Maybe I’ve been obsessing about The 100 a bit too much. I’m late to the party, but better late than never. If you haven’t seen it, the show focuses on the challenges of surviving two different global nuclear events.
With all the talk in the media about Trump and nukes, I couldn’t help but wonder what we would do should there be a major nuclear world war given how tense political relations have been lately. I also wondered how much nukes we’d have to use to eradicate human life as we know it.
There are estimated to be somewhere around 15,000-16,000 nuclear weapons scattered across various nations, coming in different shapes and payloads.
A nuclear bomb’s yield is measured as a TNT (Trinitrotoluene) equivalent in terms of energy discharged. For instance, a 1 kiloton nuclear bomb would be equivalent to the explosive power of 1,000 tons of TNT. However, modern nuclear warheads start in the megaton range, which is equal to the explosive force of 1 million tons of TNT.
When we talk about nuclear bombs, the Japan bombings in 1945 usually come to mind. The United States dropped two atomic warheads in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing a total of 110,000 people as a result. Little Boy, which was dropped in Hiroshima had a yield of 15 kilotons while Fat Man which destroyed Nagasaki had a yield of 21 kilotons.
By today’s standards, those weapons are a joke when compared to the giant Tsar Bomba which had a payload of 50 megatons, outputting about 1.4% of the sun’s energy at its peak.
Using a U.S. B83 thermonuclear bomb for our example, the 1.2 megaton device could potentially kill as much as 1.8 million people if dropped over New York City when factoring the initial impact and long term effects from nuclear fallout.
The problem is that even if all 650 built units were dropped across the globe, you could really only kill about 1 billion people, and that’s assuming these bombs do maximum damage with all those people crammed closely to each other like in New York City.
Given that that’s not the case in real life, and that most of the weapons in the list of 15,000-16,000 do not even come close to having a 1.2 megaton payload, detonating all those bombs at once would be a futile exercise to some extent.
In reality, you could wipe out most or all of civilization with as few as 100-300 B83 nuclear bombs by strategically destroying key infrastructure and agriculture. If the bombs were detonated one after the other over a very close time frame, the resulting nuclear winter and fallout could do the rest of the job.
When nuclear bombs detonate, the resulting fires create immense amounts of soot that float up into the Earth’s stratosphere, blocking sunlight and destroying the ozone layer. This would result in abnormally low temperatures, and increased levels of UV radiation. As a result, many ecosystems would be disrupted, making it impossible to grow crops and rare animals. The added UV radiation would also be very destructive to vegetation and wildlife.
Let’s now add in the lack of communication systems, water, electricity, heating, and food. Without these essentials, we get a recipe for global famine that would eventually wipe out civilization in just a few months or years.
Now let’s consider the the radioactive dust and ash that is spread into the atmosphere (also called nuclear fallout). Depending how far the nuclear ash spreads, we’d need to drop just 283 of those bombs to effectively kill everyone from the resulting radiation poisoning.
In total, the job ‘could’ be done with a very conservative 100 B83 bombs, but that’s assuming they cause maximum damage, spread radiation dust evenly, and result in major nuclear fallout. However, dropping 300 would be result in almost all humans being killed over the course of a few months or years.