Nuclear Fallout
July 1, 2004 9:19 AM   Subscribe

In the event of full-scale nuclear war, will there be survivors in places like Mbuji-Mayi, Wekweti, and Noril'sk? If they were to survive the initial blast, would the fallout get them?
posted by trharlan to Science & Nature (32 answers total)
Fallout, probably not. If the "nuclear winter" theories are right, all sunlight in the industrialized northern latitudes would be choked off for some weeks by clouds of dust and smoke, dropping temperatures 70ºF. So that'll suck.

Still, Mbuji-Mayi and Noril'sk are well south and north respectively of those latitudes; Wekweti is at the northern edge of the suggested cold zone.

So, survivors, maybe. My question would be: with whom might we have a "full-scale" nuclear war now?
posted by nicwolff at 9:39 AM on July 1, 2004

In John Updike's excellent "The Coup", a character theorizes that after the inevitable nuclear war, Africa will rise to become the next dominant continent, as no one would care enough to attack it.
posted by rocketman at 9:46 AM on July 1, 2004

Are we assuming radiation causes super powers or not?
posted by weston at 9:50 AM on July 1, 2004

In On the Beach, the fallout/radiation slowly makes it way everywhere, following the jetstream/tradewinds/etc. I think if it didn't kill everyone, childbirth mutations and stuff would make existence hard, if not impossible.

nic: i'd say China.
posted by amberglow at 10:19 AM on July 1, 2004

Yes. Some of them.
posted by ewagoner at 10:33 AM on July 1, 2004

It would still be the Worst Day Ever, but AFAIK:

There would almost certainly be substantial numbers of survivors in most metro areas, much less out of the way places in noncombatant countries.

Nukes aren't magic talismans that kill everyone in a city and environs; they're "just" very large explosions. If your basic 250--500KT ICBM nuke went off in your local downtown core, people in the suburbs 8--10 miles away would get a jolt, a tremendous light show, and maybe some of their windows blown out. And cancer later and other related fun.

Also, the overwhelming majority of one country's 5--7000 warheads are targeted at the other country's 5--7000 warheads, not detailed for city-busting.

The fallout later would be a real bitch, doing more killing than the blasts. But there would be lots and lots of immediate survivors. In the hundreds of millions each in the US and Russia, assuming that conflict. Fallout survival would depend primarily on wind patterns for the month or so after the war; after that, most of the really nasty short-lived radioactives like iodine would have depleted themselves and you'd be "down to" hugely inflated risks of cancer in the long run instead of immediate sickness and death.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:42 AM on July 1, 2004 [1 favorite]

When I was a boy — back in the scary early-eighties (scary in a impending nuclear war sense) — my father had worked out that one of the safest places to be would be Coos Bay, Oregon. I cannot recall correctly if this was supposed to be one of the safest places in the world, or just the closest reasonably safe place to us (living near Portland).

In any event, he had maps and wind charts and tide charts and all sorts of other data that he'd collected. Based on this, he calculated that the area around Coos Bay would be relatively safe from fallout, etc. (Interestingly enough, I once saw a magazine article on this topic, and sure enough, the included fallout map backed up Dad's theory.)

I remember one summer, we even spent a couple of weeks along the south coast, loooking at property. Dad really thought a nuclear war was coming, and he wanted to move us to safety.

In high school, I had a girlfriend whose father was a nutcase. Vietnam had left him scarred. And scared. He designed an elaborate bomb shelter, and was in the process of constructing it next to the family's trailer house. He spent more time and money on a bomb shelter designed to protect against a possible future of doom than he spent on providing for his family in the here and now. Eventually, his wife divorced him and took the kids with here.

It's always interesting talking to "kids nowadays" — meaning even those who are only ten years younger than I am — because they have no conception of the fear of nuclear war that used to hover over society. It was always there.

