With the prospect of nuclear war looming on the horizon again, it might be worthwhile to check up on what – if anything – can be done to bump up your chances of survival.
So let’s cast an eye back to a study published a few years ago that looked at how a person's behavior can alter their survival chances, as well as the best course of action to take if a massive ball of death blooms at the center of the city in which you live.
Here is the scenario: A 10 kiloton improvised nuclear device is detonated in downtown Washington DC at the intersection of K Street NW and 16th Street NW on May 15th, 2006, at 11:15 EDT. What would happen?
We already have quite a good idea of what happens to a city when a nuclear bomb is detonated. If it were a surface blast, then the radiation would spread further and the fireball at the center would be larger than if it were detonated above the city.
That fireball – which forms in a millionth of a second – is so hot that everything in the immediate vicinity would be ruined. Basically, all matter – be it the building you are in, the chair you are sitting on, or yourself for that matter – would be turned from a solid to a gas. In the study’s scenario, they predict that an entire block in Washington DC would be turned directly to plasma.
Following on from that, thermal radiation would deal out first-degree burns, along with the expected nuclear radiation. At the same time, a massive shockwave would propagate until all you’re left with is the nuclear fallout that rains down from above. All of that is physics and so all of that is predictable.
People, on the other hand, are notoriously unpredictable. The study aimed to shed light on this using a system known as “agent modeling”. Effectively, this runs a number of different scenarios of what people might do, ranging from least complex behavior to most, with individual “agents” in the model acting and reacting in their own way, either through seeking shelter, evacuating the area, seeking health care, or worrying. The team then calculated the best course of action based on the results.
Within the first 10 minutes, regardless of what anyone does, 90,000 people will have died. Quite predictably, if no one does anything, then lots more die – roughly up to 279,020 over a period of 48 hours, according to the study. If people start behaving in the ways programmed above, then the death count dramatically drops, particularly if people stay within their house for at least 12 hours.
But the researchers also figured out what would likely occur if survivors went to look for loved ones. Amazingly, many actually travel into the impact zone. As you'd expect, more people end up dying if they seek out family members because they are more likely to leave their shelter and thus get exposed to radiation. Interestingly, the researchers note that this could be minimized by rapidly fixing communications so that people can call and know others are safe.
So it seems that it’s better to bunker down in your house, look out for number one, and forget about trying to rescue friends, loved ones, or pets. Let them fend for themselves.