The Nuclear War Atlas

I love the Nuclear War Atlas and its author, William Bunge.  Before him, I had never really thought of cartography as a tool for social justice.  I had really only associated it with dry historical narrative, interesting facts, or with propaganda, but he has a lot of really thought-provoking maps that I just adore.  A lot of really good maps of his, along with great commentary, can be found in his Nuclear War Atlas.

The Nuclear War Atlas tries to demonstrate that a large-scale nuclear war is not survivable.  Most looks at nuclear strikes look at only one city and one bomb, but a lot of Bunge’s maps look at much larger areas and multiple strikes, in order to illustrate the implausibility of survival.  There’s no safe space from radiation, which is the true danger of nuclear war, not the blasts themselves.  Even if you avoid the bombs, the centers of infrastructure will be destroyed, making it that much harder for survivors to continue surviving.  Longer term, winds carry fallout across the world, and even tests in Siberia send fallout to the continental US, and can affect miscarriage rates here.

The survival of children is paramount to Bunge.  He makes the obvious, but rarely noted, point that even if no adults die, if no children survive, the entire species is doomed anyway.  It would only take a few decades of sterility in order to doom the species entirely.  Even if children are born, what sort of birth defects will they have from the radiation?  Mental retardation was noted in 25% of newborn Nagasaki atom bomb survivors.  At what point does the gene pool become too poisoned for indefinite survival?  Even if we can produce the next generation, can they do the same?

I really like the book because it focuses past the first thermonuclear strike and looks at later survival.  It’s easy to survive the first strike: just avoid cities and military bases.  But how do you survive the next decade, when the rivers are poison, hospitals are destroyed, no food is being delivered from farms, and even just being outside exposes you to radioactive fallout?

Thermonuclear war isn’t like other forms of war.  After World War II ended, the world could rebuild.  Large parts of the world were undevastated by the damage.  There were large interior areas, away from the front lines, which could still produce food and goods that could be delivered to those who had most suffered, but in a thermonuclear war, there is no such interior area.  Kansas is as practical a target as New York City for an ICBM.  The concept of a front line doesn’t exist in a global thermonuclear war.  How can it, when it takes a missile less time to reach Washington DC from Moscow than it does for some people to commute to work in the morning?

It must be remembered that a global thermonuclear war is suicide for the species.  We cannot survive it.

Below are some of my favorite maps from the Nuclear War Atlas, along with some descriptions.

Image by William Bunge

Image by William Bunge

This one is self-explanatory.  Just look at the potential for devastation we willingly built!  What madness!

Sea of Cancer

Image by William Bunge

For comparison, 100 rems is one and a half times the highest radiation dose received by a worker responding to the Fukushima nuclear accident, and is high enough to cause acute radiation sickness, according to the World Health Organization.

Image by William Bunge

Image by William Bunge

And this result was just caused by a 20 kiloton detonation.  The current highest yield US warhead is thought to be around 25 megatons, or 25,000 kilotons.

Image by William Bunge

Image by William Bunge

This map shows one possible outcome for New England after a thermonuclear war.  As one can see, even besides the human cost, a thermonuclear strike takes out all important centers of production, infrastructure, education, and culture.  The best hospitals, the best colleges, the centers of government: all of them would be wiped out, greatly exacerbating the death toll in the aftermath.

US Nuclear Weapon Accidents

Image by William Bunge

Disturbingly, this map depicts the 42 nuclear weapons accidents that had occurred in the US by the time Bunge made his map.

These last three images depict the aftermath of a single 20 megaton thermonuclear bomb on the city of Chicago.

Image by William Bunge

Image by William Bunge

Image by William Bunge

Image by William Bunge

Image by William Bunge

Image by William Bunge

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6 Responses to The Nuclear War Atlas

  1. christinadrh says:

    Excuse me, but holy shit. And if the bees disappear we are doomed as well. Best to enjoy every day as a gift, huh?


  2. charles says:

    I love maps. Very powerful. No pun intended.


    • johnkutensky says:

      Me, too! I can spend hours just looking at maps. William Bunge really does amazing maps that do a great job of really showing something meaningful. He had one map of fatal accidents where children were hit by cars, and it was obvious how clustered they were in the poorest parts of the city.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: October 5: (Critiquing) Critical Cartography + Counter-Mapping – Maps as Media Fall 2016

  4. Pingback: William Bunge on his Nuclear War Atlas (1983) | Cartographies of the Absolute

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