Or maybe it was only me...
posted by jdroth at 10:50 AM on July 1, 2004

I'm remembering a link on the blue that talked about nuclear war and what would happen in a nuclear explosion - the article seemed to think that after the initial blast, widespread fires would be the real problem, before radiation.
posted by agregoli at 11:16 AM on July 1, 2004

I found this page projecting what would happen if there were a full-scale nuclear exchange between the U.S. and the Soviets; but this is the one I remembered (from Monkeyfilter), in which the scenario is that a full nuclear exchange occurs in 1988 - the peak of U.S-Soviet nuclear deployment - when Gorbachev is assassinated. The loss of life is enormous but not total, and in this scenario, Australia, New Zealand, China, Argentina, and Brazil become major powers, and 25-30% of people in the U.S. survive. Grim stuff.
posted by furiousthought at 11:49 AM on July 1, 2004 [1 favorite]

It wasn't just you, jdroth. And it really is a generational thing; the fear ended more or less overnight, in 1989.
posted by Mars Saxman at 1:09 PM on July 1, 2004

trharlan, you're Dick Cheney, aren't you?
posted by fletchmuy at 1:59 PM on July 1, 2004

In John Updike's excellent "The Coup", a character theorizes that after the inevitable nuclear war, Africa will rise to become the next dominant continent, as no one would care enough to attack it.

IIRC, that was also the background in "Farnham's Freehold" by Heinlein.
posted by gimonca at 2:28 PM on July 1, 2004 [1 favorite]

amberglow: China has maybe 25 single-warhead ICBMs; the "full-scale" nukewar the nuclear-winter theories describe was an exchange of most of the 40,000 warheads then thought to be kept launch-ready by the US and USSR.
posted by nicwolff at 2:30 PM on July 1, 2004

jdroth: it was absolutely not just you. I'm 38 and I grew up very much aware of the fact that at any chosen moment the missiles might be en route. I have somewhere my old copy of the Dep't of Energy's The Effects of Nuclear Weapons and playing with the wheel-calculator that came in the back to figure out what likelihood of survival we had out on Cape Cod if Boston got its allotment of megatonnage.

The scale of what today's kids are called on to imagine - one terrorist nuke of maybe 100 KT set off in a major city - a few million dead - it's just nothing to what we at that age assumed was inevitable. Lucky light-hearted little bastards.
posted by nicwolff at 2:43 PM on July 1, 2004

ahh...thanks nic...are ours still set to go off automatically if their's go off?

all of us had that fear--remember The Day After? (and there was a british miniseries and cartoon thing too.) We didn't have to duck and cover like older folks did, but it was always there.
posted by amberglow at 3:25 PM on July 1, 2004

make that theirs
posted by amberglow at 3:26 PM on July 1, 2004

(I like this question, if only because I had to look up two of the three places.)

My speculation is that Wekweti (in Canada's NWT) and Noril'sk (in Siberia) would survive in the short-term, but would be far too dependent on the world's economic and technological infrastructure to survive a moderate to large nuclear war in the long-term. Survivors would starve, freeze to death, or abandon the community in search of better habitat elsewhere. The ability to grow one's own food, and not to need too much assistance from outside the area in winter heating, would be critical. Also a small chance some people might be able to survive as local traditional natives, living as Inuit or Nganasan in pre-technological mode.

Other speculation would be that the Mbuji-Mayi population would struggle along as they always have. Things might not be that pleasant there even right now--a Google search turns up a bunch of "cholera appeals". A population there, living on subsistence agriculture after a nuclear war, would probably be about as miserable as they are now anyway. A very, very cynical person could say that if the manufacturers of small arms and land mines in North America and Eurasia were all destroyed, the people in Mbuji-Mayi might even see an improvement.
posted by gimonca at 4:21 PM on July 1, 2004

the fear ended more or less overnight, in 1989.

