Editor’s note: Marshall Brain – futurist, inventor, NCSU professor, writer and creator of “How Stuff Works” –  is a contributor to WRAL TechWire.  He’s also author of “The Doomsday Book: The Science Behind Humanity’s Greatest Threats.” Brain has written several posts recently about the threat of climate change. His exclusive columns written for TechWire are published on Fridays. 

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RALEIGH – Last year, New York City’s Emergency Management office published an unexpected and rather remarkable video entitled “Emergency Preparedness PSA”. This 90-second video discusses what to do if New York City gets hit by a nuclear bomb. The opening line in the video is, “Don’t ask me how or why, just know that the big one has hit.” You can watch the video here: https://youtu.be/N-5d7V4Sbqk

The video’s advice for this scenario is designed to be simple. Three steps:

  1. Get inside a building. Move to the center of the building away from windows.
  2. Stay inside the building with doors and windows shut. Any clothing you had on while outside needs to be sealed in a bag in case of radioactive dust. Take a shower if you can.
  3. Stay tuned via radio, TV, and the Internet.

This is a pretty serious doomsday scenario. A nuclear bomb attack on New York City would be devastating because New York is a financial hub, a media hub, and arguably the most important city in today’s world.

Doomsday New York: If Big Apple is hit with a nuke, here’s what happens

A Times Square Attack

But what could be worse than a nuclear bomb hitting New York City? What about a nuclear bomb hitting New York city right around midnight on December 31? Specifically, we are talking about a nuclear bomb attack with an epicenter at Times Square on New Year’s Eve. The reason this attack would be especially effective is because there will be approximately one million people who are densely packed in the outdoor venue ready to watch the ball drop.

The last thing that New York City wants is a terrorist attack during this event. This video talks about the extraordinary security measures that the city puts in place each year to protect Times Square:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WxMOMK7t2DA

The security measures discussed in the video include:

  • “7,000 police officers and heavily armed counter-terrorism teams”
  • “All the trash cans in the area have been removed protectively”
  • The manhole covers have been sealed
  • “People go through metal detectors first”
  • “No backpacks, coolers or umbrellas”
  • Some officers will be wearing tactical gear, others will be blending in with the crowd
  • “Rooftop snipers”
  • “Officers embedded inside surrounding hotels”
  • “More than 200 police cars and sanitation trucks will block roadways to prevent a car from driving into the crowds”
  • “An NYPD drone supplementing and police helicopters circling above and the 1,200 fixed cameras in the 10-block area”

Even so, is a terrorist attack possible? Let’s look at seven possibilities.

Scenario 1 – nuclear bomb attack

Despite all these safeguards, a nuclear attack on New Year’s Eve is still possible. The most obvious route for the attack is a ballistic missile fired by a nuclear-armed state like Russia, China, Pakistan, or North Korea.

What can New York City do to guard against this scenario? The United States has several overlapping systems designed to destroy an incoming missile. THAAD is one of these systems, as explained in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uqeiELVdkRI

Other systems include AEGIS and Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD). If we assume that New York City and the Department of Defense (DOD) are working together, then this scenario is probably covered and preventable.

Scenario 2 – A suitcase nuclear bomb

Nuclear bombs have been miniaturized to the point where they can fit into a suitcase, backpack, or the trunk of a car. In the movie “The Sum of All Fears”, a small nuclear bomb hides inside a vending machine at a football stadium, as shown in this video: https://youtu.be/7v2mOqK6eCY?si=M2VZhwRwu03BxvT8&t=140

A typical yield for a suitcase nuke might be one kiloton, meaning that it has the destructive power of 1,000 tons (or 2 million pounds) of TNT. While tiny as far as nuclear bombs go, 2 million pounds of TNT is a huge amount by conventional standards. It’s approximately equivalent to the 2020 explosion in Beruit. According to this article:

“Within the port area, the explosion destroyed a section of shoreline and left a blast crater roughly 124 m (407 ft) in diameter and 43 m (141 ft) in depth. Homes as far as 10 kilometers (6 miles) away were damaged by the blast, and up to 300,000 people were left homeless by the explosion.”

If someone could sneak a suitcase nuke into the Times Square area a month prior to New Year’s Eve, or bring a suitcase nuke near the event on New Year’s Eve in a backpack or the trunk of a car, the explosion could be devastating. Imagine a crater that is 400 feet in diameter and 140 feet deep in the middle of New York City, along with all the accompanying destruction. A million people could die in the blink of an eye.

While detecting these types of bombs is difficult, the good news (if you can call it that) is that these bombs are not common. It would probably be impossible for terrorists to assemble such a bomb, although a state actor would have the sophistication to do it.

