Nuclear war could wipe humans off the face of our planet, but some living beings would fare much better.
Nicknamed the Tree of Life, Ginkgo biloba is one of the rare forms of life to survive the detonation of the American atomic bomb over Hiroshima. A ginkgo tree even survived despite being less than a mile from the epicenter of the nuclear blast on August 6, 1945. It is the oldest species of tree on earth, appearing 270 million years ago. So why didn’t the dinosaurs and all the other animals that followed them eat Ginkgo biloba and reap its benefits? Most likely because this beautiful tree smells like vomit, repelling thousands of generations of animals.
Were there oriental cockroaches just a few hundred feet from the nuclear explosion at Hiroshima on August 6, 1945? If so, they would have been able to survive the radiation caused by the first nuclear attack in history. This species of roach, twice as large as the German cockroach, can survive a level of radiation up to 100 sieverts, the exact amount released by the Hiroshima bomb—ten times the lethal dose for humans.
The cockroach, dreaded for the microbes it carries and the allergies it causes, is not afraid of radiation. It would take a dose 15 times greater than what a human could survive to kill it. And even if a nuclear war obliterated all the food, cockroaches can survive an entire month without eating—plenty of time to find something to eat.
Do you like squishing ants with your feet? Well, enjoy it now, because they’ll be the ones to survive a nuclear war—they’ve been spotted at locations ravaged by nuclear explosions. Like other living beings, their small size protects them from most of the effects of radiation, along with the fact that they can survive underground.
This creature has existed for 550 million years—do you really think that a nuclear war could render it extinct? You obviously don’t understand the lingulata, a brachiopod that can bury itself in the ground when it’s threatened and then reappear at the surface when the danger has passed.
These fish are capable of surviving in almost any conditions. Dangerous products dumped into the sea? It doesn’t faze them! They’ve even been to space—sent to Skylab, the first space station, in 1973. The fish that were hatched during this experiment suffered no ill effects—so a nuclear war shouldn’t bother them one bit.
Compared to a human, it would take a dose of radiation 1,100 times greater to affect a tardigrade. Nicknamed “water bears,” they can survive being crushed or boiled. Even when deemed clinically dead, this tiny creature can be brought back to life ten years later. As for radiation—it’s just a minor inconvenience for the hearty tardigrade.
Scorpions can be found on all continents of our planet, except for Antarctica. Not only can it survive radiation, but it can also live through a nuclear winter. So if a nuclear war creates clouds of dust that block out the sun, the scorpion would survive. It can even be frozen and come back to life after it thaws.
Two species of worms in a lake near Chernobyl have succeeded in adapting their reproduction method to be less affected by the consequences of radiation. These worms typically reproduced by self-fertilization or by mating, but, since the nuclear disaster, they’ve opted for mating. This increases their chances of survival, according to research conducted at the A.O. Kovalevsky Institute of Biology of the Southern Seas in Ukraine.
Escherichia coli (E. coli) can survive radiation levels of 60 sieverts—six times the lethal level for humans. However, these bacteria make up 80% of our intestinal flora so, if we die, we can take some comfort in the fact that somewhere in our gut, our E. coli population will live on. Gives you hope, doesn’t it?
This parasitic wasp can survive radiation levels 300 times higher than humans. Remember that the next time a wasp bothers you at a barbecue—maybe you’ll treat them with more respect!
This family of insects owes its survival to its ability to lay its eggs inside other animals. It can also survive a radiation dose of 1,800 sieverts. After a nuclear war, its challenge wouldn’t be to survive the radiation, but to find other animals in which to lay its eggs!
This single-cell organism can survive even higher doses of radiation than the scorpion. The amoeba is already useful to life by purifying water and regulating carbon dioxide. In a post-nuclear world, the amoeba would continue to play this role, helping the other living beings that survived.
The fruit fly, or Drosophila, can be found on every continent. Even though its lifespan is only thirty days, it would take a lot to get rid of them. This little fly can survive up to 640 sieverts of radiation. At this level of radiation, all humans would be long gone.
Pine trees planted near Chernobyl have succeeded in adapting their genome to resist radiation—they added chemical groups to their original DNA. However, the pines that grew near Chernobyl have been drained of their chlorophyll to the point that they remain red throughout the year.
This bacterium is resistant to ultraviolet rays, radiation, acid, cold, dehydration, and hunger. Deinococcus radiodurans is the toughest bacterium in the world, thanks to its ability to repair its own defective DNA. Radiation poses a danger because it destroys the DNA of living beings—but this bacterium can survive a dose of 50,000 sieverts—5,000 times more than a human. Even the largest nuclear bombs are not capable of delivering this level of radiation.
Contrary to popular belief, rats aren’t that much more resistant to radiation than humans. However, the fact that they live in underground areas could protect them. That said, their destiny seems to be highly linked to our own. Would there be fewer rats if there were fewer of us? There’s no way to know unless a nuclear war strikes—probably not worth the risk to find out.
Capable of surviving 10 sieverts of radiation, humans would not be able to survive a nuclear war. The levels of radiation emitted by modern nuclear bombs are well above the 100 sieverts released by the blast at Hiroshima. Some bombs can release 1,000 times the amount of radiation than what was released upon the Japanese city in 1945—10,000 times the lethal dose for us. Unless we find another hospitable planet, our species will likely go extinct—and no one will know who won the final battle.
The only chance that a human could survive extreme levels of radiation would be to repair our own DNA—and it would have to be done very quickly. Will we one day benefit from the genes of bacteria like Deinococcus radiodurans? Unfortunately, this wouldn’t protect us while the war was being waged—in the short term, most of the deaths would be caused by the explosion of the nuclear bombs.
If our genes can’t save us from the radiation, perhaps we can rely on broccoli! A molecule produced during the digestion of this vegetable protected rodents from a lethal dose of radiation, whereas the ones that didn’t have the molecule died, according to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Instead of talking about atomic mushrooms, maybe we should be talking about nuclear broccoli!