes.

As an example, you can use the model to estimate what would happen to the largest cities in the United States if a nuclear bomb as powerful as the infamous “Tsar Bomba” was detonated on them.

The Tsar Bomba, which was developed by the USSR in the mid-1950s and early 1960s, was the most powerful nuclear weapon ever created and tested, with a blast yield equivalent to approximately 50 megatons of TNT. For comparison, “Little Boy” – the nuclear bomb the United States dropped on Hiroshima during World War II – had an explosive yield of about 15 kilotons of TNT, or about 3,300 times less powerful.

Below are some rough estimates of a Tsar Bomba airburst 13,000 feet over the following cities, according to the simulator:

  • New York City, New York – 7.6 million dead and 4.2 million injured
  • Los Angeles, California – 3.9 million dead and 3.7 million injured
  • Chicago, Illinois – 2.7 million dead and 2 million injured
  • Houston, Texas – 1.7 million dead and 1.7 million injured
  • Phoenix, Arizona – 1.3 million dead and 1.2 million injured
  • Philadelphia, Pennsylvania – 2.3 million dead and 1.5 million injured

Wellerstein points out that the Model NUKEMAP can only provide estimates and is only as good as the data it relies on, i.e. it is not perfect. Some factors that could make a difference in the real world when it comes to estimating the number of victims and the size of a given explosion, for example, may not be taken into account in the simulation.

Wellerstein said Newsweek that NUKEMAP has seen a “huge” increase in traffic since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine earlier this year, to the point that it had to drastically upgrade and improve the server that hosts the site in order to manage it.

“Since February, nearly nine million people have visited NUKEMAP, with some days seeing more than 300,000 users per day,” he said.

According to Hans Kristensen and Matt Korda of the Federation of American Scientists, the largest warhead deployed on a missile in Russia is currently estimated at 800 kilotons.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if they had megaton gravity bombs, though, like the United States does as well,” Wellerstein said.

“These are only estimates, however. There have been rumors over the years from the Russians that they were developing multi-megaton weapons for their new weapon systems, but I cannot verify whether that’s true or not. I’d say, ‘they might just be propaganda,’ but it’s propaganda, whether true or false in this case.”

Correction 5/16/22, 10:31 AM ET: This article has been corrected to indicate that Little Boy has an explosive yield of 15 kilotons.

Updated 6/16/22, hh:mm am ET: This article has been updated to include additional comments from Alex Wellerstein.

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