In Case There's Some Confusion: What Would Actually Happen if a Nuke Exploded Over NYC?

Tuesday, 03 March 2015 - 3:59PM
Tuesday, 03 March 2015 - 3:59PM
In Case There's Some Confusion: What Would Actually Happen if a Nuke Exploded Over NYC?
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New York City doesn't fare too well in sci-fi/action movies. It's often heavily damaged, leveled, or sometimes even blown up. But what would actually happen if an atomic bomb exploded over Midtown? The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists decided to freak out all of us New Yorkers today by describing, in excruciatingly terrifying detail, what would happen to the Big Apple if someone decided to nuke us. 


For this hypothetical scenario, the scientists used Russian nukes, or specifically their intercontinental ballistic missiles. These missiles carry 1,000 nuclear weapons, 700 of which have the potency of 800,000 tons of TNT. If one of these missiles were detonated one mile over Midtown, a gigantic fireball would engulf Manhattan.


"Within a few tenths of millionths of a second after detonation, the center of the warhead would reach a temperature of roughly 200 million degrees Fahrenheit, or about four to five times the temperature at the center of the sun."


It would expand rapidly, reaching approximately one mile in diameter within one second, and setting all-consuming fires for miles around. Within tens of minutes, the fires would merge into a single titanic fire, and the chimney effect would pull cooler air into the fire at hundreds of miles per hour, more than hurricane force.


"At the edge of the fire zone, the winds would be powerful enough to uproot trees three feet in diameter and suck people from outside the fire into it."


So what would would actually to New York? Midtown would obviously be hit the hardest: "The fireball would vaporize the structures directly below it and produce an immense blast wave and high-speed winds, crushing even heavily built concrete structures within a couple miles of ground zero. The blast would tear apart high-rise buildings and expose their contents to the solar temperature."


What about all the beloved buildings in or around Midtown? "At the Empire State Building, Grand Central Station, the Chrysler Building, and St. Patrick's Cathedral, about one half to three quarters of a mile from ground zero, light from the fireball would melt asphalt in the streets, burn paint off walls, and melt metal surfaces within a half second of the detonation. Roughly one second later, the blast wave and 750-mile-per-hour winds would arrive, flattening buildings and tossing burning cars into the air like leaves in a windstorm. Throughout Midtown, the interiors of vehicles and buildings in line of sight of the fireball would explode into flames."


About a mile from ground zero, at the UN: "Grass, vegetation, and leaves on trees would explode into flames; the surface of the ground would explode into superheated dust. Any flammable material inside buildings (paper, curtains, upholstery) that was directly exposed to the fireball would burst into flame. The surfaces of the bronze statues in front of the UN would melt; marble surfaces exposed to the fireball would crack, pop, and possibly evaporate."


This one's going to hurt: "Two miles from ground zero, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with all its magnificent historical treasures, would be obliterated."


In lower Manhattan, two-and-a-half miles from the initial blast, "thermal radiation would melt and warp aluminum surfaces, ignite the tires of autos, and turn exposed skin to charcoal, before the blast wave arrived and ripped apart the buildings."


Even other boroughs wouldn't be immune: "In Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and in the Civic Center of Lower Manhattan, clothes worn by people in the direct line of sight of the fireball would burst into flames or melt, and uncovered skin would be charred, causing third-degree and fourth-degree burns."


So what's the bottom line? "Within tens of minutes, everything within approximately five to seven miles of Midtown Manhattan would be engulfed by a gigantic firestorm. The fire zone would cover a total area of 90 to 152 square miles. The firestorm would rage for three to six hours. Air temperatures in the fire zone would likely average 400 to 500 degrees Fahrenheit.


After the fire burned out, the street pavement would be so hot that even tracked vehicles could not pass over it for days. Buried, unburned material from collapsed buildings throughout the fire zone could burst into flames when exposed to air-months after the firestorm had ended."


But the real question is, would there be any survivors? The fire zone, of course, is described as a "huge hurricane of fire" and a "lethal environment," but what about outside the fire zone? "Those who tried to escape through the streets would have been incinerated by the hurricane-force winds filled with firebrands and flames. Even those able to find shelter in the lower-level sub-basements of massive buildings would likely suffocate from fire-generated gases or be cooked alive as their shelters heated to oven-like conditions.


The fire would extinguish all life and destroy almost everything else. Tens of miles downwind of the area of immediate destruction, radioactive fallout would begin to arrive within a few hours of the detonation. But that is another story."


In conclusion, "No survivors."

Science News