I'm attempting to flesh out the history to a sci-fi novel I'm currently writing, which is set in the future.

  • Several hundred years prior to the beginning of the story, lack of resources lead to several protracted world wars that eventually culminate in a nuclear holocaust and, potentially, chemical/biological warfare.
  • The majority of the planet’s population is killed in the wars and the subsequent fallout/environmental crises that ensue.
  • A pocket of humanity remains in an isolated area of land, separated from the rest by sea on most sides, and a border made up of radioactive wasteland caused by the destruction and meltdowns of a chain of advanced nuclear power stations, which they cannot cross.
  • They have become equally, if not more, advanced than they had been pre-war, and have begun space exploration.

The rest of the planet is somehow also still uninhabitable several hundred years post-nuclear holocaust, however I need a good enough reason for why this might be the case.

I can't figure out a reason (scientifically accurate) good enough for why this particular pocket of humanity wouldn't have just gone around the radiation via sea/air and inhabited the rest of the planet by the start of the novel. However, I desperately need them not to be able to, for several hundred years at least.

A large-scale "radiation wasteland" at this point, several hundred years post-war, isn't realistic - if humans were die, then so would the flaura and fauna and, I assume, the whole eco-system would collapse and therefore humanity would go extinct. Also, from my research, it seems that the Ozone layer would take too much damage (in a situation where that could happen) and that would also kill everyone/thing off.

My question is this - is there any potential subsequent result or side effect of a large-scale war that could cause large areas of the planet to become uninhabitable for humans, but keep the eco-systems and ozone layer intact enough for humans to still thrive without untoward difficulty in some other area of that same planet?

Will I have to bring out the bio/chem weapons in to play?

Thanks in advance!

  • $\begingroup$ @user535733 Yes, that's my issue. The point is that I need an event or a cause that would render the rest of the planet, /other/ than the small area where they've taken refuge, to be uninhabitable. I didn't go into much detail in terms of the premise of the books, as it was irrelevant. The goals aren't limited and some did escape, may I add. But that aspect isn't important to my question. $\endgroup$ Jan 8, 2020 at 19:41
  • $\begingroup$ If there's a land border (i.e., southern tip of Florida), they would have spread across it after decades, not "hundreds" of years. Even with salted bombs, ("cobalt enhanced warheads") the risk quickly goes from acute radiation poisoning to chronic radiation related diseases over the course of a few years. I'd suggest an actual island rather than an isthmus, and they need to (re-)learn open ocean navigation like the Pacific Islanders. $\endgroup$
    – Ghedipunk
    Jan 8, 2020 at 19:44
  • $\begingroup$ Does this take place on Earth or a fantasy world? It helps to know the generals of which powers were the major forces in a Nuclear War (it really doesn't matter who shot who first... once you fire all the nukes, everybody loses). $\endgroup$
    – hszmv
    Jan 8, 2020 at 19:49
  • $\begingroup$ @Ghedipunk The radioactive wasteland is rather important to the plotline at the moment, but I do like your idea. However, the "small" pocket of civilisation is relative. The land mass is substantial enough that they can keep enough of a distance from it to remain safe for long enough. $\endgroup$ Jan 8, 2020 at 19:53
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ The flora and fauna around Chernobyl seem to be recovering ok. The OP's question does sound a bit more extreme than that. $\endgroup$
    – CrossRoads
    Jan 8, 2020 at 20:23

5 Answers 5


The rest of the world is believed to be radioactive wasteland (but not necessary is)

Civilization pocket is bordering the area which was hit hard by "dirty bombs" (or "salted bomb"), containing isotopes lasting a few hundred years. The people living in the pocket have the evidence that crossing this area means death, and they believe that entire Earth is similarly dead.

