Jackals and HYDEsim

Published 11 years, 4 months ago

Long-time readers (and Jeremy) probably remember HYDEsim, the big-boom ‘simulator’ I hacked together using the Google Maps API and some information in my personal reading library.

Well, with North Korea setting off something that might have been a nuclear device, it’s starting to show up in the darndest places.  Everyone’s favorite millenial talk show host, Glenn Beck, not only mentioned it on his radio program this past Monday, but also put a link on the main page of his site for a couple of days.  Then it got Farked.  I suppose it’s only a matter of time now before it gets Slashdotted as well.

With the increased attention, some old criticisms have arisen, as well as some misunderstandings.  For example, on Fark, someone said:

I thought it was funny how people are playing with this and think they were “safe” if they weren’t in the circle.

Here’s a mockup I did of the kind of blast damage you could expect from a single 1980’s era Russian ICBM carrying 10 MIRV warheads, each capable of 750KT yield.

Oh my yes.  That’s something that the HYDEsim code can theoretically support, since every detonation point is an object and there’s no limit on the number of objects you can have, but I never managed to add this capability.  That’s because trying to figure out the UI for placing the MIRV impact points broke my head, and when I considered how to set all that in the URI parameters (for direct linking), a tiny wisp of smoke curled out of my left ear.  Still, one of these days I should probably at least add a “MIRV ring impact” option so the young’n’s can get an idea of what had us all scared back in the old days.

The interesting challenge is that a strategic nuclear strike of that variety is going to involve a whole bunch of optimum-altitude air bursts.  HYDEsim takes the simpler—and also, in this darkened day and age, more realistic—approach of calculating the effects of a ground burst.  The difference is in no sense trivial: a ground burst has a lot of energy, both thermal and radiological, absorbed by the ground (oddly enough!).  On the other hand, its highest overpressure distances are actually greater.

This is because shock energy drops with distance, of course.  An optimum-altitude air burst would be a mile or two above the ground, so the highest pressures would be directly beneath the explosion, and would be smaller than if the same weapon exploded on the ground.  With an air burst there’s less ground and man-made clutter to attenuate the shock waves as they spread out, so the total area taking some degree of damage due to overpressure is actually greater.  (There are also very complex interactions between the shock waves in the air and those reflected off the ground, but those are way beyond my ability to simulate in JavaScript.)

Also, direct thermal radiation is spread over a much greater area with an air burst than with a ground burst—again, there’s less stuff in the way.  The amount of fallout depends on the “cleanliness” of the warhead, but for an air burst it can actually be expected to be less than a groundburst.

People also claim that radiological energy (X-rays, neutron radiation, gamma radiation, etc.) will be the deadliest factor of all.  Actually, it’s just the opposite, unless you’re discussing something like a neutron bomb.  The amount of harmful direct-effect radiation that comes directly from the explosion is far, far smaller than the thermal energy.  And yes, I know thermal radiation is direct-effect, but there’s a large practical difference between heat and other forms of radiation.

Put another way, if you’re close enough to an exploding nuclear warhead that the amount of radiation emitted by the explosion would ordinarily kill you, the odds are overwhelmingly high that the amount of shock wave and thermal energy arriving at your position will ensure that there won’t be time for you to worry about the radiation effects.  Or anything else, really.

Remember: I’m talking there about direct radiation, not the EMP or fallout.  That’s a whole separate problem, and one HYDEsim doesn’t address, to the apparent disgust of another Farker:

The site is useless without fallout and thermal damage.

Well, I don’t know about useless, but it’s admittedly not as representative of the totality of nuclear-weapons damage as it might otherwise be.  Of course, HYDEsim is not specifically about nuclear detonations, as I showed when I mapped the Hertfordshire oil refinery explosion and djsunkid mapped the Halifax explosion of 1917.  But I certainly admit that the vast majority of explosions in the range the tool covers are going to be from nuclear weapons.

The problem with mapping fallout is that it’s kind of weather dependent, just for starters; just a few miles-per-hour difference in wind speed can drastically alter the fallout pattern, and the position of the jet stream plays a role too.  Also, the amount of fallout is dependent on the kind of detonation—anyone who was paying attention during the Cold War will remember the difference between “dirty” and “clean” nuclear warheads.  (For those of you who came late: to get a “dirty” warhead, you configure a device to reduce the explosive power but generate a lot more fallout.)

Thermal effects are something I should add, but it’s trickier than you might expect.  There’s actually an area around the explosion where there are no fires, because the shock effects snuff them out.  Beyond that, there’s a ring of fire (cue Johnny Cash).  So it’s not nearly as simple as charting overpressure, which is itself not totally simple.

