What Would Happen If a Nuclear Bomb Hit a Major City Today: A Visualization of the Destruction

One of the many mem­o­rable details in Stan­ley Kubrick­’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Wor­ry­ing and Love the Bomb, placed promi­nent­ly in a shot of George C. Scott in the war room, is a binder with a spine labeled “WORLD TARGETS IN MEGADEATHS.” A megadeath, writes Eric Schloss­er in New York­er piece on the movie, “was a unit of mea­sure­ment used in nuclear-war plan­ning at the time. One megadeath equals a mil­lion fatal­i­ties.” The destruc­tive capa­bil­i­ty of nuclear weapons hav­ing only increased since 1964, we might well won­der how many megadeaths would result from a nuclear strike on a major city today.

In col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Nobel Peace Prize, film­mak­er Neil Hal­lo­ran address­es that ques­tion in the video above, which visu­al­izes a sim­u­lat­ed nuclear explo­sion in a city of four mil­lion. “We’ll assume the bomb is det­o­nat­ed in the air to max­i­mize the radius of impact, as was done in Japan in 1945. But here, we’ll use an 800-kilo­ton war­head, a rel­a­tive­ly large bomb in today’s arse­nals, and 100 times more pow­er­ful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshi­ma.” The imme­di­ate result would be a “fire­ball as hot as the sun” with a radius of 800 meters; all build­ings with­in a two-kilo­me­ter radius would be destroyed, “and we’ll assume that vir­tu­al­ly no one sur­vives inside this area.”

Already in these cal­cu­la­tions, the death toll has reached 120,000. “From as far as away as eleven kilo­me­ters, the radi­ant heat from the blast would be strong enough to cause third-degree burns on exposed skin.” Though most peo­ple would be indoors and thus shel­tered from that at the time of the explo­sion, “the very struc­tures that offered this pro­tec­tion would then become a cause of injury, as debris would rip through build­ings and rain down on city streets.” This would, over the weeks after the attack, ulti­mate­ly cause anoth­er 500,000 casu­al­ties — anoth­er half a megadeath — with anoth­er 100,000 at longer range still to occur.

These are sober­ing fig­ures, to be sure, but as Hal­lo­ran reminds us, the Cold War is over; unlike in Dr. Strangelove’s day, fam­i­lies no longer build fall­out shel­ters, and school­child­ren no longer do nuclear-bomb drills. Nev­er­the­less, even though nations aren’t as on edge about total anni­hi­la­tion as they were in the mid-twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry, the tech­nolo­gies that poten­tial­ly cause such anni­hi­la­tion are more advanced than ever, and indeed, “nuclear weapons remain one of the great threats to human­i­ty.” Here in the twen­ty-twen­ties, “coun­tries big and small face the prospect of new arms races,” a much more com­pli­cat­ed geopo­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion than the long stand­off between the Unit­ed States and the Sovi­et Union — and, per­haps, one beyond the reach of even Kubrick­ian­ly grim satire.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Watch Chill­ing Footage of the Hiroshi­ma & Nagasa­ki Bomb­ings in Restored Col­or

Why Hiroshi­ma, Despite Being Hit with the Atom­ic Bomb, Isn’t a Nuclear Waste­land Today

When the Wind Blows: An Ani­mat­ed Tale of Nuclear Apoc­a­lypse With Music by Roger Waters & David Bowie (1986)

Inno­v­a­tive Film Visu­al­izes the Destruc­tion of World War II: Now Avail­able in 7 Lan­guages

The Map of Doom: A Data-Dri­ven Visu­al­iza­tion of the Biggest Threats to Human­i­ty, Ranked from Like­ly to Unlike­ly

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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