In response to discussion in the comments section on my recent post on nuclear war, Dave said:
Really, I mean, honestly, no one is surviving a nuclear war.
This is absolute nonsense. To quote the very first paragraph of Nuclear War Survival Skills, a civil defense manual based on in-depth research at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory:
An all-out nuclear war between Russia and the United States would be the worst catastrophe in history, a tragedy so huge it is difficult to comprehend. Even so, it would be far from the end of human life on earth. The dangers from nuclear weapons have been distorted and exaggerated, for varied reasons. These exaggerations have become demoralizing myths, believed by millions of Americans.
Here's another good quote:
Only a very small fraction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki citizens who survived radiation doses some of which were nearly fatal have suffered serious delayed effects. The reader should realize that to do essential work after a massive nuclear attack, many survivors must be willing to receive much larger radiation doses than are normally permissible. Otherwise, too many workers would stay inside shelter too much of the time, and work that would be vital to national recovery could not be done. For example, if the great majority of truckers were so fearful of receiving even non-incapacitating radiation doses that they would refuse to transport food, additional millions would die from starvation alone.
The whole first chapter of the book is filled with refutations of popular myths about nuclear war. When you know the science, these myths seem extremely stupid. Yet millions of people believe them.
Here is one possible fallout distribution pattern, from FEMA:
Notice that the distribution would go to the east, because the prevailing winds come from the west. That spells good news for people out west. We also notice that there are wide swaths in the map that would just be empty of fallout, including maybe 95% of the area of the western United States.
Continents are big, big places. We may or may not yet have weapons that can threaten life across their entire areas, but probably not. (We may get them soon, though.)
For more information on nuclear war, Notre Dame has an Open Courseware page with lectures from Professor Grant Matthews.