And then there’s there whole “how to combine thermal-effect and overpressure rings in a way that doesn’t become totally confusing” problem.  Get ambitious, and then you have the “plus the show fallout plume without making everything a total muddle” follow-on problem.  Ah well, life’s empty without a challenge, right?

Okay, so I went through all that and didn’t actually get to my point, which is this:  I’ve been rather fascinated to see how the tool gets used.  When it was first published, there was a very high percentage of the audience who just went, “Cooool!”.  That’s still the case.  It’s the same thing that draws eyes to a traffic accident; it’s horrible, but we still want to see.

However, I also got some pushback from conservative types:  how dare I publish such a thing, when it could only be useful to terrorists?!?!?  Rather than play to the audience and inform them that I simply hate freedom, I mentioned that it was desirable to have people like you and me better understand the threats we face.  It’s not like the terrorists can’t figure this stuff out anyway.

Now I’ve seen a bunch of people from the same ideological camp use HYDEsim to mock the North Koreans’ test, which apparently misfired and only achieved a yield of about 0.5KT.  Others have taken that figure and plotted it in American cities, giving some scale to the dimension of this particular threat.  Still others have done that, but with the yield the North Koreans had attempted to reach (thought to be 4KT), or even with yields up to 50KT.  In most cases, these last are shown in conjunction with commentary to the effect of “now do you understand why this is a problem?”.

This is why I do what I do, whether it’s write books or publish articles or speak at conferences or build tools or just post entries here:  to help people learn more about their world, and to help them share what they know and think and believe with others.  Sometimes that’s worth saying again, if only to remind myself.

  1. I love how much you’re thinking about the precise effects of cataclysmic nuclear disasters :) I was born in 1980, so it’s all a little before my time.

    I guess maybe one day I’ll be trying to use Google Earth 7.4 to map the effects of global warming or something?

  2. You should upgrade to v2 of the Maps API soon. Google said two weeks ago on their blog that they would shut down v1 soon. Moreover, map quality in v2 is much better, especially for non-US locations.

  3. > “There”s actually an area around the explosion where there are no fires, because the shock effects snuff them out. Beyond that, there”s a ring of fire (cue Johnny Cash).”

    And there’s our ending for Dr Strangemeyer (Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love HYDEsim).

  4. There already is a mashup of Google Maps, NASA terrain data, and the ability to adjust sea level, so we have a global warming map already. I’m using it buy future ocean front real estate ;)

    As someone who is versed in nuclear issues and has developed several scenarios of a nuclear explosion over a U.S. citie, I have heard all these statements before. Basically at some point, there are too many variables that come into play that unclassified systems can handle, so we typically stick to blast effects, initial thermal effects & initial radiation when building the sim. If you are interested in seeing our scenarios, go to http://www.atomicarchive.com/Example/

    A great book on this issue is Lynn Eden’s Whole World on Fire: Organizations, Knowledge, And Nuclear Weapons Devastation (my review)

  5. (starts packing stuff and warms the car up)

    How about a Maps mashup predicting the ozone hole expansion??

  6. It’s funny, I’ve a strange fascination with nuclear weapons which I guess is somewhat akin to the whole watching a train-wreck thing. They’re simultaneously both astonishing in terms of their creation and what they’re capable of, and horrifying. I’ve had dreams before (more than once) where I’ve been standing in an open place and seen a nuclear weapon detonate somewhere on the – near – horizon, watching the fireball rush towards me, in something of a Sarah Conner moment. When I was younger (and I’m talking much, much younger) I went on CND marches with my parents – both were keen activists in the peace movement. I grew up having seen WarGames, and the film influenced me both in terms of my interest in computers as well as my fascination with the way we abstract such abhorrent terms as ‘global thermonuclear war’.

    Yet my fascination prevails. We’re living in interesting times, what with the whole North Korean thing. The world’s outrage at a petty dictatorship testing a nuke underground makes me laugh bitterly given that one nation alone has ever used a nuke in anger, and if anybody’s likely to unilaterally declare war on somebody for kicks, it’s them. But still.

    Have you seen Defcon? Clearly I wasn’t the only one influenced by WarGames…

  7. Don’t take the “useless” comment too personally – “this x is useless/worthless without y” is a commonly repeated Internet catchphrase that really means something more like “I wish someone would add y”. (The usual formulation is “this thread is worthless without pictures”.)

