Nuclear War has just destroyed much. You’re a human living far out in a rural community in the US, or Russia or wherever. You’ve managed to avoid the direct destruction caused by the bombs going off. But you’re just an average citizen. You don’t have a bunker stocked with supplies or equipped with a hydroponic garden. My question is, how do you survive the Nuclear Winter that will soon come?

-The Nuclear Winter will lasts from 5-10 years.

Addressing the requests for extra details raised in the comments, here are more specifics:

  • For simplicity sake, I’m referring to people living in the United States. Anyone in the Midwest.

  • The Temperature went down 1.5 degrees

  • All these towns have populations numbering in the low hundreds, maybe 50-400 people at most in any given town.

  • Something I forgot to say: These people cannot go to the Southern Hemisphere at all. All solutions must occur in the Northern Hemisphere, as in my story these people are going to be the ones to recolonize the continental US.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ In this rural community, what is the rate of survivors to remaining resources? $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Mar 27, 2020 at 21:36
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    $\begingroup$ Not all nuclear winters are created equal. Where are you relative to the equator? How significant is the occlusion of the sun? If you don't want to work out those details, a simpler one: is there still a growing season where your character is? $\endgroup$
    – jdunlop
    Mar 27, 2020 at 22:46
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    $\begingroup$ Also worth asking - why is water a concern? How extensive is the fallout? What weapons were used? If just cities were hit and they were largely thermonuclear strikes, water out in the country shouldn't be significantly contaminated. Lots of additional details necessary to determine what kind of survival is required. $\endgroup$
    – jdunlop
    Mar 27, 2020 at 23:59
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    $\begingroup$ Not enough detail given for anyone to answer this : 1. how much does global average temp fall (if it lasts 5 years (which wouldn't return to fully normal for 25 years) as in this scenario it's going to be by around 1.5 degrees C), 2. where are they / how far from the equator, 3. WHAT is the current temperature where they are, 4. what is the population density where they are, etc. $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Mar 28, 2020 at 0:04
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    $\begingroup$ Interestingly when I tried to look up effects of nuclear winter it seems that nuclear winter is extremely unlikely. The direct effects from explosions are too small and temporary while the indirect effects from the firestorms also seems to be more localized and temporary than was assumed. Learned something new today. Thanks. $\endgroup$ Mar 28, 2020 at 4:26

7 Answers 7


We begin this with a minor Frame Challenge

The Temperature went down 1.5 degrees


All these towns have populations numbering in the low hundreds, maybe 50-400 people at most in any given town.

This implies a much smaller nuclear war than a full fledged slugfest between a couple of superpowers. When nukes detonate near the ground, they release a LOT more carbon ash than the upper atmosphere airbursts and under water tests that mostly made up last century's nuclear arms tests. According to this National Geographic article, that amount of cooling could happen with at little as 100 15-kiloton warheads.

To see this little climate change, and that much depopulation, you need to make your victim to be nation of a very specific size. A 15kt nuke will only kill most people in an area of about 4km^2 from the blast, but it create enough fallout to fatally poison most people in a 700km^2 area downwind within the next few days to weeks.

This means you need to pick a country that is just on the edge of this threshold: enough to have a few survivable zones, but no where that most people won't die anyway (60,000-80,000 square kilometers depending on wind conditions). According to https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/population-by-country/ there are 8 countries that fit this profile: Latvia, Lithuania, Sri Lanka, Ireland, Georgia, Sierra Leone, Panaman, and the Czech Republic.

Some of these nations though have such high population densities though that it would be very hard to create such low survival rates without everyone getting deathly ill and disfigured first; so, that should probably rule out Sri Lanka, Czech Republic, and Sierra Leone.

Something I forgot to say: These people cannot go to the Southern Hemisphere at all. All solutions must occur in the Northern Hemisphere, as in my story these people are going to be the ones to recolonize the continental US.

A smaller "Regional nuclear war" kinda violates these conditions, because your first world nations would be well enough intact that any survivors would just be evacuated by humanitarian efforts.

To resolve these issues in a way that works for your story, I'd suggest switching to a much deeper nuclear winter caused by a war between superpowers.

The most devastation you'll probably see in a nuclear war between two countries would probably be if the US and Russia decided to trade blows. According to official counts, the US has 405 ICBMs and Russia has 286. Each nation is also estimated to have between 300-1300 additional shorter ranged ready-to-deploy nukes. Both nations have much larger stockpiles of nukes, but most are stored in a disassembled state or designated as alternate warheads for the same missile system; so, they will mostly not be deployed in all likelihood. Modern deployable nukes average 150 kilotons, but are mostly H-bombs, not A-bombs; so, while they are more destructive, they produce way less radioactive fallout than a same yield H-bomb. The Hiroshima 15kt bombs I referenced before used 64kg or Uranium, but an H-bomb only requires ~10kg to trigger a fussions reaction; so, while the average blast of these weapons will be 12km^2 the lethal fallout zone should only be just about 110km^2. This means that if the geographically smaller United states were hit with the maximum estimated payload of Russia's ready to deploy arsonal, you'd be looking at direct hits not targeting any towns smaller than ~5-20 thousand, and fatal radiation covering about 1.7% of the nation's landmass

It is really hard to say how much cooling this would cause, because of the number of variables at play, but a 7−8°C drop seems to be the leading theory.

