Nukes, kids and the Cold War: In conversation with the creator of Nukemap3D

Nukes, kids and the Cold War: ...
Nukemap3D produces virtual mushroom clouds
Nukemap3D produces virtual mushroom clouds
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Nukemap3D produces virtual mushroom clouds
Nukemap3D produces virtual mushroom clouds
The app can also show fallout patterns
The app can also show fallout patterns
The original Nukemap
The original Nukemap
Alex Wellerstein (Photo: Sage Ross)
Alex Wellerstein (Photo: Sage Ross)
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Feeling cheerful? Why not remedy that by going online and seeing what would happen if someone dropped an H-bomb on your hometown? The browser-based Nukemap3D uses a Google Earth plug in to produce a 3D graphic of the effects of a nuclear weapon on your city of choice. All you have to do is pick your target, select your favorite thermonuclear device, and you can see an animated mushroom cloud rising over ground zero. Gizmag caught up with the creator, Dr. Alex Wellerstein, to talk about Nukemap3D.

Wellerstein is Associate Historian at the Center for History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics in College Park, Maryland, and specializes in the history of nuclear weapons and nuclear secrecy. He has taught courses in his specialty at Harvard and studies the question of secrecy in the story of nuclear weapons. In a telephone interview, he gave us the lowdown on Nukemap3D.

Where did the idea for Nukemap come from?

Nukemap came out of my experience of trying to teach about [the history of nuclear weapons] to undergraduates, who completely missed the Cold War and aren't thinking about nuclear weapons at all and don’t have much cultural association with them.

So the Cold War and Hiroshima were all ancient history for them?

It was really ancient history. I’m not a very old person myself. I’m in my early thirties and I have memories of the Berlin Wall coming down. My wife is a high school teacher and she’s actually had students say “oh, my God, you were alive during the Cold War!” like it was somebody saying that they fought in World War One. So, one of the difficulties of teaching the subject is getting the students to take things seriously because a lot of the concerns of the 1960s or even the '80s were very remote and very unrealistic and not something they can easily relate to. They ask, “why were people afraid of Communism?” My question was, “how can I make that fresh for somebody, so they can relate it to the big issues of the present and the issues of the past.

What got you interested in nuclear weapons as your field?

It’s hard for me to point to one date, but my friends say I was interested in them back in elementary school. But I was really drawn into it when I was a student at UC Berkeley , where I studied for my undergraduate degree in history, and I was fascinated that Berkeley, which is associated with most people today as the bastion of left wing sentiment, yet if you look at the history of nuclear weapons, it played a major role in the development of the first bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They were in charge of managing the nuclear weapons laboratories up until very recently and I thought it was a very interesting area for historical disquisition where you have this very anti-war place in the country, if not the world, yet they also have the rich and concurrent connection to these very destructive weapons. When it came to the history of nuclear weapons, I was fascinated by how much information is out there now. I found that the more I looked, the more I was still fascinated. After over seventy years, there’s still so much to be found and so many stories we don’t know about. And it’s always relevant, for better or worse.

Alex Wellerstein (Photo: Sage Ross)
Alex Wellerstein (Photo: Sage Ross)

Why do you say that it’s relevant, if the Cold War is over?

We have stories about nuclear weapons on the front pages of our newspapers at least once a week. Nuclear issues and secrecy issues have become more prominent because of the way the world has been operating for the last decade than they were a decade before. For as long as we’re going to have nuclear weapons, which is probably going to be for a long time, there will be the issue of where they came from, how we got into this situation where developing countries are in a position to make nuclear weapons and how we got into a national security situation that did not exist prior to World War Two. There’s a thread that runs through this all the way from the very early days of the Cold War to the present, though the public’s awareness of this connection has definitely passed away with time, from an historical point of view, there’s an unbroken chain.

Can you give me an example of something where you've said, “this is something that hooks into that historical thread?”

Sure. One of the big issues postwar was how do you control the bomb? How do we live in a world where we aren’t in a constant arms race with everyone? The earliest thinking on this in 1945 or '46 was how do you control a technology that other people will find highly desirable? The first answer they came up with is that what we need to do is not worry about secrets so much. We need to worry about machines, the factories you need, the facilities, the reactors and the raw materials and ways to make uranium fuel rods and things like that. More importantly, controlling the information isn't going to matter that much because anybody can come up with it independently, but if you don’t have access to the right machines, the right facilities, the right materials, you can’t do anything. Now, if we look at what Iran is doing, it’s all about the machines.