In reality, most of the Earth was not affected to the same degree. The humanity might have been wiped out everywhere else, or pushed way back in terms of technology, but ecologically, the Earth has mostly recovered. If the people are brave enough to venture outside the radioactive area, they would be surprised to find that biosphere is thriving. However, old fears and established norms keep the humanity within this isolated pocket.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ "Dirty bombs" in the context of nuclear warfare are bombs that did not detonate from nuclear forces, perhaps reaching a near-critical state, but never becoming prompt-critical. They high explosives will spread uranium over a wide area, creating an inhalation hazard as uranium releases alpha particles. You probably mean a salted bomb, which is designed to spread as much radioactive fallout as possible after a successful nuclear (rather than chemical) detonation. $\endgroup$
    – Ghedipunk
    Jan 8, 2020 at 20:31
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Also, salted bombs make a region uninhabitable for years or decades, but not centuries. The worst case salted bomb, generating Cobalt-60, has a half life of 5.25 years, which means people can start planting crops again in 50 years. The other types of salted bombs generate isotopes with half lives measured in tens or hundreds of day, or even merely hours. $\endgroup$
    – Ghedipunk
    Jan 8, 2020 at 20:35
  • $\begingroup$ One more quick note: The inhalation hazard from the dirty bombs will last for a few days, depending on the weather. $\endgroup$
    – Ghedipunk
    Jan 8, 2020 at 20:43
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    $\begingroup$ @Ghedipunk I am sure we can work out the details to fit the plot. There are many options between CS137 (half life 30 years), AM241 (432y) and RA226 (1600y). My idea is that it is possible to build a few devices loaded with isotopes like that, but it would be impossible to irradiate the entire planet with them. $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Jan 8, 2020 at 21:00
  • $\begingroup$ @alexander this is pretty useful! Unfortunately, the civilisation that survived has managed to eke out a living and have resumed the technological advances they’d had pre-war, and have just begun space exploration. I’m gonna say they’d be able to see the world being relatively habitable from space. I should have mentioned it in the question, to be fair! I agree, I don’t think total irradiation would be plausible for this long. $\endgroup$ Jan 8, 2020 at 22:14

Nuclear winter. Snowball earth.

Nuclear winter is a scenario envisioned after explosions loft loads of soot into the atmosphere. The earth cools dramatically because of decreased incident sunlight.

You could take this to the extreme. The snowball earth hypothesis holds that at one point in the earths history, glaciers covered enough area that a feedforward loop ensured - glaciers reflected light, and cooled the earth, which made more glaciers.

In the 1960s, Mikhail Budyko, a Russian climatologist, developed a simple energy-balance climate model to investigate the effect of ice cover on global climate. Using this model, Budyko found that if ice sheets advanced far enough out of the polar regions, a feedback loop ensued where the increased reflectiveness (albedo) of the ice led to further cooling and the formation of more ice, until the entire Earth was covered in ice and stabilized in a new ice-covered equilibrium.[8]

Nuclear winter cooled things enough that the glaciers showed up, and they took it from there. Your survivors are near or on the equator, and it is chilly but habitable. Further north and south it is an ice wasteland.

Singapore might be a good site - on an island, near the equator, and a wealthy hi-tech place that might have once had fancy nuclear reactors nearby. Remember sea level will be lower with the glaciers, so they might have more land nearby available to them.


One way to create a nuclear wasteland for an extended period of time could be to continue to detonate nuclear weapons on it.

A possible scenario would require a bit of alternate history: The US was able to get the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI/Star Wars) going, which was believed to be able to prevent any first strike or retaliatory strike from working. Without Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), the likelihood of nuclear weapons being used in war increased, because the US perceived themselves safe from any escalation of conflict.

In response, the U.S.S.R. developed Casaba Howitzers (nuclear shaped charges), which they deployed in vast arrays of satellite constellations, and programmed an especially cruel doomsday response: Instead of firing the entire arsenal at targets at the soonest time after being activated, they had each weapon fire on a staggered monthly schedule, cooking a 50-square mile circle of land with nuclear plasma and a very large dose of prompt and thermal neutrons which may turn stable isotopes into an unstable isotope.