Initial survival rates from the radiation and blasts will leave most towns in the 5000 and smaller population range intact, but the winter would be intense enough to cause total crop failures resulting in massive depopulation of rural areas. Only people with 1+years of stored food with the ability to switch to crops meant for much colder regions would survive. 90% starvation by crop failure and fighting over remaining resources might bring your down to your target populations.

Life after Armageddon

The Nuclear Winter

Don't just think about how one will survive, but who will be left to try to survive. In a nuclear war, you make urban centers your primary targets. This means city dwellers will be eliminated from the population instantly, and suburbanites will be irradiated and burned so badly that they will pretty much all be dead shortly there after.

Those who survive will mostly be your rural populations. Most farms produce and store way more food than they consume; so, while the nuclear winter would kill off local crops, many of these communities will have massive silos with years worth of food in them. The first year will be the end of most plants and wildlife. But, farmers could adapt by planting northern crops like potatoes farther south and achieve long term sustainability.

After a few decades though, the nuclear summer will come which will cause a massive spike in global temperatures due to holes in the ozone layer. With all of our industries that actively destroy the Ozone now in ruins, maybe that part will mostly balance itself out, but if not, even more famines happen as global warming spikes up to several degrees above current levels and farmers again have to adapt new crops year over year.

Fallout and UV Radiation

Fallout will not be at fatal levels throughout most of rural america, but it will still make people sick. Farmers know more than the average person about what kinds of plants can be used to detox your body; so, rather than relying on pharmaceuticals to treat heavy metal poisoning, they may just become reliant on eating things like milk thistle seeds, dandelion root, and barley to help thier bodies purge naturally of the fallout. Thistle and dandelions are both common weeds and pretty resilient to weather change; so, many farmers will still have access to it whether it is thier intended crop or not.

IMO, UV radiation from holes in the atmosphere will be your biggest problem, but UV radiation has very little penetrating power, it can be be stopped by most standard housing materials (including window glass), and just wearing full coverage clothes blocks out most of it. If farmers adopt something similar to Chinese beach suits as the standard work attire, they will endure the UV radiation just fine.

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With only 1.5C decrease in the current temperature averages, food is a non-issue for maintaining a (reduced) level of population by subsistence farming. After all, they've done it in Siberia for centuries and most of the soil there is acidic. They can even grow wheat there - from what else do you think they distill their beloved vodka?

Here's a link on how a traditional Siberian village (and crops/herds) look like. Try to get others and you can form a good idea for yourself.

On an 4mo2w of growing season = 140 days (reduced from 180 days), one can fit a good number of staples:

Potatoes - harvest time in 12-20 weeks from seeding. Can be grown indoors.

Sweet corn - harvest time in 60-100days = 9-14 weeks

Beans - harvest time green/snap beans - 50 to 60 days = 7-9 weeks, dry beans - 70 to 120 days = 10-18 weeks

Other nasty things will likely create problems:

  • radioactivity contamination
  • ozone layer gone and higher UV intensity
  • roaming bands of "mah guns beat your freedom, so gimme"
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ RE: "roaming bands of..." Since we're talking about the rural Midwest, assume the majority of households have guns. (Not just roving bands from somewhere else.) $\endgroup$
    – Jedediah
    Mar 31, 2020 at 14:46
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    $\begingroup$ @Jedediah - Armed communities are not the cause of roaming bands of thugs, they are the antidote to them. Disarmed communities are where the armed gangs will be in control. $\endgroup$ Apr 1, 2020 at 11:36
  • $\begingroup$ @WayneConrad That was my point. $\endgroup$
    – Jedediah
    Apr 1, 2020 at 15:35
  • $\begingroup$ @Jedediah Oh, I see I misread your point. Totally my mistake, I'm sorry. $\endgroup$ Apr 1, 2020 at 15:54
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    $\begingroup$ Just a comment regarding Siberia: not only can we grow wheat (and plenty of other vegetables), there are apples, tomatoes, grapes, bananas and plenty of other cultures traditionally cultivated in warmer climates. Those grow in greenhouses, of course, but you would want to grow all the food in greenhouses either way, to limit radioactive contamination (and as a bonus glass protects from UV as well). $\endgroup$
    – Alice
    Apr 2, 2020 at 18:15

Big schools of thought.

  1. You keep technology. Requires a local nuclear power plant and some educated people (who often run the plan).

You can build a hub of civilization... if you're willing to kill enough people, lots of others will want it. Hydroponics for food. Chemical weapons for defense.

  1. You don't keep technology. Hard scramble.

Take over a Walmart Warehouse, you have a crazy amount of food and stuff until it spoils. Hopefully this is up north so there's not many people and it's cold.