The app can also show fallout patterns
The app can also show fallout patterns

That original argument in 1946 didn't carry the day and the United States focused intensely on secrets. We gave people reactors. We helped Iran before the [Iranian] revolution with a nuclear program saying, “alright, we won’t give them the secret of how to make the bomb, but we’ll give them a reactor, we’ll give them physics facilities and we’ll train their scientists.” Of course, now, that’s exactly what we’re up in arms about. Oh, they have centrifuges. Oh, they have a reactor. And all these initial postwar initiatives have come home to roost.

The question is, is it the information that matters, is it the stuff that matters, is it the training of people that matters? We took a direction in the Cold War that we came to regret later by concentrating too much on information, too little on machines, and now we’re realizing that our whole non-proliferation regime should be around machines. So, one of those early atomic episodes is directly related to modern controversies.

This is the third iteration of Nukemap. How has it evolved?

The original Nukemap is something that was thrown together in about a day. I’d looked up all the necessary parameters a long time ago. I gathered this at first for my own research to answer questions, such as what is the size of the Hiroshima bomb versus the first hydrogen bomb versus a modern nuclear weapon. So, I put the page up in 2012 and I reasoned that I’d make it into some kind of an app. Maybe people would find that useful. There were already something like it on the internet and I thought maybe I could make things look better. It gathered much more attention than I’d expected and since then it’s being used frequently. Thanks to things like Twitter, I can watch how it’s being used, how people talk about it and I found that pretty exciting. The average academic article is read by maybe a few dozen people at most, but I was getting millions of people from all over the world and they talk about it, so I started thinking, what am I going to do to improve it? I wanted to make sure it was working as a pedagogical tool. I didn't want it to give the wrong interpretation [of the information]. I think the political interpretation is ambiguous, but I wanted them to come away with the correct technical interpretation.

One of the things I felt was missing was, when you set off a nuclear weapon low to the ground, it sends up a lot of radioactive debris, which comes down as fallout. And this can contaminate areas that are hundreds and hundreds of miles downwind of the blast area itself, so I want people to appreciate this instead of saying, “well, that bomb doesn't look that big and if I’m not in that city, not in the downtown area, then I’m totally safe.” Actually, that depends upon which way the wind is blowing, so though you may be out of blast range, you may not be totally safe.

I also wanted to make it so that experts could find it a little more useful. The older versions had rigidly set parameters about the blast and I wanted to make it more flexible because an expert may not be interested in just the pressure range I put in there. They may want to know what’s the range that windows will break , which is much lower pressure than what would knock down a house.

The other really big thing I wanted was that I was quite dismayed that people would look at small nuclear weapons, such the Hiroshima or Nagasaki bombs, which by Cold War standards were tiny weapons – about 20 thousand tons of TNT, which is huge for any kind of conventional weapon, but next to something with a million tons of TNT, it looks like nothing at all. People would look at “small” effects and say, “oh, North Korea set off a 10 kiloton bomb; that would take out a very small part of Manhattan.” I thought this was a bad interpretation.

The original Nukemap
The original Nukemap

These weapons are certainly not as powerful as the big Cold War weapons, but the damage that would be done by such things shouldn't be dismissed. If it was dropped on Manhattan, which is the most densely populated area in the United States, that would cause a death count in the hundreds of thousands. I want people to get a sense that big ones are certainly big, but that the small ones are pretty unpleasant, so I added a casualty counter feature. I also made the app so you can look at it volumetrically, so you can look at from a plane or from the ground and at the mushroom cloud as a three-dimensional object that is much larger than a two-dimensional ring on a map. I look at pictures and measurements of nuclear weapons every day and even I was taken aback by what a mushroom cloud looks like over my own city.

How do you think the public sees these weapons in terms of their effects?

Most people tend to overestimate them. They think that if one nuclear bomb goes off, then everything is destroyed. They've not been helped by imagery in movies where the aftermath of nuclear explosions is where everything flashes three or four times, then everything vaporizes. I think that the mind reverts to “instant apocalypse.” That’s not quite right. Even with the largest bombs, most of the area affected will be different from the center where there’s total destruction. A much larger area in the outer ring will be the equivalent of a giant earthquake or hit by winds like tornadoes over a vast area or fires on a vast scale. There are less mundane effects, like radiation exposure, which probably won’t kill you instantly, but will make you sick. It isn't a big flash and everybody dies.

My goal is to find the middle ground between the over exaggeration and the under exaggeration. You can imagine what [a nuclear strike] would be like and it would be bad. I want people to look at something like a nuclear explosion and see it for what it is; something you really want to avoid at all costs, but its not some sort of mythical doomsday. It’s something that’s understandable in human terms, if people think that nuclear weapons can end the world. They can be very fatalistic about that or they can be very dismissive about it ever occurring. Who wants to end the world?

Wellerstein is currently working on a book on the history of nuclear weapons.