Delusional. The world is more dangerous now. Nuclear 1914 just one of many scenarios. More countries have nuclear weapons then ever and political alliances are more teneious and unstable then ever.
posted by stbalbach at 4:27 PM on July 1, 2004

skallas: The initial blast isn't that scary

Well let's differentiate between the effects of a little 15-kiloton fission bomb like the one we dropped on Hiroshima, and that terrorists might cobble together today, and a 20-megaton thermonuclear warhead like the largest we think Russia maintains marginal control of now, or a 9-megaton bomb like the ones our B-2s can carry. A 20-megaton air blast will create a ball of superheated plasma a couple miles across, and will vaporize the shit out of you if you're standing in the open.


stbalbach: let's differentiate also between a limited nuclear exchange between China and the US (presumably resulting from our forcefully defending Taiwan or invading North Korea) in which we each lose a few major cities, and that full-scale nuclear war we were worrying about in the '80s, in which every American and Russian city was targeted with multiple ICBMs and both sides were prepared to "pretaliate" against a first strike launch.

So these days it's probably not delusional to have only moderate and intermittent "bad shit might happen to other people" fear, instead of the pervasive "the world may end" fear we used to live with.
posted by nicwolff at 5:17 PM on July 1, 2004

This is a really depressing subject.
posted by troutfishing at 6:24 PM on July 1, 2004

trout: but it's endlessly fascinating in its own ghoulish way. Someone on a newsgroup I read had worked on designing the Tomahawk -- she's actually pissed that it was adapted to carry conventional warheads, since now it flies around killing people instead of "just" being a hugely scary threat.

a 20-megaton thermonuclear warhead

But there aren't many 20MT or 9MT warheads to go around. Yeah, sure, there are a few Czar Bombas around, but that's not what's going to nuke your civilian ass.

All of the (few) warheads 1MT or greater are bombs, not missile warheads. And guess where some of the first batch of missiles that fly are headed? (and I dunno that a B-2 can carry a 9MT bomb -- they're big and, well, girthy)

Just about all ICBM/SLBM warheads run 100--550KT. Which would still cook an omelette, mind. But you might as well worry about teraton-yield antimatter weapons or 500 megaBolton songbombs as getting hit by a multi-megaton weapon.

Have I mentioned that my car insurance, through USAA, at least used to have a specific exclusion for "the accidental or intentional discharge of any nuclear weapon." I just love that... "discharge." Apparently they're worried that when the Bomb Falls, an army of mutant crab-people will put off their skin-eating long enough to descend upon San Antonio demanding checks -- BANK checks -- for their totalled cars.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:44 PM on July 1, 2004

remember The Day After? (and there was a british miniseries and cartoon thing too.)

The miniseries was called Threads, and it's absolutely harrowing in its depiction of what it would be like to be "lucky" enough to survive. It's notable especially in that the story unfolds over ten years following the nuclear exchange, so you get to see some of the longer-term consequences.

The cartoon thing was When the Wind Blows, a parable about a couple named Bloggs (!) and the consequences of blindly trusting that the authorities have your best interests at heart.
posted by jjg at 7:37 PM on July 1, 2004 [1 favorite]

Have I mentioned that my car insurance, through USAA, at least used to have a specific exclusion for "the accidental or intentional discharge of any nuclear weapon."

Mine still does (through Farmers)...except it's more general about nuclear events, doesn't specifically use the word "weapon". So if a dirty bomb goes off in the neighborhood, or the nuclear plant placed conveniently upwind of my metro goes oops, and my car can't be decontaminated, I'm screwed. Possibly in other ways too, but definitely in regards to the car.
posted by gimonca at 8:12 PM on July 1, 2004

I watched threads last week, and it gave me the perfect taste of nuclear fear. Dear God it's terrifying. When, 10 years after the blast, the children are eking a living from dead ground, and talkin in a patois loosely linked to English you realise what they all meant by "the end of civilisation"
posted by bonaldi at 10:19 PM on July 1, 2004

So what would be worse? a) A warhead dropping on your house or b) dropping 20 miles away? If you could choose, which would it be?

I think I would prefer a) - Instant vaporization.
posted by Quartermass at 12:20 AM on July 2, 2004

I'm 38 and I grew up very much aware of the fact that at any chosen moment the missiles might be en route.

