Editor’s note: Marshall Brain – futurist, inventor, NCSU professor, writer and creator of “How Stuff Works” is a contributor to WRAL TechWire.  Brain takes a serious as well as entertaining look at a world of possibilities for Earth and the human race.  He’s also author of “The Doomsday Book: The Science Behind Humanity’s Greatest Threats.” This column is a reprint of his July 15 column – one of the most highly read in his weekly posts.

Note to readers: WRAL TechWire would like to hear from you about views expressed by our contributors. Please send email to: info@wraltechwire.com.


RALEIGH – If we sit down and create a list of the Top 5 most important and influential cities on planet Earth today, New York City would certainly be on the list. It might even be ranked #1. Why? NYC is a global finance and banking hub and is home to the New York Stock Exchange and Wall Street. The United Nations meets in New York City. The world headquarters of hundreds of important corporations call New York City their home. And the New York City metro area, which includes the 5 boroughs, is home to 20+ million people, or about 6% of the people in the United States.

Now let’s imagine that this extremely important global city spontaneously publishes a video entitled “Nuclear Preparedness PSA”. Let’s further imagine that the video has an opening sentence that says, “Don’t ask me how or why, just know that the big one has hit.” Where “the big one” is a nuclear bomb hitting New York City. Yes, this 90-second video really has appeared on YouTube, and you can watch it yourself – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N-5d7V4Sbqk .

As far as doomsday scenarios go, “Nuclear bomb strike on New York City” has to be one of the most iconic. It makes the release of this video especially important.

Why might New York City release a video like this?

Is there a reason why New York City’s Emergency Management office might feel compelled to release a video like this? One reason would be the fact that Russia is actively and specifically talking about nuking major Western cities like New York and London right now. For example, watch this video entitled “Russian state TV hosts laugh as they discuss firing nuke at New York City” released in April 2022 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NIQurbSjl9s


Russia could destroy New York City with a traditional ballistic missile. The flight time is about 30 minutes. However, in 2022 Russia has demonstrated its new hypersonic Satan 2 missile. Satan 2 can reach major cities in Europe in about 200 seconds. New York City takes a little longer, but Satan 2 can deliver up to 10 independent nuclear warheads in the megaton range with a single missile in a matter of minutes. Russia has said that it is building 50 of these missiles, which can live in silos or roll around on mobile launchers to obscure their location.

Russia has also announced its new nuclear torpedoes. These can create giant tsunamis for coastal cities like New York. If that happens, all bets are off.

Then there is the terrorist threat of a suitcase nuclear bomb. These are small nukes able to fit in a suitcase, a car trunk, or a backpack.  They have been around for a few decades. The movie “The Sum of all Fears” (2002) brought this scenario to life on the big screen by envisioning a small nuclear bomb stuffed inside a vending machine that is delivered to the football stadium in Baltimore.

What does the video say to do?

Given that the video is 90-seconds long, it only has about 200 words to play with in the script. If you watch the video, you can see that it offers several pieces of quick advice:

  1. Go inside a building immediately – not a car, a building
  2. Close the windows and doors of the building
  3. Move to either the interior of the building (away from windows) or to the basement
  4. If you were wearing clothes that may have gotten contaminated with radioactive dust/ash, you are supposed to take off and bag the clothes, then take a shower
  5. Now you are supposed to stay inside the building
  6. Listen to the media – wait until you are officially told you can go outside
  7. “Don’t forget to sign up for NotifyNYC for official alerts and updates.” There is even a handy twitter address: https://twitter.com/NotifyNYC

The video ends with a cheery, “All right? You’ve got this.” A million people are dead, much of the city is rubble, there is radioactive dust everywhere, but you’ve got this!

Is this good advice? Assuming that the city is not completely obliterated in the blast, and assuming that there are still buildings standing, and assuming that the infrastructure is intact so that showers and internet and electricity still operate, then the advice is reasonable.

But the problem is all those caveats. And the reason for the caveats is that the video seems to be unrealistic about what will happen to New York in a real nuclear attack.

The effects of a real nuclear bomb

What would really happen with a nuclear bomb that detonates in New York City? This first video demonstrates the effects when a small nuclear bomb with 10 kiloton yield goes off in Times Square – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lChLpK8kQr4

Basically the entire middle of New York City disappears either from the fireball or from the massive winds + fires that the fireball generates. And then there is the fallout – the radioactive dust and ash that the bomb creates. This is why the PSA video says to get inside. The goal is to try to stay away from this radioactive dust.

The bigger problem, if Russia were to attack New York City, is a megaton bomb that is 100 to 1,000 times more powerful than the bomb discussed in the prior video. This video demonstrates the larger weapon’s effects – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z3RzNEzJyzo&t=39s

All of Manhattan and much of the New York City metro area is destroyed in the megaton scenario. There are not going to be any buildings to shelter in, nor any working infrastructure to use, for New York City residents in a situation like this. If you would like to try different scenarios yourself, the tool called NUKEMAP can be useful. It lets you try different bomb sizes, burst heights, and cities to see exactly what the effects of a real nuclear bomb would be.

What might we really do in case of a nuclear bomb attack?

Let’s imagine that World War III starts, with Russia and the United States launching 100+ nuclear missiles at each other. In this case, it might almost be better to die instantly in a nuclear blast. If this doomsday scenario ever occurs, there will be so much soot and dust in the atmosphere that Earth will descend into nuclear winter for up to a decade. Temperatures plunge, rainfall stops, crops fail, and humanity dies off in an epic global famine.

But if New York City were to be hit by a single small nuclear bomb, then what might the survivors do? Survivors would want to follow the advice in the City’s PSA video (get inside or underground and wait for several days). However, it would be great if you had done some emergency preparation work ahead of time, similar to hurricane preparation.

These preparedness steps would be helpful:

  1. Have 3 or 4 days of shelf-stable food on hand. Chances are the electricity will be out, so the refrigerator and other kitchen appliances will be dead. Canned food or dry food that does not require cooking is the kind of food to think about. If you are at home, this is easier to imagine. But what if the bomb goes off while you are at work? It would not be a bad idea to have things like peanut butter, canned ravioli, candy bars, etc. stuffed in a desk drawer just in case. And then a baseball bat to fight off your unprepared office mates as they get hungrier and hungrier.
  2. Ditto for water. The city’s water system is likely to fail, so you need at least a half-gallon (2 liters) of water per person per day. You can go to a place like Costco and buy the 40-bottle package of bottled water. That’s 20 liters or 5 gallons. Get one of those for each person and you would be set.
  3. Will the cell phone system still work? That seems unlikely. But if it were to work, you will want a battery pack or two to recharge your smart phone over the course of three or four days.
  4. If the cell phone network and internet dies, which is likely, how are you going to get any news or information about what is going on? It would be handy to have an old school AM/FM radio on hand, plus some batteries for it.
  5. Have a flashlight and some batteries so you have some light at night.
  6. It’s always a good idea to have plenty of toilet paper available.
  7. A decent first aid kit is always a good idea.
  8. Have a several-day supply of any prescription medicines you need on hand both at work and at home.

All right? You got this!