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This is a question I've been wondering about for a while. If I wanted to give my characters the best possible chance of surviving my story's Armageddon, what time of year should I schedule it for?

Let's keep the scenario as general as possible for maximum usefulness to people who aren't me, while still laying down some ground rules. Let's assume some sort of global EMP attack / solar flare that destroys the entire world's electronic infrastructure. No radiation, no explosions, no immediate deaths. But everyone's left without electricity, running water, sewage, and every other part of the vast network of societal services we perpetually take for granted that keep us from having to fight every day for the right to breathe. What's left of the government is rapidly breaking down, the stores aren't restocking, and people have to secure access to food, water and medicine, acquire the means to defend themselves from others, etc.

Let's further narrow it down to focus on the USA, since I know that the seasons are wildly different depending on where in the world you are, and lots of other factors could be in play to make the answer a great big "it depends".

What time of year should I have this event take place in to make sure that the greatest number of people has the greatest chance of living to see next year?

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  • $\begingroup$ When you say infrastructure what exactly are you referring to? This ranges from satellite networks and power grids, which I believe would be affected by an EMP. To roads, buildings and many more aspects of a country's infrastructure which wouldn't. This will have major impact on the scenario that follows the event $\endgroup$ – MB123 Mar 2 at 0:46
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    $\begingroup$ If you assume total collapse of government and general chaos the best time would probably be the end of winter/beginning of spring, as this would allow the most time to prepare for the next winter and best conditions for food production $\endgroup$ – MB123 Mar 2 at 0:57
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    $\begingroup$ @Pelinore I think you are grossly underestimating how dependant modern society has become on modern infrastructure and how ill prepared we are to adapt to self sufficiency. $\endgroup$ – Jason Clyde Mar 2 at 13:11
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    $\begingroup$ @JasonClyde "underestimating how dependant modern society has become on modern infrastructure" So we should fear any blackout longer than 48 hours? I don't think so :) the damaged components couldn't just be pulled out & replaced? they could. would they're be some serious grumbling (even some riots & looting)? Oh yes!, is the possibility of some nuclear power station meltdowns when their monitoring & control systems get fried non-trivial? yes, will a lot of frozen food spoil? yes. will any of this cause the end of the world as we know it? No, not really. $\endgroup$ – Pelinore Mar 2 at 17:42
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    $\begingroup$ Answering the question literally, which is "to make sure that the greatest number of people has the greatest chance of living to see next year?" will be to do it at 31 Dec, 23:59:59.999. :) $\endgroup$ – justhalf Mar 3 at 0:40
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Mid Spring

Around late April the last freezes will have passed through the U.S.. It will be possible to remain outdoors with little protection for seven months from this time.

Farmers will have already prepared their fields (which would have required the heavy equipment) and planted the first crops of the year. Setting up manual irrigation will not be an unbearable challenge. Soy is ready for harvest in a month. There will be time for multiple plantings and harvestings of this staple calorie crop in rural areas, and also plenty of time for urban areas to establish farming in any areas suited for it.

There will be plenty of time to build new things. Most sewage systems are based on gravity allowing everything to flow down hill. With a little work, people may be able to get sewage and water working in places where there is easy access to springs, rivers, or mountain runoff.

There's also plenty of time to prepare for a winter without heating. Time to chop wood, knit blankets, buy extra clothes, can food, make candles for the long periods of darkness.

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    $\begingroup$ There's time to make greenhouses, too. If you don't have artificial heating, suddenly greenhouses become much more useful. Note that I'm not saying sun rooms, because a greenhouse is usually insulated against cold, but I've seen quite a few sun rooms that seem to be designed on the concept that it's going to be capturing enough heat to discount the fact it's not insulated well. Buying extra clothes only works if there's time to make them, but there is, in fact, time to make them, too. :) $\endgroup$ – Ed Grimm Mar 2 at 2:04
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    $\begingroup$ I'd say early may, right before finals start for college students :D $\endgroup$ – Majestas 32 Mar 2 at 4:25
  • $\begingroup$ "Around late April the last freezes will have passed through the U.S." Well, most of the U.S. The Northern Plains may be another matter, but they're accustomed to temperatures that most people would consider uninhabitable, anyway. :) $\endgroup$ – reirab Mar 2 at 16:10
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December 31

It can be trivially demonstrated that if the Armageddon happens on December 31 the greatest number of people will have the greatest chance of living to see next year (actually, pretty much all of them will!).

