This simulator shows what a nuclear explosion would do to your town — and it just got a scary (yet helpful) new feature
- Nukemap is a tool that lets you detonate nuclear weapons over an interactive map of the world.
- The app was created by a historian to help people better understand the effects of nuclear explosions.
- A new version shows how various types of radioactive fallout shelters might protect you from exposure.
- Nukemap’s goal is help users understand both the horror of nuclear attacks and their potential survivability.
Since February 2012, people around the world have exploded more than 159 million nuclear weapons. They’ve set off big ones and small ones, and dropped them on Washington, Paris, Moscow, and even their own homes.
But none of these nuclear explosions are real. They’re all simulated via Nukemap, an in-browser app that lets you choose a location anywhere on Earth, fiddle with a number of options, and then set off a hypothetical nuclear bomb.
The program is the brainchild of Alex Wellerstein, an historian of nuclear weapons at the Stevens Institute of Technology. Using the app has a certain thrill to it — just zoom to your location and click “detonate” to see what happens.
But that feeling is quickly replaced by existential dread when you see the estimated numbers of fatalities and injuries tick upward, and observe the lingering effects that a single blast might inflict over perhaps thousands of square miles.
You begin to wonder if you might survive such an onslaught in real life.
“We live in a world where nuclear weapons issues are on the front pages of our newspapers on a regular basis, yet most people still have a very bad sense of what an exploding nuclear weapon can actually do,” Wellerstein wrote on his personal website, NuclearSecrecy.org.
Hence, Wellerstein created Nukemap six years ago to lure those who are curious and educate them on a raft of consequences of nuclear detonations.
“A realistic understanding of what nuclear weapons can and can’t do is necessary for any discussion that involves them,” Wellerstein previously told Business Insider. “People tend to have either wildly exaggerated views of the weapons, or wildly under-appreciate their power, if they have thoughts about them at all. It can lead to hysterical policies of all sorts.”
Wellerstein has been updating his public-education project ever since, and it’s now at version 2.6. In the new version, users can more deeply explore the consequences of radioactive fallout, including if and how a person might survive the frightening phenomenon.
Nukemap’s new fallout shelter option
Nukemap’s software relies on declassified equations along with models of nuclear weapons and their effects — factors like fireball size, air-blast radius, radiation zones, and more. It crunches the numbers, then renders the results as graphics over an interactive map.
Preset options let you pick historic and recent blasts, including North Korea’s test explosions and Tsar Bomba, the most powerful nuclear device ever detonated. The tool can even estimate fatalities and injuries for a given weapon yield, altitude, and location.
Wellerstein’s latest update debuted last week, and it offers a fascinating new option: a way to see how well someone in a radioactive fallout shelter might fare.
The previous version of Nukemap could generate a cloud of radioactive fallout and show users how it might drift based on real weather conditions. Now a “probe” tool lets you explore that cloud and better estimate your chances of survival within it.
The feature allows users to pick a given spot and see how much radioactive exposure they might get over a certain amount of time, and what that exposure may do. You can also explore how different types of shelter affect that exposure. The options include no shelter at all, the basement of a one-story house, the center of an office building, and so on.
As an example, suppose a 150-kiloton bomb detonates in New York City (near the ground).
This yield, in kilotons of TNT, would be about 10 times that of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. So Nukemap predicts that dangerous fallout from such a cataclysm could spread deep into Connecticut and douse Stamford.
This type of bomb would be similar in yield to the hydrogen bombs that North Korea might be able to deliver as far as the Eastern US. (Wellerstein also developed a Missilemap browser app to explore the range of nuclear-warhead-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles.)
In this example blast, a person out in the open at Scalzi Park in Stamford, Connecticut, might get 116 rads of radiation exposure over five hours. Nukemap describes this as “sickness inducing,” since it’d be enough to weaken the body’s immune system (among other effects).
Meanwhile, if that Connecticut resident were to huddle in the basement of a nearby three-story brick building for 72 hours, they’d see only 8 rads — roughly equivalent to the dosage astronauts get after living aboard the International Space Station for 6 months.
‘Reinventing civil defense’
Nukemap’s fallout-cloud feature shows that fallout is mostly limited to explosions that happen near the ground — as opposed to airbursts thousands of feet or even miles above the surface. That’s because fallout consists almost entirely of dirt and debris that get sucked up by a nuclear blast, irradiated to dangerous levels, pushed into the atmosphere, and sprinkled over great distances. (So a blast high in the air can’t vacuum up the same amount of soil and debris.)
In any case, nuclear safety experts say 48 hours is the minimum amount of time you should shelter in place, since radioactivity from fallout would subside from dangerous levels after this time.
This is the type of information Wellerstein hopes his tool teaches people through experimentation and iteration.
“I hope that people will come to understand what a nuclear weapon would do to places they are familiar with, and how the different sizes of nuclear weapons change the results,” he wrote on his site.
The update to Nukemap comes as Wellerstein and others at the Stevens Institute of Technology work on an initiative called Reinventing Civil Defense.
The project, backed by a $500,000 non-profit grant, is expected to debut in 2019 and feature virtual-reality explorations of what it’s like to be in the midst of a nuclear blast. The effort’s name references the Cold War-era program in the US to distribute safety announcements like “duck and cover.”
“Our goal is to develop new communication strategies regarding nuclear risk that have high potential to resonate with a public audience,” the project’s website says. “Building on the prior history of Civil Defense, we will identify what an effective, non-partisan, level-headed approach to nuclear risk communication looks like in the 21st century.”
In the meantime, Nukemap’s latest iteration makes clear that every weapon’s yield, or explosive power, is limited — and so are its effects.
So if you’re not at ground zero, are aware that an attack might be coming, and know what to do — and what to avoid, like getting into a car — you stand a chance at surviving (barring all-out nuclear war).
That doesn’t mean we should get used to the idea of nuclear weapons or consider their use inevitable or normal. Quite the contrary: Such a trend would bring the world closer to catastrophic nuclear conflict, perhaps by accident.
“A more grounded, sober, calibrated view of these weapons, in my experience, leads people to take more sober approaches to them,” Wellerstein previously told Business Insider. “[A] nuclear detonation wouldn’t be the end of everything, but we should strive to avoid it at practically all costs.”