In the beginning of the new game Fallout 4, your character rushes toward an underground bunker to wait out an oncoming nuclear war when a single mushroom cloud explodes on the horizon. It’s a moment of terrible beauty as the clouds billow up from a 1950s-style suburban neighborhood, leaving a battered and broken wasteland where the city of Boston used to stand.
Since the tragic end to World War II with the bombings of Hrioshima and Nagasaki, people have explored the idea of would happen during a nuclear apocalypse in books, video games, and movies. But while open nuclear warfare would certainly devastate the Earth, the massive explosions might be one of the most beautiful sights—though one of the last—the human race will ever see, Charlie Hall writes for Polygon.
Californian residents got a glimpse of that sight recently when the skies light up in a bizarre and brilliant display, which turned out to be a United States military Trident missile test—one type of nuclear-capable weapons in their arsenal. But what struck people like photographer Porter Tinsley, who caught the eerie display, was the striking beauty of the explosion.
"One thing that bothers me about [my photo of the missile] is that it actually doesn’t show exactly how pretty the ballooning blue halo really was," Tinsley tells Hall. "I couldn't amp the color without wrecking the contrast and getting grainy in my color correction and clarity settings, so the image is as close to what we saw but it was brighter than that. And it all happened without sound. It feels sort of gross to say that because of how scared I was."
Of course, that was just one missile. But each Trident missile is capable of carrying up to 12 nuclear warheads, and the U.S. alone has at least 432 of these missiles in active service across its submarine fleet, Hall writes. If Fallout 4’s opening sequence were to happen in real life, the entire sky would be lit up by the massive explosions.
But the spectacular views in the moment would be fleeting, with devastation in their aftermath. In many projections, even a limited and regional nuclear confrontation between countries like India and Pakistan, for example, could result in at least 100 explosions as big as Hiroshima, Francie Diep writes for Popular Science.
A “small scale” war like that alone would throw five megatons of black carbon into the atmosphere, cooling global temperatures by two degrees Fahrenheit over a single year and reducing the amount of global rainfall by nine percent over five years. Growing seasons could be shortened by more than a month in some regions and the ozone layer would be stripped away, leaving the Earth vulnerable to ultraviolet radiation.
There is a chance that the world might rebound in some fashion after the war. After all, even much of the wildlife around Chernobyl has rebounded after its infamous meltdown almost 30 years ago—and not without negative effects. In the end, most people will likely not survive to see the toxic ruins of the world, but before this catastrophic demise they’d get to see one last light show.