Disclaimer: if this post bothers you, please do spend some time coming up with potential countermeasures. The point is to encourage people to think about these types of risk in more detail, so we can implement solutions before the unthinkable happens.
Assuming a 1-megaton nuclear weapon, what are the optimal delivery points to maximize global damage and chaos? We are assuming a 1 megaton bomb due to simplicity – this yield is about twice that of the most powerful fission bomb produced by the US, the Mk 18, which used 60 kg of enriched uranium. With nanofactories, building extremely high-quality centrifuges will become easy, making large quantities of enriched uranium accessible to any organization with uranium ore. We will be able to do with a few centrifuges what previously required hundreds or even thousands.
A few facts about uranium: uranium ore is more common than gold, mercury, silver, or tungsten, and is found in substantial quantities worldwide, including in southern Australia, Africa, and the Middle East. It is the 48th most abundant element in the earth’s crust. Pitchblende uranium (1% pure) is available on eBay for approximately $20/kg. The US Department of Energy has stockpiled 704,000 metric tons of uranium in the form of hexaflourine solids.
In this scenario, it does not really matter who is dropping the bomb. The point is to create as much mayhem as possible. This analysis leans towards detonation targets that do damage to the United States in particular, both because the US has many enemies, and because many countries are economically and politically dependent on a smoothly-functioning US. The attack might be a set-up for a larger operation, occur in the context of a war, or simply be an isolated event. Potential orchestrators of the attack include rogue states like North Korea or Iran, criminal organizations, jihadi organizations, or more sophisticated groups like circles of well-educated and wealthy Americans exploiting abrupt technological transitions to gain power.
In roughly ascending order of severity, the options are:
6. Destroy a large portion of Tehran, Iran.
The Israelis would immediately be blamed, and Iranian troops would likely be dispatched to Israel under half an hour after the event. Many other countries including the EU and the US would get involved, and the result would be a very long and very expensive war. Iran’s GDP is approximately 10x that of Iraq, and if other Muslim countries like Syria, Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey got involved, the West would be dealing with a fanatic multinational force with plenty of resources. Think of the earth as an egg, and the fault line between Muslim radicalists and Christian radicalists as the breakage formed when the egg is cracked.
5. Nuke Washington, D.C.
When Congress is in session, of course. Although Washington, D.C. is a city of great political significance, it is not a critical economic cog relative to other large global cities. At the very least, every member of Congress would be wiped out, along with thousands of important ambassadors, lobbyists, political thinkers, and of course the Administration. Eliminating Washington, D.C. is not the worst thing a terrorist or rogue country could do, as there have been extensive plans in place since the Cold War for establishing a shadow government in case of this eventuality. It would throw the American people into a frenzy significantly greater than 9-11, however.
4. Destabilize an oceanic shield volcano next to a methane clathrate deposit.
This one is subtle. A couple weeks ago Phil Bowermaster posted about the risks of methane clathrate. Essentially, when this stuff melts, it is 20 times worse than carbon dioxide when it comes to contributing to global warming, and can be found easily in half-kilometer-thick deposits on the ocean floor. There are undersea mountains with precarious peaks that have been slowly destabilizing over thousands of years, and with the right placement, a nuclear blast could start a catastrophic landslide. If the result is as massive as large historic landslides, it could displace more than 100 cubic kilometers of rock, creating a debris trail covering tens of square kilometers. The kinetic energy of the avalanche could melt 40+ cu km of methane clathrate, potentially kickstarting a global warming feedback effect, with all its nasty ramifications. Beneath the methane clathrate is even more methane in gas form.
Fictional expositions of the possible effects of severe global warming can be found in John Barnes’ Mother of Storms and Clive Cusser’s Fire Ice. For the first one, think of four storms like Giant Red Spots constantly raking the earth’s surface for years on end, and for the second, tsunamis followed by complete global climate change. This target is only rated 4th out of 6 because of a relatively low probability that global warming would actually be accelerated all that quickly. If it were successful, however, it might be better placed in 2nd place.
