Nuclear shelter basement sign on brick building to represent survival tips for a nuclear blast

How to survive a nuclear bomb shockwave

In the nightmare scenario of a nuclear bomb going off, you might imagine a catastrophic fireball, a mushroom cloud rising into an alien sky overhead, and a pestilential rain of toxic fallout in the days to come. All of these are real and all of them can kill.

But just as real, and just as deadly, is the blast of air that comes right after. When a nuclear weapon explodes, it usually creates a shock wave. That front tears through the air at supersonic speed, shattering windows, demolishing buildings and causing untold damage to human bodies – even miles from the point of impact.

[Related: How to protect yourself from nuclear radiation]

So, you’ve just seen the nuclear flash and you know an air burst will soon follow. You only have a few seconds to hide. Where you go?

To help you find the safest place in your home, two engineers in Cyprus simulated which spaces made the winds from a shock wave move more violently and which spaces slowed them down. Their results were published on January 17 in the journal Physics of fluids.

During the fevered nuclear paranoia of the Cold War, many scientists studied what nuclear war would do to a city or the world. But most of their research focused on factors like fireball or radiation or simulating a nuclear winter, rather than an individual airburst. In addition, 20th century experts lacked the sophisticated computing capabilities that their modern counterparts can use.

Very little is known about what happens when you are inside a concrete building that has not collapsed,” says Dimitris Drikakis, an engineer at the University of Nicosia and co-author of the new paper.

[Related: A brief but terrifying history of nuclear weapons]

The advice he and his colleague Ioannis W. Kokkinakis came up with doesn’t apply in close proximity to a nuclear explosion. If you’re in a zero point shout, there’s no avoiding it – you’re dead. Even at some distance, the nuke will bombard you with a bright flash of heat radiation: a torrent of infrared and ultraviolet light that could blind you or cause second- or third-degree burns.

But as you move away from ground zero, far enough that the thermal radiation leaves you with at most minor injuries, the air blast will leave most structures standing. Winds will only be equivalent to a very strong hurricane. It’s still deadly, but with training, you might be able to pull it off.

Drikakis and Kokkinakis built a virtual one-story house and simulated strong winds from two different shock wave scenarios—one well above standard atmospheric pressure and one even stronger. Based on their simulations, here are the best—and worst—places to go during a nuclear war.

Worst: Near a window

If you catch a glimpse of a nuclear flash, your first instinct might be to run to the nearest window to see what just happened. That would be a mistake, as you would be in prime place to be hit by the ensuing air blast.

If you’re standing right in a window in front of the blast, the authors found, you could face winds of more than 300 miles per hour — enough to knock the average person off the ground. Depending on the exact power of the nuke, you might then hit the wall with enough force to kill yourself.

Surprisingly, there are more dangerous places in the house when it comes to maximum wind speed (more on that later). But what really helps make a killer window is the glass. As it breaks, you’ll be pulverized in the face by high-velocity shards.

Bad: a hallway

You might imagine that you can escape the air blast by retreating deeper into your building. But that’s not necessarily true. A window can act as a funnel for flowing air, turning a long hallway into a wind tunnel. Doors can do the same.

The authors found that the winds would blow an average-sized man standing in the corridor almost as far as they would throw an average-sized man standing by the front window. High winds can also pick up shards of glass and loose objects from the floor or furniture and send them flying as quickly as a musket shot, the simulations showed.

Better: a corner

Not everywhere in the house is equally deadly. The authors found that as the nuclear shock wave passed through a chamber, the strongest winds tended to miss the edges and corners of the chamber.

Therefore, even if you are in an otherwise dangerous room, you can protect yourself from the worst impact by finding a corner and preparing. The key, again, is to avoid doors and windows.

“Wherever there are no vacancies, you have a better chance of survival,” says Drikakis. “Essentially, run away from openings.”

Best for: A corner of an interior room

The best place to hide is in the corner of a small room as far inside the building as possible. For example, a closet that has no openings is ideal.

The “good” news is that the peak of the explosion only lasts for a moment. The fiercest winds will pass in less than a second. If you can survive that, you’ll probably stay alive – as long as you’re not in the way of the radioactive effects.

These shelter tips can be helpful in all high wind disasters. (The U.S. Centers for Disease Control currently advises those who cannot evacuate before a hurricane to avoid windows and find a closet.) But the authors point out that the risk of nuclear war, while low, is certainly not gone. “I think we need to sensitize the international community … to understand that this is not just a joke,” says Drikakis. “It’s not a Hollywood movie.”

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