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Nuclear war would be more beautiful, and more devastating, than anything in Fallout 4

I don't want to set the world on fire

Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

On Nov. 7, the skies over the West Coast of California lit up with a spectacular display, captured above by amateur photographer Porter Tinsley. Many on the ground were so taken by the sight that they thought it was a UFO. In fact, the celestial event was a Trident missile, one of the many ballistic, nuclear-capable weapons in the U.S. arsenal. The public response, as well as the pictures and videos that captured the event, prove one thing above all else: Should nuclear war begin, it would be one of the most beautiful atmospheric events that our species has seen – and also the last.

When we reached out to Tinsley to get her permission to use the photo, she emphasized to us that the sky was actually even brighter than what’s shown in the picture.

"One thing that bothers me about the photo is that it actually doesn’t show exactly how pretty the ballooning blue halo really was," Tinsley wrote. "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."

The weapon that was launched that night was a Trident II (D5)reports Slate. Manufactured by Lockheed Martin Space Systems, multiple sources indicate this submarine-launched ballistic missile is capable of carrying up to 14 warheads, known as MIRVs or multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles.

To translate that, the Trident is pushed out of the submarine from below the surface of the ocean and then uses three rocket stages to leave our atmosphere. It's designed to arc down towards the target area, at which point it breaks into 14 independently guided nuclear warheads, each able to strike a different location.

In practice, it would work sort of like the following GIF.


A little back-of-the-napkin math tells us, therefore, that your average Ohio-class submarine carrying 24 such missiles can strike more than 330 different targets before it needs to rearm.

There are 18 active Ohio-class subs in the U.S. inventory.

Just think about that for a moment.

In the opening scene of Fallout 4, players watch a newscast that reports nuclear impacts in just a few cities around the country. Then, just as players are rushing into Vault 111, a single warhead detonates on the horizon.

If an actual nuclear war were to begin, that same horizon would be filled with multiple mushroom clouds, as well as dozens of outgoing munitions like the one pictured above.

As awe-inspiring as the prelude to gaming's hottest title is, the reality would be something much more fantastic. And something infinitely more tragic.