Friday, 23 May 2014

So its a bit of a lazy post on my part this time, but also a slightly unusual one...

Nuclear weapons have become something more than just physical objects. They are metaphors for the end of the world and for humanity's self destructive tendencies. However, whilst their use en masse could cause the end of the world (or the human race, or just civilisation; because there's never been a nuclear war, no one can predict just how much it would mess things up) it's worth remembering that even in the worst case scenario there would be parts of the world pretty much untouched. Whilst Hollywood would have you believe the world would become uniformly uninhabitable, it seems rather unlikely that any of the major nuclear powers would have missiles programmed to fire at Iceland, or Norway, or most of the Southern hemisphere. (There are currently no nuclear powers in the southern hemisphere, thus no countries there present a threat in this scenario, although South Africa is the only country in history to have developed nuclear weapons and then gotten rid of them).

Even within the target countries, the blasts would not be evenly distributed, as the things worth destroying aren't equally spaced out. Again, it's unlikely that anyone is going to want to nuke Cornwall for instance, and because the prevailing wind in the UK tends to be towards the east, it's very likely that the cornish wouldn't receive much radioactive fallout from surrounding areas, raising the rather charming prospect of a post apocalyptic west-country where everyone goes back to farming the land and sunning themselves on the beach.

On the other hand, major cities and military installations would likely be pummelled with multiple, large yield weapons. The yield of a nuclear weapon is a way to quantify its explosive force, and is measured in its equivalence to tons of TNT explosive. To give a sense of scale, the largest non-nuclear bomb currently available in western arsenals, the American MOAB, contains the equivalent of 11 tons of TNT, whilst the bomb that flattened Hiroshima had a yield of 16 kilotons, or 16,000 tons of TNT. The largest nuclear weapon ever tested, the Russian Tsar Bomba, had a yield of around 50 megatons, or 50 MILLION tons of TNT (it could have been up to 100 megatons, but the Russians thought that was probably a bit much). So there's a bit of a sliding scale here - whilst the destruction of Hiroshima was horrific, it was on a par with the damage that could be dealt by hundreds of bombers dropping conventional bombs on a city in a single raid, whilst weapons in the megaton range are completely beyond human experience.

And so, eventually, we arrive at the point of this article. It's something I've always been interested to know; how would my area fare in a nuclear war? Well thanks to this nifty overlay for google maps, you can nuke anywhere in the world with bombs of varying yields. For instance, the nearest likely target to me is the navy headquarters in Northwood, from where the UK's nuclear submarines are commanded. As most warheads these days tend to yield around 0.1 to 1 megatons, a strike on Northwood actually wouldn't cause as much destruction at this distance as I thought. It would shatter windows but leave houses intact and cause burns to exposed flesh equivalent to being splashed with boiling water. Probably a slow painful death instead of an instant one then. Why not try nuking your town at href=""?

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