We live on the brink of destruction.
The above video is an artistic representation of the 2,053 nuclear explosions that occurred between 1945 and 1998.
According to the Federation of American Scientists, there are 4,300 active (operational) nuclear warheads and more than 17,000 total nuclear warheads in the world as of 2012. 1,800 of those, between Russia and the U.S., are ready to go at a moment’s notice.
The United States leads the number of operational strategic warheads with about 1,950. Russia sits in second place at 1,740 (although they have a larger number of total warheads), with the United Kingdom a distant third.
The Nuke Map
But it only takes one to devastate a city.
In fact, you can see a nuclear weapon’s radius of destruction (by yield) with a nifty (and frightening) tool called the Nuke Map.
Just choose a location, a yield, and press “Detonate.” It shows you things like the fireball radius, airblast radius, and radiation radius, though it doesn’t account for fallout.
The Tsar bomb is particularly terrifying, weighing in at 100 Megatons with a fireball radius of 3.03 km.
Place it over your hometown, then take a moment to consider the dark side of humanity.
Could Nuclear War Destroy The World?
We won’t destroy the Earth; it’s seen a lot worse than us. But we may very well destroy ourselves.
First, consider the effects of one explosion:
A nuclear bomb first gives off a “blinding flash,” which may literally blind an unprepared observer. This is followed by an electromagnetic pulse, a fireball of immense heat and ionizing radiation, and a horrific blast wave.
Not everyone in the direct vicinity of the blast will die, of course.
Not immediately, anyway.
The ionizing radiation is perhaps the most frightening result of a nuclear bomb; the invisible, slow, crawling poison that lingers long after the initial explosion.
Duel of the Fates
Now imagine we’re suddenly at DEFCON 1. Nuclear war is imminent, and the bombs start getting tossed. Major cities are targeted. The arsenals are emptied. If we’re going down, we’re taking the world with us. At least, that’s what you’d assume they’d say (whoever they are in this equation).
In 1979, the Office of Technology published The Effects of War, a look at the potential effects of such an exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union.
In the case of a single, limited exchange (say, to a single city), millions would potentially die. The affected areas would become uninhabitable. But the world wouldn’t end.
How about a full-on war, though?
“Immediate deaths in the United States could range from 70 million to 160 million (35 to 80 percent of the population) with Soviet deaths approximately 20 to 40 percent lower.”
Yeah. The Cold War. Good times.
Times have changed, of course, but the threat still remains.
How long will we last?
If you’re interested in reading about the survival of a small group of people after a nuclear exchange, Alas, Babylon is as good a book as any. I recommend it.