If you haven't been following the news (or you chose to tune it out – in which case, I don't blame you) you may have missed the recent rhetoric between North Korea and the United States about possibly starting a nuclear war.
For those new to the story, after many years of research and development, North Korea has finally created an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that has the capability of striking the entire United States. They have also been able to scale their nuclear warheads down to fit inside their ICBMs. This potentially gives them the ability to nuke any location between Tokyo and New York City.
I have very little knowledge in geopolitics nor the ability to read the minds of Kim Jong-un or Donald Trump (thank God for that) but I do have an interest in atomic bombs and have been to the sites of various nuclear disasters. With the limited knowledge I have, I will explain why, even with the possibility of nuclear war on the horizon, the world probably won't end tomorrow.
One of the primary reasons the world probably won't end tomorrow is that, although North Korea can strike New York, they most likely wouldn't. If an ICBM was to leave Pyongyang, it would take about 30 minutes to arrive in New York. This doesn't give the US military much time to react, but they would have some.
One of the easiest ways to stop an ICBM is by knocking it out of the sky. If a missile was to leave Pyongyang and head towards New York, about 20 of those 30 minutes would have the missile somewhere over the Pacific Ocean. Away from any highly populated areas, this would be the best opportunity to destroy it.
The United States has been preparing to knock nuclear weapons out of the sky for decades. In recent years they have gone from traditional firepower to alternative weaponry. One of these new weapons is their "ray gun" – a gun that fires microwaves towards its target. While used frequently to burn up drones, it can also be used against aircraft and ICBMs. Because this gun fires at the speed of light, it can easily catch up to a supersonic ICBM. Much like microwaving food, microwaving a target causes it to heat up from within. This would cause the ICBM to either burn up and fall, or explode in the sky, long before it reaches its target.
One element that would be against the United States in this scenario is the so-called "Four Minute Window", which is the time they would have to react to an incoming ICBM. In recent years that four minute window has expanded to five minutes. If the missile takes 30 minutes to travel from Pyongyang to New York, five minutes until impact would put it somewhere over Nunavut. However, this "Four Minute Window" also includes time to detect the origin of the missile. By having ships patrolling the waters near North Korea (as the US currently is), the launch of an ICBM will be known almost instantly, giving the military some (albeit, not much) more time to react.
While the leader of North Korea is a maniac, he isn't stupid. He knows not only does a direct attack against the United States have the possibility of failure, but it also means the declaration of war. This is where Guam comes into the picture. If North Korea was to strike Guam, the United States would only have eight minutes to react. This lowers the possibility of the ICBM being intercepted and increases the possibility of a successful strike. To add some weight to their threat to nuke Guam, North Korea is threatening to fire four missiles – giving the United States 2 minutes to knock each one out of the air.
(This also assumes that other countries like South Korea, Japan or China wouldn't take them out first.)
If, for whatever reason, everything above goes wrong and North Korea nukes Guam or any American city, that doesn't bring an end to the modern world. The biggest difference between this conflict and the Cold War is the number of nuclear weapons that would be involved. The United States has 6,800 nuclear weapons, Russia has 7,000 and North Korea has 10. A nuclear war between the United States and Russia would bring about Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) to both countries, but a nuclear war between United States and North Korea wouldn't – especially if they use 40% of their nuclear arsenal on Guam.
Another reason this possible war wouldn't bring forth the end of the world is due to the size of North Korea's weapons. In 2016 North Korea had their largest nuclear yield yet, which was between 10 - 30 kilotonnes (thousands of tonnes of dynamite). This explosion is equivalent to Trinity (18-20 Kt), Little Boy (12 – 18 Kt) and Fat Man (18 – 23 Kt) which all exploded in 1945.
(Update: On September 3rd, 2017 North Korea used their first thermonuclear weapon (hydrogen bomb). The yield for this bomb was somewhere between 160 - 300 Kt. While much larger, it is still pretty small. Keep reading to see why.)