.

PS: In case you also wanted to include people in different timezones all around the world, you may wish to expand that a little up to 23:59 of 30th December.

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September

Summer is a busy time when people are unsettled and often off traveling. Kids may be separated from their parents. A lot of people move in the summer. But once school starts, people are pretty settled in for the year. Even people who aren't in school or parents of children in school (or working in schools) tend to move with that schedule.

In cold weather areas, crops are mostly in by September. In warmer parts of the US, a lot of crops ripen year-round or specifically in the fall months, but food and survival temps aren't as critical in winter.

Because of "back to school" and the end of the travel season, stores are well stocked with goods of all kinds.

Summer heat is more or less over (sometimes you get a last hurrah) so super quick food spoilage, issues with sewage, trash, and corpses (the event may not have caused deaths but people die anyway), and the death of fragile people from not having air conditioning are not strong concerns.

It may be cold at night, depending on the location, but it's a few months before the worst of winter and accumulation of snow. This gives people some time to prepare. September is a great time to can food (and there should be enough fuel left to do it) and semi-perishable foods can survive outdoors, at least overnight. It's a good time to cut wood and prep fireplaces (for those lucky enough to have them) for use. Some may be able to buy wood stoves (there are some designed to use existing chimneys) which are far more efficient than fireplaces and allow cooking too. Some families will move in with each other to conserve fuel and other resources.

For local communities that choose to work together under effective leadership, everyone should survive the winter (aside from some with severe medical conditions). If people don't panic and if government stays intact, a lot of places will be able to function.

Small rural towns are the best bet as they're likely to have horses or oxen available, may grow their own food already, have wood for heat, and don't have too many people to fight over resources like generators and fuel for cars and trucks and tractors.

Cities will be in trouble because most food must be trucked in and cities have more complex infrastructure. And potable water...big problem. Their survival will depend on a lot of things but having the event occur at the very end of summer is their best chance.

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  • $\begingroup$ Small towns may be more likely to have the capacity to grow their own food, but most of them don't actually grow their own food. People who live in small towns mostly buy their food from the grocery store, just like virtually everyone else in the USA, the vast majority of which is shipped in from far away. I agree that they'd be the best places for likelihood of survival though. $\endgroup$ – reirab Mar 2 at 16:20
  • $\begingroup$ @reirab Yep, only self-sustaining communities will really survive well. I live in a semi-rural area with a lot of small organic farms. I could imagine my town of 60K+ doing better than most because of the existing farms & the space to spread out and set up gardens (it helps that planting in Sept is a normal thing in my climate & that one of the largest independent heirloom seed companies has a store here). Also 2 large bicycle shops with repair facilities, plus the usual chain store inventory, and a recycled goods area of a nearby dump. As long as the city folks stay away, we have a chance. $\endgroup$ – Cyn says make Monica whole Mar 2 at 16:31
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    $\begingroup$ Yeah, the planing in September thing may work where you are (I'm guessing South Florida or West coast?) but it doesn't work at all in 90+% of the continental U.S. Most small towns don't grow the food they eat as they are, but could relatively quickly adapt to doing so if this scenario happened in mid-to-late spring, though. That would also give plenty of time to get the heat infrastructure back up and working. Summer without air conditioning is unpleasant. Winter without heat is deadly, even in the Southeast. $\endgroup$ – reirab Mar 2 at 16:37
  • $\begingroup$ @reirab Northern California. 1) The question is really too broad because saying "the US" doesn't narrow down the climate & the climate matters tremendously. 2) I was in fact taking into account cold weather climates (I lived in the northeast for years). I still say that having time to prep for winter when there is max food/goods available locally then using winter to make a plan for spring (soil prep & logistics start early & gardens should start seeds indoors, though larger operations may direct seed...others will need seedlings) plus planning strategies. Heat does kill, cold kills more. $\endgroup$ – Cyn says make Monica whole Mar 2 at 16:53
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Christmas (seriously)

NB: there appear to be some MASSIVE misconceptions going around as to what I'm actually saying here, so I'm going to clarify as part of this edit inside the various sections. But first, some theory.

