Mapping a nuclear detonation

Mapping a nuclear detonationOutrider and Bluecadet’s Bomb Blast visualizes the unimaginableMapboxBlockedUnblockFollowFollowingFeb 6By: Marena BrinkhurstLast week, President Trump pulled out of a long-standing Nuclear arms treaty with Russia.

In the days since, Russia has test-launched an intercontinental ballistic missile armed with multiple warheads.

The threat of nuclear catastrophe is higher now than at any time since the Cold War, but public understanding of this issue is much lower.

To increase engagement for denuclearization, the Outrider Foundation partnered with Bluecadet to release Bomb Blast — an interactive tool allowing the public to visualize the unimaginable local impact of a nuclear detonation.

Bomb Blast went viral when it was launched last year during the most recent peak in tensions with North Korea over nuclear weapons.

I spoke with Outrider’s Managing Director for Nuclear Policy, Tara Drozdenko and Bluecadet’s Chris Arasin and Ben Young about the how and why behind Bomb Blast.

Why did you build a web tool to visualize nuclear explosions?One of the greatest threats to the future of humankind is nuclear weapons.

Outrider believes that the global challenges we face together must be solved by working together — and not just by policymakers but by all of us.

Outrider uses digital media to provide accessible information about how we can build a brighter future together.

The threat of nuclear catastrophe is higher now than at any time since the Cold War, but public understanding of this issue is much lower.

With Bomb Blast, we wanted to create an impactful introduction to this issue to promote deeper exploration and engagement.

Bluecadet collaborates with many mission-driven organizations to develop their storytelling.

We dig into an idea to draw out what is authentic, human, and relevant and then bring it to life.

When Outrider approached us about Bomb Blast, about two years ago, we were excited by the challenge of personalizing an issue that can often feel distant and abstract.

What did you want people to feel when interacting with the tool?Nuclear weapons can create a feeling of helplessness — the numbers are so large, and the politics so complicated.

But we wanted to motivate people to understand what this issue means for them, at a personal level.

So this interactive lets someone create their own stories and ask their own questions, rather than taking people through a guided walkthrough.

We invite visitors to explore what they are most interested in.

Some may want to find out the sheer fatality numbers in major cities.

Some might want to compare the impact of various historical and modern weapons.

Others want to know if they or a loved one would be in the blast radius if a nearby city was targeted.

Using an interactive map helps to personalize this experience.

Being able to see these horrible blast effects drawn on places with names you recognize, and juxtaposed with imagery and video from bomb tests helps make this huge, abstract threat feel more real.

Even ourselves, as we were prototyping the tool, we’d be typing in our hometowns, where our families live.

It was very sobering to explore the ‘what if’ scenario — it’s not only about morbid curiosity, it provokes an earnest sense of protection and care.

We hoped people would feel the same way and be inspired to explore and learn more.

Ultimately, we want people to understand that they have a role to play in government policies about nuclear weapons.

We need an engaged public that is determined to bring about change.

How are the explosions calculated?We worked closely with nuclear historian Alex Wellerstein, the creator of Nukemap — a location-based digital map which visualizes blast radii.

Nukemap is a powerful tool but requires users to have a relatively advanced understanding of the subject matter.

We wanted to reach a wider audience by creating a more approachable, compelling, and mobile-friendly experience built on what Wellerstein has developed.

With Wellerstein’s support, we used Nukemap’s backend APIs for casualty calculations (based on data from a 1973 report by the Defense Civil Preparedness Agency and spatial queries run on the LandScan Global Population database) and for blast effect radii (which uses JavaScript ports of calculations made by the U.


Atomic Energy Commission in 1963, and the U.


Department of Defense and Energy Research and Development Administration in 1977).

We convert the calculated blast sizes to GeoJSON, and then use Mapbox layers to draw clickable disks at the correct locations.

The animated effect is drawn in a separate WebGL canvas on top of the map.

How did Mapbox tools help?Mapbox puts a great emphasis on both the look and feel of their products and the developer experience.

We built some early prototypes using Mapbox basemaps and the Mapbox geocoding API, and from the beginning, they looked great and the APIs were easy to use, with helpful methods for positioning, moving, and zooming the map to different locations.

Using Mapbox helped us get to a functional prototype very quickly.

Our developers began with a rough, feature-complete prototype to test the approach, then experimented with different map styles, UI elements, and visual treatments.

We could then iterate on the interface design and blast effects with a working product.

The result is a functional, responsive interactive that gives an accurate look at the impacts of a nuclear blast.

Early prototype of Bomb Blast on the left, the final map on the right.

The look and feel of Bomb Blast is very striking — can you say more about its visual design?The final design is the balance we found between the gravity and urgency of the situation and not wanting it to get so dark that it was off-putting.

With an interactive like this, you don’t want it to feel like a game where you are bombing people — but at the same time, you want it to feel immediate and realistic.

I feel like the overall tone that we settled on was a sense of dread, but paired with a certain intrinsic beauty in the execution of the design and visual effects.

Mapbox Studio was a perfect tool for agreeing on the right balance across our teams.

It let us experiment with various visual themes, invite others to explore it, and go back and forth on the colors and the fonts, and then simply update the map style behind the blast animations.

Bomb Blast went viral very quickly — what made it so effective?We designed the interactive to be useful for a wide variety of audiences in different contexts.

You can spend 20 seconds with it on your phone, or explore for 20 minutes on your computer, and learn something new.

We knew it would be the sort of thing that the internet really likes because it’s easy to share and everyone can relate to it.

We primed different channels to amplify it — on Reddit, in political channels, with media contacts.

We did a soft launch and then started promotions to have it picked up, then it went viral basically in a day.

And the geopolitical tensions at the time were quite high, so it made Bomb Blast all the more relevant and timely.

To date, the map has received over 2 million unique users and extensive press coverage, including Motherboard, Fast Company, and The Verge.

It was a fantastic launch for Outrider, as a young organization looking to define our voice and message.

What’s the best way for people to learn more?Outrider.

org has a collection of resources to help people learn about nuclear weapons and get involved, and we are continuing to publish articles helping to put current events and political relationships into a historical context.

Marena BrinkhurstMarena supports collaborations between teams at Mapbox and external partners interested in using Mapbox tools to…www.



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