Those bombs are cherry bombs compared to modern nuclear capabilities. By the 1950s, the United States had graduated from using kiloton nuclear bombs to megatonne (millions of tonnes of dynamite) nuclear bombs. In 1952 the United States exploded Ivy Mike, which had a nuclear yield of 10,400 Kt – a nuclear yield 650 times larger than the ones dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Almost a decade later, in 1961, the Soviet Union would explode Tsar Bomba, the largest nuclear weapon in recorded history. It had a nuclear yield of 50,000 Kt, putting it at 3,125 times larger than the ones dropped in World War II. Tsar Bomba was so powerful that it destroyed buildings within 55 kilometres from where it exploded. It also tore off roofs, threw open doors, shut down electronic communication and left third degree burns hundreds of kilometres away. Windows also were broken and shattered up to 900 kilometres away and it emitted a seismic shockwave that circled the planet three times.
This is an example of the Cold War-like atomic bombs that terrified the United States. This is an example of MAD, and an example of the end of the world. What North Korea is firing off their peninsula is nothing compared to these bombs.
Much has changed since the 1960s and there is little to no chance of these bombs ever being used again. However, the bombs that North Korea has are still powerful. If North Korea was to launch one of their Hiroshima-like bombs and strike the United States, that city would be vaporised. Buildings would be reduced to rubble, trees would crumple, cars would tumble like weeds and people would be turned to ash. Depending on the location of the nuclear strike, millions would die.
But, it wouldn't be the end of the world. 70 years after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, both cities are thriving metropolises. Millions of people live, love, work and play in these once atomic wastelands – without the fear of radiation poisoning. A nuclear strike was devastating to these cities, but they recovered phenomenally. If you didn't know the history of these cities, you wouldn't know anything had happened here. The same thing would occur in any city attacked by North Korea. Short term, that city would make Aleppo look like Disneyland. Long term, everything would be okay.
A misconception that many people have about nuclear weapons is the possibility of nuclear fallout. Many think once a nuclear bomb explodes, the area around it is desolate and bare. Immediately afterwards, that is true, but within a few months it isn't. Two days after the bombing of Hiroshima, grass grew back.
If a few countries tossed around bombs like Tsar Bomba, then yes, world-wide nuclear fallout is inevitable. Mushroom clouds would stretch into the upper atmosphere and radioactive dust would rapidly cover the earth, plunging the modern world back into the Ice Age. A few bombs like Little Boy, however, wouldn't do squat. In fact, over 5,000 bombs larger than Little Boy have gone off since World War II and the world is more or less doing just fine.
Video games like Fallout or books like The Chrysalids imply that nuclear war would turn our lush green world into a barren landscape of ash and bone. This just isn't true. Nature would return and thrive and the planet would move on. Even the location of Tsar Bomba is doing fine, all these years later.
Many people correlate nuclear bombs to nuclear fallout because of disasters like Chernobyl, Seven Mile Island and Fukushima. Unlike atomic bombs, these locations were victims of nuclear accidents. Human error, natural disasters or computer failures caused these power plants to explode and leak radiation into the air and soil around it. This long term exposure to radiation caused these places to become dangerous for humanity to live in, but they are still thriving with nature. Atomic bombs don't leave this extreme residue of radiation behind because most of it is immediately turned into heat. There is radiation left, but it vanishes relatively quickly as opposed to places like The Exclusion Zone.
Realistically, if North Korea was to strike the United States, it would be like taking a slingshot to a gunfight. Even if they got off one shot, they most certainly won't get a second. Not even China would support North Korea if they preemptively killed millions of innocent people. If for whatever reason a nuclear war was to come out of this conflict, the loss of life would be astronomical, but within a generation it would recover. This is not a Cold War-like situation. This is simply two countries bickering for the sake of making noise. In the words of Kim Jung-un from The Interview:
With images from Digimon: Our War Game!, the 1960s Batman TV series, Dr. Strangelove, Spongebob Squarepants, The Interview and actual footage from atomic tests by the US Military.
And, as always, a big thank you to my sweetheart Jessica Nuttall for proof reading a countless number of my articles. I couldn't do any of this without you. I love you.