Scenario 3 – Fentanyl or Carfentanil attack

You might have heard that in 2022, approximately 70,000 people died by overdosing on the opioid drug called Fentanyl. The reason is because it takes such a tiny amount of Fentanyl to kill a person. Just 2 or 3 milligrams can be fatal. Imagine holding 3 or 4 tiny grains of white sugar on your fingertip – that miniscule weight of Fentanyl is enough to kill someone. Carfentanil is even more potent – about 100 times more potent than Fentanyl.

“Carfentanil is used as a tranquilizing agent for elephants and other large mammals. The lethal dose range for carfentanil in humans is unknown; however, carfentanil is approximately 100 times more potent than fentanyl, which can be lethal at the 2-milligram range, depending on route of administration and other factors.”

The point being:

  1. If you had a pound or two of Carfentanil
  2. And you mixed it into a solution
  3. And you sprayed the solution over a crowd of people
  4. Between the inhaled dose and the residue, it would probably kill most of the crowd
  5. And cleanup would be a major undertaking

Then the question becomes, “how to spray the solution?” One answer is a new breed of agricultural drones like the Agras T40 described in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qB0N4pwrjE8

This drone can carry nearly 100 pounds of solution and fly long distances. It’s not cheap, but it would not be that hard for an engineer to DIY an equivalent drone using off-the-shelf parts.

A sophisticated attack would use many drones, knowing that some would get shot down. The attacker’s hope is that at least one drone could complete its mission and spray the whole Times Square zone in Fentanyl or Carfentanil.

While Carfentanil would work, other possible payloads include things like powerful nerve gases or bioterror weapons. If a million people got sprayed with the Ebola virus, Anthrax, Sarin or VX for example, it would be a bad night.

It would feel better if the security video we watched earlier had mentioned a scheme for drone defense. Hopefully NYC is using one of the systems described in this video to take down any inbound drones before they reach Times Square: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HnatsiFas5Y

Scenario 4 – Random Shooter in a Hotel

Think back to the terrible event that happened in Las Vegas in 2017. A single person was able to kill or injure over 800 people by shooting guns out of a hotel window into a crowd:

“On October 1, 2017, a mass shooting occurred when 64-year-old Stephen Paddock opened fire on the crowd attending the Route 91 Harvest music festival on the Las Vegas Strip in Nevada from his 32nd-floor suites in the Mandalay Bay hotel. He fired more than 1,000 rounds, killing 60 people and wounding at least 413. The ensuing panic brought the total number of injured to approximately 867…. Paddock arrived at Mandalay Bay on September 25, 2017, and booked into Room 32–135, a complimentary room on the 32nd floor. Four days later, he also checked into the directly connected Room 32–134. Both suites overlook the site of the concert at Las Vegas Village…. With help from hotel bellmen, he brought five suitcases to his room on September 25, seven on the 26th, two on the 28th, six on the 30th, and two on October 1…. Twenty-four firearms, a large quantity of ammunition, and numerous high-capacity magazines capable of holding up to 100 rounds apiece were found in the suite.”

This video from the New York Times shows what the attack felt like for the victims: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=krr4u6uGdzc

A random shooter like this might not be able to kill more than 1,000 people, but it would cause a lot of chaos.

Watching the security video above, it seems like NYC’s police department could end an attack like this quickly by using its officers embedded in the hotels and the snipers. We can also hope that hotels are more sensitive to the possibility of this sort of attack in the wake of the Las Vegas shooting.

Scenario 5 – Electrical Grid Attack

You might recall last year that terrorists were able to knock out the electrical grid in North Carolina’s Moore County. About 35,000 people lost power for several days:

“On December 3, 2022 at approximately 7PM, people started shooting high-powered rifles at two of the county’s major electrical substations. In this case, the substations delivered power to about 35,000 people in Moore County. The target of an attack like this is usually the transformers. In some cases, the large transformers are filled with oil to help with cooling. A shot from a high-power rifle punctures a transformer’s casing, so the oil leaks out. The transformer overheats and fails. If the bullet is powerful enough, it can cut into the coils of wire inside the transformer and destroy the transformer by shorting it out.”

This video can help you understand what happened: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ebE665o144c

Imagine if a grid attack were able to cut power to the Times Square area on New Year’s Eve. The whole place goes completely dark in an instant. The one million tightly packed people would be likely to panic and stampede, causing thousands and thousands of injuries.

An attack like this in NYC would not be as simple as in Moore County. Much of NYC’s grid is underground. But a sophisticated attacker would likely be able to map out points of vulnerability and exploit them on December 31.

How might the city of New York guard against an attack like this?

  1. One way would be to identify and protect the same points of vulnerability that the terrorists would exploit during an attack.
  2. Another way would be to have plenty of portable lighting systems powered by portable generators on site, ready to go if the grid fails. This way the area would avoid being plunged into darkness during a grid failure. Having a robust PA system on portable generators would allow communication with the crowd.
  3. A third way would be to talk to the crowd ahead of time and tell them: if the power goes out, please stay put and don’t panic.

