We’ve all seen the movies. We’re in a war room with some general at the screen. There’s one innocuous red dot on a map. The dot becomes a circle. The circle becomes many circles. The many circles amplify exponentially to become one big red map. And we’re all going to be doomed by some airborne strain of zombie ebola within a week.
The reality of a contagion’s spread, however, is much different than the movies may portray. And researchers at the MIT’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) have been working on more accurate, more complex models of disease spread. They’re particularly interested in the first few days of an epidemic, and the role of the 40 largest airports in the U.S. So they turned to traveler cell-phone data from previous MIT research to model accurate human mobility patterns—the real typical actions of travelers (including pesky layovers and tedious connecting flights)—rather than conjectural patterns.
Logic would tell us that the biggest airports would be the most devastating spreaders of the disease, but in reality, that’s always not the case. Large airports like JFK (identified as the most contagious spreader on the list) may get three times the total traffic of Honolulu International, but Honolulu’s role as a connective hub across the Pacific (to other large hubs) actually makes it the third most influential airport in terms of spreading a contagion.
Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, despite being the most busy airport in the U.S., is actually only eighth in contagion influence. For those going out of their way to avoid outbreaks, JFK was found to be the most contagion-risky airport in the U.S., "followed by airports in Los Angeles, Honolulu, San Francisco, Newark, Chicago (O’Hare) and Washington (Dulles)."
In MIT’s visualizations, these airplane routes turn into intercontinental missile patterns, as human bio bombs rain on airports with an aggression only seen in terrorists and tourists. It’s easy to see how Honolulus and Anchorages play a key role in the hop, skip, and jump of modern connecting flights. And ultimately, the image just shows how important it is that we spot these epidemics quickly. Because nobody wants to be stuck in the middle seat between two zombies.
[Image: Juriah Mosin/Shutterstock]