Surviving ANY end of world event, whether it be the end of power generation or the zombie apocalypse comes down to one factor - preparation. If you're not prepared for the end of the world, you're highly unlikely to survive, but the longer you survive, the better your chances of remaining alive. Remember Y2k? We all had our pantries stocked, fuel in the car, just in case. Same deal here.

Also, I'm not suggesting that this is a great time to survive; not at all. Most people are still going to die. What I AM saying is that because people are already planning to have family around them for an extended period, and have stocked up on food, blankets et al accordingly, they have a better chance of survival than they otherwise would, but in many cases this is still not going to be enough. But, on with the answer...

If we narrow it down to North America in particular, there are several advantages to this being your chosen date.

1) Family
Christmas is often seen as a time of family, so small family gatherings are happening all over. This is actually a good thing, because less people are going to be out trying to find loved ones, and those you care about are already grouped together in a small 'clan' that is determined to look after each other.

2) Food
These aforementioned families have already stocked up for the Christmas period and therefore have an advantage in terms of managing food supplies going forward in the initial chaos while they work out what to do next to sustain themselves.

To address comments; I'm not suggesting this is a long term fix, merely that this will give you enough time to plan your next move. The fact that you've planned for a feast means that you can ration it out for a bit and figure out how to get to a ready food supply from there. If you have this, you have a small buffer. If the end of the world occurs without this buffer, then the very next morning you're raiding the local supermarket like everyone else. That lowers your chances of survival, especially if people start bringing guns to this particular party.

3) Cold
Sure, not nice to be out in, but if the power goes out, all that aforementioned food hoarded by the aforementioned families will go off at a slower rate. Still not good if you're in (say) California, but in Illinois or New York, you could almost freeze your food by leaving it outside.

To address comments; I'm not suggesting here that this will freeze food, and in point of fact that would be counter productive. What I'm saying is that if you somehow find a way to get your homes warm, you don't want your food in there because your fridge won't work. Put your food in an eski (or cooler for our US friends), out on the snow, to keep it cold, not frozen. You still want ready access to that food in the short term.

4) Traffic
Because the families are already together, there's little need to travel meaning that the roads are freer for the emergency services, assuming of course they can get their cars and trucks working. That means that as issues arise, the emergency teams can respond more rapidly than they could if everyone was trying to get to family or just plain get out of dodge in a disorderly fashion.

The Caveats
This is still a catastrophic scenario by most standards. Large population centres (cities) consume a lot of food, and produce almost none. Many of the people in these population centres start dying after a few days no matter what you do and civil disturbance will be on an exponential curve when the food starts running out. Add to that the fact that the cold is a two edged sword insofar as our warm-blooded metabolisms mean that we need to eat more during the cold than otherwise, so that food that lasts longer before spoiling gets eaten faster to avoid starvation.

Also, EMPs and other technology neutralising phenomena will make it much harder to coordinate responses and the like, and most of the people who survive from the cities will do so by walking out of them immediately. Some of those families (for the reasons mentioned above) will be less likely to do that at Christmas.

The real winners out of a doomsday scenario at Christmas in North America are going to be the small communities across the food belt of the USA, where they have family around them, a supply of food and the capacity to grow more as they go, not to mention having herds of cows and sheep to survive off while crops regrow.

To address comments; I can't speak for Iowa as I've never been there, but ultimately when we talk about the theory of survival, it comes down to this. In the short term, having family and friends close and ready to work together as a team, as well as reserves of essentials like food and blankets, increases the chances of your survival, but doesn't guarantee it. In the long term, being where you can grow and store food increases your chances of survival, doesn't guarantee it.

Just like being caught outside without heating in the snow belt is going to massively increase the risk of you freezing, being in the Arizona Desert with no air conditioning, food or water is also going to decrease your odds of survival.