Scenario 6 – Airplane Attack

It is impossible to forget how badly New York City was damaged by an airplane attack on 9/11/2001. We all learned that flying an airplane into a skyscraper is a highly effective way to bring the skyscraper down.

What if someone decided to crash an airplane by nosediving into the crowd at Times Square? The exploding jet fuel might kill tens of thousands of people.

We would like to think that two things would make an attack by a jumbo jet impossible in New York City today:

  1. We would hope that all airspace for miles around Manhattan is declared a no-fly zone.
  2. We would hope that fighter aircraft are in the air and actively patrolling the skies over Manhattan on New Year’s Eve. Therefore, any aircraft that penetrates the no-fly zone gets shot down immediately.

Hopefully NYC in conjunction with the DOD has this scenario covered.

Scenario 7 – Russian Submarine Attack

This scenario is an outlier because no one has seen an attack like this before. But in 2015, Russia announced a new weapon as described in articles like these:

This video can help you understand the threat: https://youtu.be/kIW5EKhubj4?si=WWtiN171J4W6Upe7&t=74

The basic idea goes like this:

  • Develop an unmanned, autonomous, nuclear-powered submarine. Because there are no people onboard, this sub can stay underwater indefinitely. Being autonomous, it can navigate to the coastline of New York City on its own.
  • Place an enormous 200-megaton nuclear bomb inside this submarine.
  • Once the sub is near New York City, detonate the bomb.
  • Destroy NYC with a 500-foot-tall tsunami

As mentioned in the articles and the video, there is no current defense against this weapon. Therefore, if Russia deploys it on New Year’s Eve, it means the end for the entire city of New York.

The only thing we can hope for to conclusively prevent this attack is a takeover by a superintelligent alien or AI species as described here:

Such a takeover seems unlikely in time for New Year’s Eve, but maybe next year.

If you plan to go to the New Year’s Eve celebration in Times Square this year, know that New York City is doing everything possible to protect the crowd. Even the seven scenarios described above are unlikely. As they say in the Hunger Games: “May the odds be ever in your favor”.


  1. https://wraltechwire.com/2022/10/28/doomsday-new-york-if-big-apple-is-hit-with-a-nuke-heres-what-happens/
  2. https://youtu.be/N-5d7V4Sbqk – Nuclear Preparedness PSA (with captions), NYC Emergency Management
  3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WxMOMK7t2DA – New Year’s Eve Times Square security to include drone for first time
  4. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uqeiELVdkRI – THAAD: America’s Super Shield against Ballistic Missiles
  5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ground-Based_Midcourse_Defense
  6. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zgw7zDZDZKs – Homeland Missile Defense Scenario
  7. https://youtu.be/7v2mOqK6eCY?si=M2VZhwRwu03BxvT8&t=149 – The Sum of All Fears NUKE CLIP 4k
  8. https://doh.wa.gov/sites/default/files/legacy/Documents/Pubs/320-088_nucwpdet_fs.pdf
  9. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2020_Beirut_explosion
  10. https://nida.nih.gov/research-topics/trends-statistics/overdose-death-rates
  11. https://www.dea.gov/resources/facts-about-fentanyl
  12. https://www.dea.gov/sites/default/files/2018-07/hq092216_attach.pdf
  13. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qB0N4pwrjE8 – DJI Agras T40
  14. https://www.dji.com/t40
  15. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HnatsiFas5Y – Four Most Effective Anti-Drone Techniques
  16. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2017_Las_Vegas_shooting – 2017 Las Vegas shooting
  17. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HsvUA5L5USc – ‘People started dropping around us’: Las Vegas shooting told by witnesses
  18. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=krr4u6uGdzc – Mapping the Las Vegas Massacre | NYT – Visual Investigations
  19. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ebE665o144c – Big questions remain in wake of North Carolina power grid attack
  20. https://wraltechwire.com/2023/01/13/doomsday-on-the-power-grid-domestic-terrorists-pose-threat-to-all-of-us/
  21. https://thebulletin.org/2023/06/one-nuclear-armed-poseidon-torpedo-could-decimate-a-coastal-city-russia-wants-30-of-them/
  22. https://www.newsweek.com/putin-russia-poseidon-nuclear-torpedo-tsunami-1774946
  23. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/world-news/2023/01/16/russia-builds-nuclear-warheads-indestructible-poseidon-super/
  24. https://youtu.be/kIW5EKhubj4?si=WWtiN171J4W6Upe7&t=74 – How the Secret Russian Tsunami Bomb Works
  25. https://wraltechwire.com/2023/05/12/marshall-brains-doomsday-what-would-space-aliens-do-with-planet-earth/