Recently the web saw the emergence of a new online nuclear detonation simulator: NUKEMAP.
Created by Alex Wellerstein, a historian of science at the American Institute of Physics and blogger at “Restricted Data The Nuclear Secrecy Blog,” this simulator is the best example of an admittedly small class of apps. It allows one to pick the target and yield of the device, either through drop down boxes or by entering unique values. For the sake of simplicity, it defaults with an idealized air burst which eliminates the computational messiness of modeling the influence of unique geography and weather.
So this isn’t your National Lab/FEMA 3-D model tailored to individual cityscapes. But it gives you a general idea about the varying effects of different sizes of nuclear weapons.
The features, in Alex’s own words:
- Easily draggable target marker (which has an adorable little atom on it)!
- Bright, stomach-churning colors indicating major negative effects of atomic detonations!
- Effects described include zones of 500 rem exposure, major overpressures, and fire! Plus, the legend breaks these down into easy-to-understand descriptions of what they mean for your average person caught inside of them.
- Lots of pre-sets for both places to drop them (I didn’t want to discriminate) and yields of historical weapons! It has never been easier to put a 50Mt H-bomb on the Eiffel Tower.
- Automatically tries to drop the bomb on wherever Google thinks you are accessing the Internet from (based on your IP address)!
- You can link to specific detonations and send them to your friends to enjoy forever!
- Automatic zooming to make sure that all of a given nuke’s effects fit within the view window! (This can be disabled.)
- More historically contextualized than your average web app!
While obviously trying to inject some levity in the most serious of subjects, among Alex’s stated goals for this project was to visually explain the difference between fission and fusion weapons effects:
I have in the past made maps of this sort for use in teaching, when I want to emphasize how “impressive” the first hydrogen bomb was when compared to the first atomic bombs. If you dropped a Fat Man-style bomb onto downtown Boston, the results wouldn’t be pretty, but the effects would be limited to the immediate area surrounding the peninsula, primarily. (In other words, I would tell the students, Harvard is probably not too bad off, fallout excepting, but MIT is completely fried.) Do the same thing with an Ivy Mike-sized bomb and you’ve set houses on fire all the way out to Concord (a visual argument, when done with appropriate build-up and theatricality, that never failed to result in a horrified gasp from the auditorium of undergrads). It becomes quite clear why many of the atomic scientists of the day considered H-bombs to be exclusively genocidal weapons.
For homeland security planners what this simulator makes vivid is how the threat has changed since the end of the Cold War. Multiple Soviet warheads in the hundred kiloton or megaton range is a totally different story than a single nuclear terrorist device around the size of the Hiroshima bomb or even lower. While any local and state response will be immediately overwhelmed, the current threats are still national catastrophes than can and should be planned for at a regional level.