So am I, and so did I. For what it's worth. Although living in northern BC I was relatively confident that I'd survive the war and be able to go all Mad Max in the years afterwards, which made me feel slightly better about it, when I was in a misanthropic mood.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 12:57 AM on July 2, 2004

For a nostalgic fix of mid-80s nuclear paranoia .. have a look at this excellent site (almost worthy of a FPP in its own right) containing a collection of UK civil defence pamphlets, including the famous Protect and Survive (1980), on how to prepare for a nuclear attack.

The site also includes a recording (RealAudio) of Casualties, a public information film from 1975 giving helpful advice on how to dispose of dead bodies in the event of a nuclear war. "If anyone dies while you are in your fallout room, move the body to another room in the house. Label the body with name and address and cover it as tightly as possible in polythene, paper, sheets or blankets. Tie a second card to the covering. The radio will advise you what to do about taking the body away for burial."

But to respond to trharlan's specific question: this old MeFi thread discusses alternative post-war scenarios, and the likelihood of "nuclear winter" as opposed to "nuclear autumn".
posted by verstegan at 3:54 AM on July 2, 2004

The thread that agregoli refers is mine, entitled "City on Fire". The premise of the article is that we have never given proper consideration to the heat affects of a mid-sized (!?!) 300KT weapon:

"Even if visibility were below two miles, an area of 12–15 square miles would be destroyed. This is two to three times the area destroyed in the incendiary attack on Hamburg in 1943. If visibility were five miles or greater, an area of approximately 25–45 square miles would burn. On a clear day, when visibility is 10 miles or greater, 40–65 square miles would burn.

Average air temperatures in the burning areas after the attack would be well above the boiling point of water; winds generated by the fire would be hurricane force; and the fire would burn everywhere at this intensity for three to six hours. Even after the fire burned out, street pavement would be so hot that even tracked vehicles could not pass over it for days, and buried, unburned material from collapsed buildings could burst into flames if exposed to air even weeks after the fire."

The morals of the story boys and girls?
  1. Always plan your devastating attack for a clear day, and
  2. it only takes one.
And, you can mark me down as another "certain-it-was-gonna-happen-child-of-the-eighties". I remember one summer we were camping in a park in LA as a waypoint on our trip to Catalina Island. At about 5:00 am we got hit with a 4.5 earthquake, which is generally not that big a deal. However, sleeping directly on the ground, it's a little more impressive. I woke up with the ground moving under me and the first thought in my mind was "somebody pushed the button." 3 panic-filled seconds later, I realized my mistake - but that memory still burns bright in my mind, 18 years later.
posted by Irontom at 4:24 AM on July 2, 2004

cities don't stay dead for long

in, only a few weeks to a few months. Hiroshima is now a bustling port, and the levels of contaminants are below scientist's wildest expectations.

so...people will survive, though it won't be expected, and they'll move back into the cities quickly enough. cities that aren't targetted, like texarkana and fargo and duluth, while having increased cancer rates from fallout from the attacks on dallas, chicago, minneapolis, will provide much of the industry and manpower to rebuild their shattered cousins.

in 20 years...maybe even 10...mankind will be hustling and bustling and loving and hating once again.
posted by taumeson at 8:12 AM on July 2, 2004

I vividly remember not being able to sleep after seeing "The Day After". I cursed the leaders of the US and USSR for playing god with the rest of us

I also recall numerous occasions where, just before falling asleep, the fear of something happening overnight would pop in my head and all I could think about was how much I would miss my parents.

I'm surprised children of the 80's didn't look like zombies from losing too much sleep agonizing over this.
posted by smcniven at 8:46 AM on July 2, 2004

jjg: thanks...i saw the british one on cable here at some point, and remember a teen girl having a baby (in the rubble or something) that was all messed up--it's stayed with me forever.
posted by amberglow at 9:12 AM on July 2, 2004

Did I ever tell you about the time I survived a nuclear explosion?

Good times, good times.

[Self-link. Apologies, but it seems germane.]
posted by mwhybark at 8:17 PM on July 3, 2004

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