Since the U.S.S.R. knew that conventional nuclear weapons fired from ICBMs, dropped by bombers, or fired from subs would be unlikely to hit their targets with SDI in place, they converted their entire nuclear arsenal to orbital Casaba Howitzers, which was enough to blanket the whole of the land masses of Earth for several hundred years in random hellfire. The initial targets would be of strategic consequence, but knowing that once the doomsday conditions were met, there were unlikely to be continued telemetry updates, no way to reassign targets, and everyone would quickly learn what the priority targets were, the targeting system for later attacks were programmed to just make sure there was land below the satellite.

If the orbital periods were at regular intervals, there may be areas which might not be hit directly very frequently, and other areas that would be hit very frequently -- and these areas might be quite close together, allowing civilizations to exist next to wastelands. Due to the targeting parameters, which just check if there's land when at the correct period of its orbit, the South Pole, land bridges, any narrow isthmus, and islands would be less likely to be hit.

Unfortunately, this requires either another very long, very warm Cold War, or an alternate history where the MAD doctrine was broken enough for a superpower to put nukes into space as a last resort to restore MAD.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ That’s a very clever idea! However, wouldn’t the aforementioned ozone layer issue still apply if this was to occur? Also there’s the problem that every resource, including nuclear weapons, would have to be finite. I imagine there would have to be a lot of nukes to last several hundred years. You can see now why I’ve been having issues! $\endgroup$ Jan 9, 2020 at 21:23

While radioactive materials are deadly for humans or any other single species, it is not that deadly for the whole eco-system. More over - it even can be beneficial: it boosts mutation and evolution by many orders and creates an "evolution explosion". Many species would die, many more appere.

It means that any global "dirty" radioactive catastrophe would create exactly that effect. Bio-sphere would thrive, while humanity would fight for surviving in low-radiation enclaves away from atmospheric and ocean currents (Andes Mountains?)

For such a catastrophe I can suggest simultaneous nuclear bombardment of all nuclear power plants by, say, some eco-fanatics (with "camp-bag bombs"?). I actually doubt that that would be enough, but it is a good start.

  • $\begingroup$ That was my original thought, strangely enough, however I read somewhere that that level of damage in a war of even a minor scale would cause a release of a large enough amount of nitric oxides that would cause irreparable damage to the ozone layer, and that would, in turn, kill just about everything else. $\endgroup$ Jan 9, 2020 at 13:39
  • $\begingroup$ Radioactive materials aren't even all that deadly for humans, unless you have an awful lot of them. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Jan 9, 2020 at 18:29
  • $\begingroup$ @NickyPritchard, there are (was) areas on Earth, where ozone layer is absent or near absent, but animals and people live there (I was actually born in such an area!). So destruction of ozone would kill a lot of species - mostly those who are "naked": elephants, ostrich, humans, but not the whole bio-sphere. We would just get hairy elephants, or,say, gaint pigs, who whould take their place. Evolution. $\endgroup$
    – ksbes
    Jan 10, 2020 at 6:53

The rest of the world is kept off-limits by the government.

If there was a small pocket of land that survived, there will be people fighting to get control over it. The winner is the one with the biggest gun. They appoint themselves as dictator/emperor/Glorious Leader and build walls to keep people out of the wasteland. Their child becomes the new dictator/emperor/Glorious Leader and keeps the people inside the pocket of land. Since the only way they will be able to remain in power is if everyone stays in the pocket, they spread lies about how dangerous it is out there and how it is only safe inside the pocket. Criminals and people who displease him could even be sent out as "land testers" to see if the rest of the world is safe. Once outside, they are killed, and so when they don't return the population believes they are living in the only habitable land. This also makes people afraid of committing crimes and displeasing the dictator/emperor/Glorious Leader, so they never try to venture out. Basically, you create a world like the one in Maximillian Fly, minus the giant roaches.

If there is space travel, the dictator/emperor/Glorious Leader will control it and only send trusted people who will not tattle on them.

Nobody said a post-apocalyptic book couldn't be dystopian.


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