  8. You’re brilliant Eric.

  9. Fascinating. I would like to know what the effects have been, globally, from all the nuclear tests done in the last few decades. Surely the fallout is a major concern? I saw a TV program about UK tests where they detonated bombs over an island, mid-air. They showed one blast going off. At one point, the film goes completely white for several seconds – due to the sheer amount of light from the blast. Then a delay before the sonic boom occurs. Then minutes where all you can see are spirals of clouds spreading out. I won’t forget that in a hurry.

    My point is this: when Chernobyl erupted, the radiation literally went all round the world. Wouldn’t an atomic bomb going off in a test generate similar radiation? Especially if it were in the air. It is unbelievable that we are poisoning the earth so willingly.

    Even underground tests will leak out into the soil and the rivers one day. In fact, Slashdot had a story yesterday about radioactive snails being found close to “where three hydrogen bombs were lost by US in 1966”. I also think about humans digesting radiation from fish contaminated by oceanic tests. Small amounts maybe, but enough to cause cancer?

    It was the great science fiction writer Isaac Asimov that once wrote a story where Earth is rejected from a galactic club of planets because they’ve allowed nuclear tests on the land. I wonder if future generations (if there are any) will think of tests the same way we once thought cigarettes were good for you, lead in paint safe, and other things later to be found deadly and unnacceptable.

  10. Why are you giving the terrorist another possible tool, to use against the american people? Don’t you think that something like this would make their “plans” easier to implement? Hmmm… maybe you would think differently if the “target” was centered over YOUR hometown…

  11. Ole: thanks for mentioning that. I’ll get it updated soon; fortunately, I didn’t use anything undocumented, so it works under v2 without any code changes.

    Ben: Dang it, I was going to mention DEFCON. When it comes out for the Mac, I’m totally buying it. Hopefully I’ll be better at it than I was at “Balance of Power”, back in the day.

    Justin: oh, not to worry. I find the “useless” comments more sad than anything else. The day one of them says “this is useless, and here’s something I created that’s much better”, I’ll take that person seriously. I do try to pay attention to the reason someone says something I do is useless, if they give one, because that might be valid criticism, however badly expressed. The ones who just dismiss something as useless with no reason are just making noise, and not very well at that.

  12. Curt: did you even read the post? I mean all of it? Please allow me to quote the relevant line:

    It”s not like the terrorists can”t figure this stuff out anyway.

    Anyone who can successfully bulid, or even operate, a nuclear device is going to be able to figure out where to set it off. My tool doesn’t add to that risk, and doesn’t make their plans any easier to implement. If anything, given that it’s all based on public data and some mathematically convenient approximations, it’s probably a misleading tool for anyone who might use it to do actual attack planning. (Let’s just say that the Pentagon has yet to complain to me about it.)

    What it does do is make clear the nature of the threat for those of us who might be targeted, and many of whom do not have the ability to figure this stuff out. I’d think that if you’re serious about fighting the bad guys, you would applaud anything that enables you to bring the magnitude of the threat home to the American people. Or any other people. HYDEsim, as I said, can be and has been used for exactly that purpose.

    As for the hometown question, no, I wouldn’t feel any differently. When I developed HYDEsim, I had the default detonation point right over downtown. Well, after I moved it off of my house, anyway.

  13. I agree the idea that this would aid terrorists is farcical. But what concerns me instead is that you admit, to a certain extent, that the tool has to be taken with a pinch of salt, that it isn’t the whole story of the damage that might be done by a blast. Isn’t it likely that the tool’s audience will, for the most part, just exhibit blind faith in what the tool depicts, and assume that it is the whole story?

  14. […] a nifty little learning tool, but more interesting to me is his recent blog post about it, talking about various places it’s been used and various people’s responses to […]

  15. Re. the thermal effects, Cold War-era modelling in the UK showed that, for typical military weapons in the 100kt-plus yield range, blast casualties dominate. Including thermal effects only adds ~5% to the casualty numbers, as most of the people killed by the flash would have otherwise been killed by the blast.

    British civil defence models went so far as to omit thermal casualties entirely.

    Ref: “Doomsday: Britain After Nuclear Attack” by Openshaw et al, ISBN 0631133933.

  16. Dave: there’s been work done since the Cold War that indicates authorities were wrong (or perhaps even deliberately untruthful) to omit thermal casualties, and that thermal effects would create mass fires that would kill far more people than blast effects. See Dr. Lynn Eden’s “City on Fire”, for example (text here) or her followup book, “Whole World on Fire” (see Chris Griffith’s review).

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