The Real Science Behind Everyone's Favorite Wasteland.
The first time you step out of the protective vault and into the irradiated wasteland of Boston in Fallout 4, taking in the devastation can be overwhelming. For two decades, the Fallout series has explored life after the bombs fell. But sorting fact from fiction in Fallout's depiction of a world devastated by war can be tougher than you think. While radiation ravaged ghouls and burly super mutants are easily identified as works of fantasy, how much of Fallout and its post-apocalypse is based in fact?
Few people know more about the damaging effects of a nuclear war than Dr. Michael J Mills, a scientist working with the National Center for Atmospheric Research. In 2014, Dr. Mills, along with several of his associates, published a study detailing the global climate effects of a nuclear exchange between Pakistan and India using less than 1 percent of the world's nuclear weapons. The results were terrifying.
"It really exposed the suicidal nature of a global thermonuclear war," Dr. Mills told me over the phone. We talked over the implications of his study which details how 100 15 kiloton detonations (bombs the size of "The Little Boy" dropped on Hiroshima at the end of World War II) would impact the climate so severely the effects would be felt nearly 30 years later. While it's easy to be distracted by the immediate devastation a nuclear bomb inflicts, the more insidious consequences can take days before they are felt in full and decades before they are ever repaired.
"Hours after the bombs go off in cities, these fires continue to build up and they create firestorms that feed on themselves. They get so hot that everything in the city becomes fuel for its own destruction. The energy released becomes much greater than the weapon itself," Dr. Mills explained, drawing parallels to the way fire consumed the city of Dresden during the World War II.
From each of these 100 detonations, massive firestorms would engulf whole cities and churn five million tons of black carbon into the stratosphere. That carbon would be so dense that the sun would almost be blocked out entirely, triggering what Dr. Mills described as a "little ice age." Furthermore, the black carbon trapped in the atmosphere would heat up from the sun, destroying the ozone layer by as much as 50 percent over populated areas. The extra harm caused by UV radiation along with a shortening of crop seasons due to cooling could result in the starvation of almost 2 billion people—and that's just from 100 15 kiloton missiles. Considering that the city of Las Vegasfrom Fallout: New Vegas was the target of 77 nuclear warheads alone, and the fact that page 11 of the Fallout 1 game manual states that the average size of a nuclear warhead is between 200-750 kilotons instead of a measly 15, it's easy to guess that the consequences would be suitably apocalyptic.
In 2006, Dr. Alan Robock, a climatologist and professor at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, published a study detailing the effects of a nuclear war between the USA and Russia, a popular theme for simpler studies in the 1980s, and found that a war between the United States and Russia could cause upwards of 150 million tons of black carbon to be pumped into the stratosphere. This would trigger a global decrease in temperatures by upwards of -8°C. North America could expect to experience summers -20°C degrees colder than average. In fact, it wouldn't be summer at all, it would be a nuclear winter. And the food shortages caused by this ice age, which would last over a decade, in combination with the widespread devastation from the bombs and subsequent radiation, would likely kill every human alive.
Curiously, though the effects of a nuclear winter were understood well before the first Fallout ever released in 1996, there is barely any mention of it occurring. Digging deep into Fallout's lore (probably deeper than anyone should go) reveals reasons why this may be. In 2002, Chris Avellone, a game designer who worked on Fallout 2, began compiling a massive list of background information and lore on the first two games into the Fallout Bible. During issue 6 of the bible, Avellone admits that the lack of a nuclear winter is somewhat of an inexplicable oversight in the Fallout backstory but later justifies it in issue 8 with help from a fan using popular arguments against the nuclear winter theory.
The world of Fallout is not the world we live in—it's an alternate universe that diverges sometime after the end of World War II with the invention of the transistor. In our world, the transistor was invented in 1947 but it didn't appear in Fallout until a decade before the Great War in 2067. Because of this, the world of Fallout never entered into the digital age, instead focusing on advancements in nuclear technology that we have yet to discover in our own world.
The other big difference is that Fallout takes place during a time when oil and gas were rapidly depleting—at one point costing $7450.99 per gallon. It's pretty much what caused the war in the first place. This is extremely important because most arguments against the nuclear winter theory largely deal with the fact that the estimations of how easily firestorms would start after a nuclear detonation are overblown and that the design of modern cities makes these massive firestorms unlikely. Without oil and gas to perpetuate the flames, and with their futuristic design, cities in Fallout may not be able to facilitate such deadly conditions.
Even though the effects of a nuclear winter remain contentious in some circles, Fallout 4 takes place 210 years after the war and the environmental impact would be greatly diminished by then. Even most of the radioactive isotopes would have decayed below harmful levels or washed away over the years. What we do know is that the strain of a global nuclear war on the ecosystem would be so severe that the blasted landscape of Fallout 4 is not that farfetched.