  • $\begingroup$ 2nd option isn’t viable. These people cannot go to the Southern Hemisphere at all. All solutions must occur in the Northern Hemisphere, as in my story these people are going to be the ones to recolonize the continental US. $\endgroup$
    – DT Cooper
    Mar 28, 2020 at 1:50
  • $\begingroup$ @DTCooper Fine...Florida then? $\endgroup$ Mar 28, 2020 at 1:53
  • $\begingroup$ Matter: Nope, not Florida. It doesn’t exist in my setting. $\endgroup$
    – DT Cooper
    Mar 28, 2020 at 1:59
  • $\begingroup$ @DTCooper Deleted 2nd idea. $\endgroup$ Mar 28, 2020 at 2:01
  • $\begingroup$ Matter: Unless it’s possible for people to go to Southern Hemisphere then come back to the North after the Nuclear Winter $\endgroup$
    – DT Cooper
    Mar 28, 2020 at 2:02

You may be an average citizen, but you are a farmer and you run a road-side fruit and vegetable stand just down the road from a remote nuclear missile silo. Over the years, you have become friends with most of the military personnel who man the silo, selling them fresh food along with home-brewed beer, mead and moonshine.

A few minutes ago, those young men just helped kill the enemy, then watched as the chain of command above them (in Washington D.C. and Cheyenne Mountain) was incinerated by the enemy's response. Left to their own devices, they are now gearing up to survive the nuclear winter and you, having just brought in a massive harvest, have exactly what they need.

They consider just shooting you and taking your food, but then realize that they could use your help building and running the underground gardens, bee-hives and most important, the moonshine still.

The best way to survive a nuclear holocaust without a bunker is to barter your way into someone else's bunker.


The answer's easy. They'll wander and scavenge for food. Canned goods in abandoned locations, other non-perishable stuff. This will last them weeks or months. Then they'll move on to raiding poorly-protected stores from people who are in bunkers or makeshift shelters. This will again last weeks to months.

Then they move on to cannibalism. Not all will. Some will be above that, and would rather die than become monsters. Those people will die. Others will sort of be ok with it, or at least tell themselves that... and they'd go on to having all sorts of profound PTSD-related mental illnesses. Except they'll die too, and rather early.

Things that won't help anyone:

  • Hunting - Anything larger than the odd rodent will be functionally extinct in about 6 months
  • Farming - With the reduced sunlight and summer season, little would grow or grow well anyway, but without agricultural mechanization yields will fall back to the pre-modern level even without other disadvantages, and any sort of blight will empty seedstock for subsequent years
  • Foreign aid - There's never been a long-term famine that has been solvable through charity, and there will be few places still able to provide for their own needs anyway

Even if some continuity-of-government regime steps in, rationing only gets you so far. It won't last 5 years. But it might mitigate the worst temporarily, say for the first 12 months or so.

  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – Monty Wild
    Apr 7, 2020 at 2:19
  • $\begingroup$ This brings up the question of what would they eat after the apocalypse was finished. Your answer was basically having everyone die at the end anyway though, so it wasn’t helpful at all $\endgroup$
    – DT Cooper
    Jun 7, 2020 at 4:49

They will Migrate. While the entire world will feel the affects, the nuclear winter with reduced temperatures and sun light will mainly affect higher latitudes. The closer you go to the equator the less the affects will be.

While most major cities will have been severely damaged and few of them completely destroyed, the suburbs and most smaller cities and towns will have survived the initial attack.

There will be radiation affects, but they will subside fairly quickly especially if it rains. After all troops were walking around Hiroshima and Nagasaki weeks after the end of world war II and you can tour the trinity site where the first bomb was tested. Yes a few isotopes remain dangerous for many, many years but their numbers are small.

there will initially be many deaths due to the attack itself and due the sudden disruption causing shortages of things like medications.

as long as the remaining population can grow food they will survive

  • $\begingroup$ They can’t migrate. They have to stay in the Northern Hemisphere $\endgroup$
    – DT Cooper
    Apr 13, 2020 at 21:39
  • $\begingroup$ They cannot migrate. That’s the rule $\endgroup$
    – DT Cooper
    Apr 30, 2020 at 19:41

This sounds like Kansas or Nebraska. Several favorable conditions would have to be met for the survival scenario to work. First, treaties have stipulated that nuclear weapons are mostly MRV neutron bombs, allowing more individual bangs and killing with less radiation and a smaller nuclear winter. Cities would be more intact but depopulated (more resources). The scale of the war would need to be distinctly limited (which also suggests neutron bombs). Fears about minimizing consequences of a nuclear war blocked development back in the 70's and 80's. All the EMP may still kill those tractors, so protected stockpiles of starter motors in faraday cages at defence caches would reduce this issue (sure, the Feds are that smart...). Clever mechanics could replace ethanol for gas in essential vehicles but there's oil in Kansas, just not a lot. Basing the story around a Mormon community would help, as they have compulsory rules about storing food supplies for disaster. A handy nuclear power plant like in Lucifer's Hammer would be a big plus (that book has migration, chemical weapons, and cannibalism-great read!) Try the book War Day or The Day After as a good source of material (both are kind of old, and there may be more current reference materials available).


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