Answer to Map #52

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Answer: This week’s map was a proportional symbol map depicting the locations of nuclear explosions. The symbols are proportional to the number of explosions that have occurred in each place (though we gave credit to those who guessed they were proportional to the total power of the explosions in those places).

There are three ways that dots ended up on this map. The majority are there because of nuclear tests. These tend to be in out-of-the-way areas—on inhospitable land in the desert or tundra, over the ocean, deep underground, or on distant islands. There are two dots that are over cities: Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These dots represent the only two nuclear explosions ever used in war—so far. And then there are a few other scattered dots in the U.S. and the Soviet Union representing attempts to use nuclear explosions for “peaceful” means, especially in oil and gas exploration.

To make this map, we collated data from an online catalog of nuclear explosions. There are many such sites, and some people have used them to produce their own maps. An animated map that ran last year in The Independent shows the different purposes of the explosions; another animated map in City Lab shows which countries set them off as well as the power of each blast. It is, as we mentioned, quite difficult to map all the explosions, especially since most of the test sites for weapons are very spread out. Our map definitely needs a few more dots in Russia as well as three more in the South Atlantic; we’ll try to get those added soon.

The single test site that has seen the most nuclear explosions, by a considerable margin, is the Nevada Test Site in Nevada’s Nye County. The single test site incorporates 30 different “areas” where bombs have been tested; for the purpose of this map, they have been combined into two dots: one red, one light blue. The red one represents nearly 900 American tests; the blue one represents 24 British tests conducted at the same site. Most of the tests in Nevada were underground, but some took place above ground. The mushroom clouds they produced were visible from Las Vegas hotels, where people would gather to watch. St. George, Utah, lies downwind of the test site. One study determined that, from 1967 through 1975, there was a 61% higher incidence of leukemia in St. George than in similar populations throughout the rest of Utah.

Another test site that we mentioned in our hints is Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. In 1946, the U.S. forced all the residents of Bikini off the island and detonated the first of 23 bombs on the island. One of the goals of the tests was to see what would happen to warships when they were hit with nuclear bombs, so the U.S. Navy placed some unneeded ships in the lagoon. Their shipwrecks, or what is left of them, are still there. You can see them if you go snorkeling or scuba diving in Bikini. Since Bikini doesn’t have people living there full-time, aside from a few caretakers, its reefs are pristine. The coral is thriving. Meanwhile, many of the descendants of the islanders who were forcibly moved away are living in poverty.

In all, eight countries are known for sure to have set off nuclear explosions: the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, and North Korea. A ninth country, Israel, is known to possess nuclear weapons, but it does not publicly acknowledge its nuclear program, and it is not fully known whether or not it has conducted a test.

That purple dot in the southern Indian Ocean is the location of the so-called “Vela Incident.” In 1979, an American satellite picked up an unidentified “double flash” of light off the Prince Edward Islands. A double flash is a characteristic signature of a nuclear explosion. But American planes, sent to investigate the site of the flash, never picked up evidence of increased radiation. A lot of the speculation about the incident has focused on Israel and apartheid-era South Africa. We won’t use this space to speculate further on whether the double flash was a nuclear test or, if so, which country set it off; you can read very much about the topic on the Internet from sources running the full gamut of reputability.

Many more alarming paragraphs could be added to this page; in the interest of writing about something at least vaguely positive, however, let’s end by talking about those dots in Kazakhstan. A broad swath of Kazakh steppe marked off as the Semipalatinsk Test Site saw 456 Soviet nuclear tests. Remember what we wrote a few paragraphs ago about leukemia rates in the vicinity of the Nevada Test Site? Suffice it to say that the Soviets were even less careful. But because so much of the Soviet nuclear weapons program was based in Kazakhstan, that meant that Kazakhstan inherited a substantial nuclear arsenal when it became independent from the Soviet Union in 1991. And gave them up. The Kazakh government talks about this decision a lot—in 2009, in the wake of the release of the movie Borat, it even took out advertisements all over the U.S. to congratulate itself on voluntarily giving up nuclear weapons. While you might get tired of hearing the Kazakh government sing its own praises, one look at this week’s map is a reminder of what a significant accomplishment it was for Kazakhstan to give up its nuclear arsenal. A tremendous amount of time, effort, money, and destruction around the world, leading to the devastation of whole communities and the illness of uncountable numbers of people, has gone into designing new ways to cause more death and destruction. When something has cost so much, it’s a lot to give up.

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