But Fallout 4 is a video game and its world is experienced more through the characters and creatures you encounter than the climate of the wasteland. This is exactly where Fallout begins to deviate the most from science.
Dr. Timothy Mousseau has been studying the impact of radioactive contaminants on wildlife populations around the Chernobyl and Fukushima disaster zones, which makes him one of the foremost experts on the deleterious effect radiation can have on living things. Despite recent popular studies and articles suggesting that Chernobyl has become a refuge for animals despite its high amounts of radioactivity, Dr. Mousseau's research takes a much closer look at the harmful effects of radiation rather than just looking at overall population numbers.
"Many of the populations that are out there in the wild are teetering all the time," he said during our interview. "And so a little push towards the negative is often enough to drive them towards local extinction. And if you have a large scale event, this could actually lead to much larger areas of extinction." Dr. Mousseau went on to elaborate that with species that exist within a small geographical footprint, it wouldn't be unrealistic to expect them to go extinct entirely.
Arguably one of the most memorable aspects of Fallout is the way in which radiation has spurred species to mutate into the extremely dangerous monsters that stalk the wasteland. Vile green supermutants, giant radroaches, radscorpions, deathclaws, and even the docile cow-like brahmin are all icons of Fallout's unique vision. But Dr. Mousseau's research tells a different, more realistic story: severe genetic damage and reduced survival capabilities.
I asked if there's any possibility that radiation could create mutations more akin to what we see in science fiction. "How many monsters do we see out there?" He laughed. While they haven't discovered any telekinetic birds or giant insects, the team has encountered an alarming amount of mutations like cataracts, smaller brain sizes, and reduced fertility. In birds, they've documented irregular and stunted plumage, which can dramatically affect reproduction in certain species. "The big effect is going to be having populations that are unhealthy and less fit, less able to deal with changes in the environment, less able to repopulate," Dr. Mousseau said.
In Fallout 4, the effects of radiation are never more misrepresented than on the character you play, who is capable of handling extreme doses of radiation before cleansing it with magical "RadAway" medicine—a medical advancement justified by Fallout's advanced understanding of radiation. Ignoring the long-term consequences, radiation is greatly downplayed to simply reduce the maximum amount of health points you have until treated.
One of the greatest sources of contamination that a player is subject to comes through the water, which could present a real problem much sooner after the war thanks to water soluble radioactive contaminates like cesium-137. But 210 years later, only the slowest burning, least harmful isotopes would be left. Considering Boston was only struck by a single bomb along with any secondary meltdowns from the city's reliance on nuclear energy and fallout from nearby cities, it would be hard to judge just how dangerous the water could be. While there would certainly be a long-term risk to drinking from open sources, it would be more subtle than the way Fallout 4 merely adds points to your overall radiation level. Furthermore, the player could likely reduce the risk by drinking water from moving sources and avoiding lakes and the plumbing within Boston.
Studying the impact of radiation exposure on various species in Fallout would be a challenge, however, as most of them died following the war. All that's really left are those nasty mutants you keep pumping shotgun rounds into and a handful of other creatures. In the case of the some of the mutants, they weren't just the product of radiation alone but a manufactured supervirus known as the Forced Evolutionary Virus which transformed exposed humans and animals into the monstrosities you find picking through the rubble.
Fallout 4's other resident creatures, the two headed cow-like brahmin for example, don't have quite as convenient of an excuse, however. But the lack of biodiversity and mass extinction can explain why the wasteland remains so inhospitable centuries later. As Dr. Mousseau explained to me, ecosystems form webs of interdependence that can collapse when enough threads are destroyed. In the context of his research, he discussed how radiation had reduced pollinating insects, which in turn reduced the amount of fruit on trees and impacted the populations of species reliant on that fruit.
So when it comes to finding out if Fallout 4 is entirely accurate, it really depends. The blasted wasteland you wander through probably isn't that unlikely considering the devastating effects a nuclear war could have on our planet—nuclear winter or not. But the closer you look at Fallout, the more it tends to fudge the details in service of making a wasteland worth exploring. Super mutants and two headed cows aren't likely to be found in a post-apocalyptic world, but there's no denying they contribute in their own way to Fallout 4.
If Fallout 4 gets one thing right, it's that life after the apocalypse would be a desperate struggle. Though nuclear stockpiles have diminished significantly since the 1980s, there's still around 10,000 nuclear weapons—half of which are in active service. Though it might not be enough to create the irradiated desert of Fallout 4, it'd be more than enough to potentially wipe humanity from the earth entirely. The only difference being there won't be conveniently located vaults to escape the fallout.