Ultimately, you want a place where it can be temperate most of the year and have a steady supply of food, for long term survival. But, you don't need to worry about long term survival if you can't survive in the short term. So, being prepared by having your family close and a stock of food is your best bet. That sounds like Christmas, to me at least.

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    $\begingroup$ How do you heat buildings to prevent people from freezing to death? $\endgroup$ – Revetahw says Reinstate Monica Mar 2 at 9:53
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    $\begingroup$ Non-snowbelter detected. No, you cannot freeze food by keeping it outside. However, winter kills. Iowa imports 90% of its food. It is not like you can sit on a farm and be stocked with edible food, farms do not work that way (unless they're Polyface Farm.) Where will next year's seed come from? See, farms do not work like you think. Don't take my word on it, go down to the local elevator and buy a 5 pound bag of whatever they're loading onto the railcars. Try eating it. $\endgroup$ – Harper - Reinstate Monica Mar 2 at 13:47
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    $\begingroup$ @Revetahw probably most homes with central heating are heated with oil or natural gas. But.... Most have electric starters instead of easy-to-blow-out/hard-to-light pilot lights. If my power goes out, I don't have heat (even though it's gas) or water either (electric well pump). $\endgroup$ – Cyn says make Monica whole Mar 2 at 15:29
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    $\begingroup$ -1 for freezing to death and inability to grow food during the winter in the vast majority of the U.S. Living in the 'food belt' doesn't help you to grow crops when the ground is frozen. $\endgroup$ – reirab Mar 2 at 16:17
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    $\begingroup$ I spent Y2K in a server room, because the zombies couldn't get in... $\endgroup$ – Harper - Reinstate Monica Mar 3 at 13:00
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You can write off 999 people out of every 1000 no matter what time of year it is. Any disruption to the food supply will doom the people whose every bite of food up until this point was bought in a store or restaurant. There will be immediate looting of every place near a city where food is stored or sold, and only a fool will try to re-stock them. Our major cities will dissolve into gang warfare over the dwindling supplies of food (and over racial/ethnic/religious hostilities where those were already present). Some of these gangs will spread out along the roadways leading from these cities, so the turmoil will eventually reach smaller cities as well.

The survivors will be those people who move as quickly away from civilization as possible. Of these, only those who can live off of the land, or learn to do so right {filtered} now, will be alive six months later.

The best time of year is whenever the people who flee the cities, but who cannot live off of the land, die quickly enough that they don't interfere with the people who can live off of the land. My apologies if that's a wee bit grim.


Addendum

For a picture of what it will be like, read any historical account of a siege, paying particular attention to what happens when the food runs out.

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  • $\begingroup$ The gang warfare won't be a problem for long. They'll die pretty quickly along with most of the rest of the inhabitants of large cities who don't leave immediately for the country. The gangs may be used to getting their way by force in the city, but they'd quickly find out that that ends very badly for them when the start trying to take over food supplies in rural areas. Rifles don't need electricity and aren't affected by EMPs. :) That crazy gun-hoarder guy is your new best friend. $\endgroup$ – reirab Mar 2 at 16:26
  • $\begingroup$ The gangs will remain a big problem. Rifles will fare badly against the stuff they liberate from military storage. EMP is actually about the worst scenario because it leaves so many survivors to battle over the resources. $\endgroup$ – Loren Pechtel Mar 2 at 16:38
  • $\begingroup$ @LorenPechtel The people guarding the military storage have rifles, too. I expect the gangs would fare very badly against most military bases (and against all of the people in the towns around the bases, who will probably be fighting alongside the military.) Also, most of the military's weapons that are more effective than rifles will have been destroyed by the EMP (though, if they're able to maintain some cohesion, they can probably get much of it repaired in relatively short order... the military has lots of engineers and technicians. Gangs don't.) Lack of fuel will be the largest problem. $\endgroup$ – reirab Mar 2 at 16:41
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    $\begingroup$ @reirab And the guards are just as hungry as everyone else. Some will join the looters. $\endgroup$ – Loren Pechtel Mar 2 at 16:43
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    $\begingroup$ @reirab It will be a fight for the food that exists. $\endgroup$ – Loren Pechtel Mar 2 at 18:28

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