Is it possible to live through the immediate effects of a nuclear explosion? Will you die instantly, or will your demise be slow and painful? It might be a morbid thought, but knowing how a nuclear explosion affects the body and how to protect yourself could save your life if you are unfortunate enough to experience an atomic bomb.
Many factors determine how a nuclear blast would affect you. The size of the bomb, whether it explodes in the air or on the ground, the geographical layout of where the bomb hits, how far away you are from ground zero, and what types of buildings and materials are nearby all play into how a nuclear attack could affect you.
If You're At Ground Zero, The Blast Will Obliterate You
Anyone at ground zero - the point immediately above or below detonation - is unlikely to survive. According to Brooke Buddemeier, a health physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the only people who would make it through a nuclear blast at such a close range are those who happen to be in a fortified building or underground bunker.
If you are not fortunate enough to be in one of these safe spaces and are still within a few mile radius of the bomb, your body will be instantaneously reduced to its basic minerals from the heat of the blast. It can reach up to 300,000 degrees Celsius - 300 times hotter than the temperature used to cremate human bodies.
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The Wind Can Kill You If You're Within A Half-Mile Radius
If you are within a half-mile of the explosion and somehow survive the blast, thermonuclear radiation, shockwave, and ultraviolet light, you are still not safe. Winds from the explosion can move at more than 400 miles per hour - double the speed of a Category 5 hurricane.
The human body can withstand this force, but it cannot survive if large flying debris strikes at this speed. This wind speed is enough to knock down most structures, so even if you are indoors and shielded from the initial radiation, it may not matter - the building could crush you as it collapses.
The shockwaves of air from the blast cause a change in air pressure, too, and if the wind doesn't destroy the building you're in, this change can crumble it. It's all so sudden that even strong structures often cannot withstand the blast.
You Can Be Burned Alive If You're Within A 3-Mile Radius
Those closest to the blast site have it the worst, but what happens if they are not instantly incinerated? Thermal radiation goes out in a pulse, and it is so intense it can scorch a person's skin and ignite widespread fires.
On the inside, things get horrifyingly heated, too. Your lungs may rupture, like your eardrums, and you may have internal bleeding from the force of the blast. You could die from asphyxiation or organ damage. All of this happens within about a 3-mile radius of the blast, in around 10 seconds.
You Can Suffer Lethal Burns Within A 5-Mile Radius
A 1-megaton nuclear bomb can cause first-degree burns - or the equivalent of a bad sunburn - roughly 7 miles away from the blast point. If you're within 6 miles of the explosion, those burns become second-degree.
Third-degree burns, or a full-thickness burn, can happen within 5 miles of the blast. This type of burn destroys all three layers of your skin and can even damage muscles and bones. If 24% of your body is covered in this type of injury, it can be lethal.
Light can also cause burns in some cases. If you're close enough to the blast, the intensity of the light can cause first-, second-, and even third-degree burns. Second-degree burns, though not as bad as third-degree burns, can still turn deadly. If you get them over 30% of your body or more, you can go into shock, which can kill you quickly if you don't receive medical care.
At 5 Miles, You Can Permanently Lose Hearing
Even though journalist John Hersey described the blast of an atomic bomb as a "noiseless flash," the air blast can be deafeningly loud. Since light travels faster than sound, you may become flash-blind in a 5-mile radius before your hearing is affected.
If you are farther than 5 miles from the blast, your hearing could still be affected. You could get tinnitus, a ringing in the ears. Studies show people who suffer hearing damage from even small explosions can experience hearing problems for years, if not life.
At 7 Miles, You May Still Suffer Lethal Burns
At a little less than 7 miles away, nuclear blasts send out a flood of ultraviolet light. This intense light can burn people so severely, it disables their limbs - something that may lead to medical amputation down the line.
These ultraviolet burns from thermal radiation happen so quickly that victims often don't feel any pain - the light destroys pain nerves before they can feel the damage. You likely wouldn't feel your body being severely burned, even if you did go into shock from the experience.