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Visualizing The Terrible Impact Of A Nuclear War

A new data-driven documentary puts a World War III in perspective.

Visualizing The Terrible Impact Of A Nuclear War

This week, President Trump threatened to retaliate against North Korea with “fire and fury”–an aggressive and unusual promise of military action against the country, which has been testing nuclear bombs that may be within striking distance of the U.S. It’s an escalation of rhetoric, and it’s cause to ask: what would a global nuclear war actually mean for the world?

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A new data viz documentary called The Shadow Peace provides a sense of the scale of World War III and the effect it would have on the world population. Created by the filmmaker Neil Halloran, the film begins with a meditation on historical birth and death rates. (An estimated 108 billion people have died since Homo sapiens began to walk the Earth 50,000 years ago.) More than sheer numbers could, Halloran’s visualization establishes the scale of life and death throughout history–a baseline to comprehend the frighteningly large increase in deaths during World War II, which includes the victims of nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “No other war we know of could leave such a dramatic scar on our living record,” the narrator says. “No war so far.”

But what would this human death map look like if a nuclear war–these days seemingly more likely to be kicked off by a tweet or brash comment than ever before–were to occur? The visualization takes what happened in Japan in 1945 as its model, and then scales up–today’s bombs have 10 times the radius of obliteration. It uses the sheer number of nuclear warheads on Earth right now as its starting place, and maps locations for strikes using nuclear scenario planning documents and other historical documents, including a declassified U.S. target list from 1956.

How many people would die? It depends on how many warheads were launched and how many hit their targets. A number on the high end? Half a billion. Halloran’s original way of visualizing death on Earth, historically, helps put this number into context. It would be the single most catastrophic event in human history–the equivalent of 10 World War IIs in the first three weeks alone. And that’s just the beginning. Scientists think that global nuclear war of this magnitude would force so much dust and ash into the air that 70% of sunlight in the northern hemisphere would be blocked. That could lead to countless dead crops and a global famine.

The 15-minute data viz video is the first installment a larger documentary web series that doesn’t focus on the weapons of war, but rather attempts to take a data-driven look at how effective peacekeeping efforts have been since World War II.

As tensions rise and the threat of nuclear war feels closer than it’s been in decades, data is one way to put its consequences into perspective.

About the author

Katharine Schwab is a contributing writer at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture.

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