Here is an excerpt from a website on volcanic landslides:
Volcanoes appear to be permanent fixtures on the landscape, but in fact are inherently unstable structures composed of both strong (thick lava flows) and weak (fragmental and hydrothermally altered) materials. Large-scale collapse of volcanic edifices, first witnessed and documented at the start of the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption, is now known to be a common volcanic process. Large volcanic landslides can occur with volumes exceeding a cubic kilometer at continental volcanoes and several orders of magnitude larger at oceanic shield volcanoes. These collapses can produce extremely mobile debris avalanches that can travel at high velocities in some cases for tens of kilometers beyond the base of a volcano. This process, once thought to be extremely rare, has been documented at hundreds of volcanoes worldwide. Repeated episodes of growth and collapse have occurred at many volcanoes, and large-volume volcanic landslides have been found to be the most common catastrophic destructive process at volcanoes.
3. Nuke New York City, particularly Manhattan.
Here, people are packed so closely that a million casualties from a nuclear attack, even if “only” a 1-megaton nuclear attack, is harrowingly realistic. According to this nuclear weapon effects calculator, the thermal radiation radius (3rd degree burns) of a 1-megaton nuclear blast is ~11.7 km. Calculating the area from the radius gives us 430 square kilometers of people with 3rd degree burns. The blast radius would extend well into adjacent boroughs. A million deaths would wipe out 1/300 of the American population. A more impressive 10-megaton explosion would triple the blast radius. The global psychological and economic effects of such an attack are unknown, but would obviously be very severe.
2. Knock off a chunk of Cumbre Viejo at La Palma in the Canary Islands.
Explosions on mountaintop, rocks into ocean, waves into coast. Walls of water into cities. You get the idea. The wave goes around the globe three full times before it dissipates. Not sure if this one is worse than blowing up Manhattan.
1. Nuke the Yellowstone Caldera.
Hundreds of cubic kilometers of magma at high pressure. A five kilometer cap that limits eruptions to only every million years or so. A well-placed explosion that destroys that cap in the space of a few seconds. A lava plume ten times taller than Mt. Everest, followed by perpetual and global night that lasts for years. This one requires a nuke slightly larger than 1-megatons – 20-megatons ought to be sufficient.
“When a supervolcano goes off, it is an order of magnitude greater than a normal eruption. It produces energy equivalent to an impact with a comet or an asteroid. You can try diverting an asteroid, but there is nothing at all you can do about a supervolcano.” – Dr. Ted Nield
“The eruption will throw out cubic kilometers of rock, ash, dust, sulfur dioxide and so on into the upper atmosphere, where it will reflect incoming solar radiation, forcing down temperatures on the earth’s surface. It would be the equivalent of a nuclear winter. The effects would last for four or five years with crops failing and the whole ecosystem breaking down.” – Robert B. Trombley, Ph.D.
The question is, why would anyone go this far? I can think of many possible motivations, and being psychotic is by no means a necessary prerequisite for wanting to do something like this. There’s this near-universal cultural misapprehension that you have to be crazy to do something horrible. To the contrary. You need only be ambitious, and elitist enough to disregard human lives. The first motivation which comes to mind is the creation of an Aristoi class:
Aristoi comes from ancient Greek and means “the best”. The term was used to describe the noblemen in ancient Greece, those of a status above the common people. Aristoi were members of the aristocracy and regarded as closer to God.
Aristoi is a 1993 science-fiction novel by Walter Jon Williams. The novel describes a technologically advanced society with a rigid hierarchy of social classes. The top class, the “Aristoi,” are given the ultimate responsibility: that of managing nanotechnology.
With the right tech, living in conditions of clouded skies for a few yearswould not be difficult. I’m not talking tech from hundreds of years into the future, but only a couple decades. When you can be on the surface and everyone else is forced underground, it isn’t hard to start establishing global superiority.
Update: Yes, I know that other major cities are also potentially damaging targets, but it would have been silly to include more than three when I was also focusing on bombing natural features, y’know?
Update #2: This post has received over 100,000 views in the week since it was posted, bringing home the point that everyone already knew: controversy sells. Usually I write for transhumanists, not the general Internet community, so I may have said a few things that sounded crazy to many people. To remove further distractions, those things have now been deleted. This post was discussed on Google Groups, at the Immortality Institute, on Metafilter, and the SL4 mailing list. Here are the google results.
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