Ever wonder what it would look like if a nuke dropped on downtown Seattle? Now you can visit an interactive graphic to fulfill that dark desire.

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It’s almost too spellbinding, too pretty. The interactive graphic begins with a bright, white ball. It expands into a fiery circle.

What it shows is the devastation accompanying a nuclear-air burst in the heart of Seattle. Dead: 181,522. Injured: 273,615.

It’s a graphic for our digital times — the message is short, colorful, with the complicated stuff boiled down.

“The black background makes it look like a night photograph, with the orange fireball. Dramatic? I think so,” says Don Wall, director of the Nuclear Science Center at Washington State University.

In recent months, nukes can’t help but be something we think about:

Kim Jong Un, Dec. 31, 2017: “The U.S. should know that the button for nuclear weapons is on my table. The entire area of the U.S. mainland is within our nuclear-strike range.”

Donald Trump tweet, Jan. 2: “Will someone from his depleted and food-starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”

Vladimir Putin, March 1: “President Vladimir Putin announced an array of new nuclear weapons on Thursday, in one of his most bellicose speeches in years, saying they could hit almost any point in the world and evade a U.S.-built missile shield.”

The interactive graphic was commissioned by Outrider.org, a Madison, Wisconsin, nonprofit that decided that if video games are what grabs us, why not use the same technology to reach people about the issues of nuclear weapons?

You can type in any city in this state, or, for that matter, anywhere in the world, and watch the destruction.

For example.

Tacoma: 56,979 dead with a surface detonation; 77,129 dead if it’s an airburst bomb.

Surface detonations are good for military installations with hardened structures such as missile silos. (You can toggle between surface and air burst in the upper right-hand corner of the screen to see the differences in deaths and casualties.)

Air bursts, which don’t have as concentrated a blast pressure, are for “soft” targets such as cities. That means a larger area is covered.

You think that living in that pleasantville called Bellingham will save you? Surface detonation: 43,869, dead. Air burst: 50,772.

Let’s look at some airburst casualties in major world cities.

New York: 1,152,871. London: 523,329 (More casualties in New York than London because midtown Manhattan is much more dense than London). Tokyo: 472,785. Moscow: 547,777. Beijing: 715,934. Pyongyang, North Korea: 45, 413.

Seattle, Wash.

Redmond, Wash.


Beijing, China

The Outrider interactive is based on work done since 2012 on NUKEMAP. It is the ongoing work of Alex Wellerstein, an assistant professor of science and technology studies at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey.

It’s fine with him to have Outrider reach for a wider audience, he says.

With the various bombastic quotes from Trump, Putin and Kim Jong Un, says Wellerstein, “I could easily imagine there to be a series of misunderstandings, and then you blunder into a situation.”

One of the bombs used in that blunder could be the one shown in the interactive graphic, the W87 warhead designed for use with the incongruously named “Peacekeeper” ICBM.

It’s a 300-kiloton nuclear bomb. That translates to the destruction caused by 300,000 tons of TNT. That translates to a bomb 20 times more powerful than what was dropped on Hiroshima.

Estimates of the Hiroshima death toll vary, with the AtomicBombMuseum.org reporting the initial death count at 42,000 to 93,000 based on the disposal of bodies. Later surveys covered body counts, missing persons and neighborhood surveys during the first months after the bombing, yielding a more reliable estimate of 130,000 dead as of November 1945.

In recent years, what to do in case of a nuclear attack isn’t something we exactly dwell on.

Back during the Cold War years, a 1951 civil-defense manual sponsored by KVI Radio, then a market leader, showed a mushroom cloud detonating over downtown Seattle, red flames erupting into the sky.

The leaflet offered lots of advice:

1) “A hole in the ground with cover is remarkably effective.”

2) “Your first indication of an atomic bomb burst will be an awesome glare in the sky hundreds of times brighter than the sun. DON’T LOOK AT THIS GLARE.”

published 11/22/1961
This illustration shows the effect of radiation on humans.

The most serious radiation is gamma rays, or hard X-rays which can carry great distances in the air, and also go through solid material. This radiation must be avoided by all means, and the fallout dust removed as soon as possible if it does fall on you.

beta rays
gamma rays
civil defense  (The Seattle Times archive / =)

In November 1961, The Seattle Times ran a 15-part series titled, “Nuclear survival.” It was written by Willard Libby, the 1960 Nobel Prize winner in chemistry.

It tried hard to show how we could get past a doomsday scenario, although graphics like the one in Part 13 didn’t help. It showed a mom, dad and son bombarded by radiation, staring with “1,000 Roentgens ALL KILLED.”

Part 14 went on to explain that you had better get ready to do a lot of washing off of radiation “from rooftops, from window ledges, from tree leaves, from grass, pavements, buildings …”

But by 1982, then-Seattle Mayor Charles Royer announced that the city would not participate in federal planning to evacuate cities in case of a nuclear attack.

He said, “I have concluded that such an event would be so devastating that emergency plans of the type FEMA is devising would be virtually useless.”

Thirty-six years later, Royer, now 78, took a look at the Outrider interactive.

“You know, I wish there had been some improvement,” he says. “Everybody has big buttons on their desk. With this president, it’s just kind of frightening. There’s no surviving this stuff.”

In 1983, the state Legislature banned nuclear-war preparations from emergency-planning procedures. Lawmakers were concerned such preparations would get Russian leaders riled up.

This January, state Rep. Dick Muri, a Steilacoom Republican, and a retired Air Force navigator on C-141 planes, sponsored a bill that would remove the prohibition from preparing for a nuclear attack.

The bill didn’t go anywhere.

“I don’t see any big urgency to do this,” says Muri about his proposal.

Tara Drozdenko, Outrider’s managing director for nuclear policy, who has a doctorate in physics from UCLA and has worked for the State Department in counterterrorism, hopes you don’t get too enthralled by the graphics. It’s hard not to.

There is the bright, white fireball. It reaches from the waterfront to Ninth Avenue, from Pike to South King streets.

Cover of Seattle Civil Defense Manual, circa 1955.  ( / Seattle Municipal Archives)

It burns 10,000 times hotter than the surface of the sun and vaporizes everything inside it.

Then the graphic expands into a light tan — to South Lake Union, Capitol Hill, the International District and the stadiums.

That’s the burst of radiation that within a few hours to a few weeks will cause 50 to 90 percent of those exposed to die a painful death.

Then it keeps expanding in a light orange to Madrona, Leschi, Eastlake and Beacon Hill.

That’s the shock wave that would destroy most buildings and injure or kill anybody near them when the structures collapse.

The explosion produces heat that causes catastrophic damage. Anyone within this radius would have severe or fatal third-degree burns.

Then the outer circle turns red as it reaches Queen Anne, Magnolia, West Seattle and Rainier Valley.

That’s the intense heat in which wood, clothing, paper and plastics would catch fire.

So interact away.

You can Google “The beauty of a nuclear explosion” and thousands of results pop up, including an art site called “The Beautiful Nuclear Explosion Thread.”

Drozdenko also has seen the footage declassified by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California of films taken during 210 atmospheric nuclear tests between 1945 and 1962.

The 58-second color footage from “Operation Hardtack-1 — Nutmeg 51538” in 1958, in the Marshall Islands and other Pacific Ocean sites, is particularly breathtaking as it begins with a flash that fills the screen, then to the expanding mushroom cloud and the appearance of the black stem.

For Drozdenko, the striking images don’t convey any kind of artistic splendor.

“I don’t see beauty in this,” she says. “I think of destruction.”