Source: Nuclear Secrecy

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Kris Lee
If you talk about Iran and if you talk about Iranian Revolution and you talk about remembering history then you should know and talk about why it did happen.
My fear of Communism and collectivism of any kind had nothing to do with nukes. It was that they can not feed themselves, turn their countries into prisons to keep people in, imprison and murder those that disagree with them, and insist on spreading there insanity.
Tom Arr
He has weapons from 7 of the 8 members of the nuclear club listed for use on his site. It is the 8th member state's absence from the list that is remarkable.
What a lot of people don't realize is that the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were 15 and 20 kt. Since then bombs as big as 100 mt (that's 100,000 kt) have been developed. That is 5000 times more powerful than what leveled Nagasaki and with modern technology 20 kt bombs are now much smaller and easier to move around than they were.
his fallout patterns don't take landscape into account, weather patterns, anything. It's just a pattern he lays down on the map.
For instance, place your target just off the coast of Vancouver Island - the geography of the area would affect the fallout pattern significantly, as would the weather patterns. Mountains, winds, etc. all have a lot to do with how fallout patterns happen. Look at how the ash and debris from Mt. St. Helens was distributed and you'll see what I mean.
As socalboomer states, it needs to take in terrain to have any real accuracy. Suppose don't want it too accurate.
As a start, 1:20,000 maps used for RF surveys (that include elevation profiles accurate to 1m) do exit. These also have layers showing location of water bodies, forest, and basic soil content, eg - rock, sand, farm soil that would influence the spread of fires and contamination of soil.
Furthermore, buildings can act as cover if the blast is lower to the ground. Shock wave, immediate exposure and inhalation of radiation would be substantially reduced if you are in the shadow of buildings on the far side of the explosion.
@Nairda it takes a lot of data to calculate exact fallouts but take a look at these 2 images.
The first one is a 20kt bomb over Nagasaki, japan:
The 2nd one is a "Tsar Bomba" 100mt bomb over Nagasaki:
Sure terrain, wind direction etc. matters some but it isn't 1945 any more. Nuclear technology has advanced so much even between 1945 and 1961 (Tsar test) that man made buildings aren't going to matter. 16 years is all that passed between a bomb that leveled a city and the creation of one that could level a country and even that was 52 years ago.
Tests are not done with the same vigor as before but research has not ended. If countries spun up their cold war era nuclear programs again and nuclear war were to break out some time in the future there would be no such thing as safety. Bombs that size would be detonated in the air above targets anyway so even hilly terrain near the detonation site would provide only minimal shielding.
Re : Diachi. The first time I saw RF mapping as described it was running on a dual 200mhz CPU workstation (yes, they existed) on Windows NT. The engineers would set the variables in the afternoon before going home and it would be done the next day. Played with a trial of the same some time later on an early i5 laptop and it took about 20 min to compile. Suspect the same on a recent Haswell i7 or Sandi Hex core would take about 2-3 min. I can wait that long.
While Tsar Bombas may still exist buries in bunkers for national pride or for keeping the aliens at bay, they are by no means practical. Removing Iran or North Korea off the face of the planet may please some, but the resultant fallout enveloping all of Europe or China may cause some anger,.
Keep an ear out for the new flavor of the day when the powers that be invent another bad guy. The discussions around the benefit of using tactical nukes to support ground forces will appear again.
My previous rant was focused on plotting patterns for detonation close to ground small yield devices. Plotting path of poor man's bomb will also be possible by simply lowering the detonation to less then half a kiloton, and calculating spread via prevailing wind and ground contamination. Though as stated while this software is technically more then viable, best restrict it to emergency services and national guard only.
I realize I'm probably beating a dead horse here but in 1988 Russia had 45,000 nuclear warheads. If the biggest 25 cities in the US were to be bombed with the 1961 100MT Tsar this is what the map of the US would look like:
There would be almost nothing left. Even in the smaller 50MT Tsar bomb the soviets tested it blew out windows 500 miles from the blast site so it is likely that even stuff well outside the mushroom clouds shown in that photo would be completely leveled by the 100MT version. (ie, the bomb in LA would probably level San Francisco too)
That puts the area of effect of the explosion of the 50MT Tsar at 1,000 miles (1,600 km) and there would still be fallout beyond that. If the 100MT version has only a 50% greater radius it would mean you could put one in Illinois and it would reach from Denver to DC.
I fear what would happen if some nut job like Ahmadinejad ever catches up to where the US and USSR were in the early 60's.
re; Diachi
Aside from nut jobs greater accuracy of the delivery systems equates to smaller yield lower cost warheads. The Tsar bomb was developed so that a missile's target would be in the radius of destruction despite the missile's inaccuracy. Even second and third tier missile builders can use old smartphones as guidance packages.