Geography Geographies of Nuclear War
Becky Alexis-Martin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 June 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 June 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0265


Nuclear warfare is a global issue that presents a unique set of geographies. The detonation of the first nuclear weapon on 16 July 1945 irrevocably changed the physical and cultural landscape. While the mushroom clouds produced by nuclear weapons are ephemeral, their fallout generates an (in)visible yet lingering signature of technoscientific progress, destruction, and power that persists into deep time. It is for this reason that fallout is included within the proxies used to describe the Anthropocene. The impacts of nuclear weapons stretch across place, space, and time. Almost limitless distance and speed make nuclear warfare a phenomenon of velocity and blurred boundaries. It is everywhere and nowhere, it transcends war and peace, it merges war zone and homeland, and melds the actual and the possibilities of the virtual. These blurry distinctions are made visible by the ways that geopolitics and boundaries affect the likelihood and actualization of nuclear war. They are characteristics that facilitated a Cold War that persisted until 1991—and that continue to produce and reproduce nuclear threats today. China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States are recognized nuclear weapon possessors by the UN Non-Proliferation Treaty. However, Pakistan, India, Israel, and North Korea also have nuclear weapons. Nuclear warfare is embedded within a globalized military-industrial complex of extraction, processing, and manufacture. Its geographies manifest within places that have been left unmapped, or that become remapped and remade. This has created spaces of peace—but also of oppression, colonization, and harm. The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park has been remapped from radioactive ruins to memorialize the devastating atomic bombing. Conversely, the necropolitical unmapping of nuclear testing and manufacture sites constitutes a component of institutional and cultural amnesia, whereby nuclear harms are denied. Thus, nuclear legacies remain uncharted terrain due to either ignorance or intention. Every species on this planet is affected by nuclear weapons due to their lethal potentiality for mutually assured destruction. Nuclear weapons are bounded and described by landscapes, geotechnologies, zones, bodies, and communities. Specific communities affected by nuclear warfare include nuclear sector workers, military personnel, and those within the hinterlands of sites of nuclear weapon activity. Conversely, nuclear-weapon-free zones have been instigated to reduce nuclear harms, and anti-nuclear activists have resisted nuclear weapons since their development.

General Overviews

The geographies of nuclear warfare have been repeatedly redefined and remapped since the end of the Cold War. More inclusive multiauthor definitions have become more commonplace. Alexis‐Martin and Davies 2017 explores nuclear geographies and nuclear issues from zones, bodies, and communities, and this work was expanded by a work on the future geographies of nuclear warfare in Alexis-Martin 2019, nuclear warfare and weather (im)mobilities in Alexis-Martin 2021, and nuclear geographies and nuclear issues in Alexis‐Martin, et al. 2017. Kuletz 2001 and Lockard 2000 both contemplate Cold War nuclear cartographies. Though not by geographers, Hecht 2011 and DeLoughrey 2013 both offer exceptional theoretical frameworks across which to consider nuclearity and space. It is not possible to understand the contemporary geographies of this subfield without contemplating the computational studies and radical cultural maps of nuclear attack that were produced by geographers in the 1980s. In this context, the works Bunge 1988 and Openshaw, et al. 1983 stand out. These works now constitute historical geographies but provide important context for the origins of contemporary nuclear geographies and nuclear issues.

  • Alexis-Martin, B. “Geographies of Nuclear Warfare: Future Spaces, Zones and Technologies.” In A Research Agenda for Military Geographies. Edited by Rachael Woodward, 40–46. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2019.

    This review chapter considers the future challenges of nuclear warfare. Topics including spaces of (ir)regularity and terrorism, geotechnologies from cartography to cyber-warfare, materialities and landscapes, and future nuclear warfare are discussed.

  • Alexis-Martin, B. “Nuclear Warfare and Weather (Im)mobilities: From Mushroom Clouds to Fallout.” In Weather: Spaces, Mobilities and Affects. Edited By Kaya Barry, Maria Borovnik, and Tim Edens, 236–249. London: Routledge, 2021.

    This chapter presents the first insight into atmospheric and weather-related geographies of nuclear warfare. It considers the sublime qualities of the first mushroom produced in Alamogordo in 1945, and the way that war-related atmospheric nuclearity is documented, described, and experienced—from “Rapatronic” camera fleets to black mists.

  • Alexis‐Martin, B., and T. Davies. “Towards Nuclear Geography: Zones, Bodies, and Communities.” Geography Compass 11.9 (2017): 1–22.

    DOI: 10.1111/gec3.12325

    This definitive and well-cited paper presented the first definition of nuclear geographies within human geography and remains relevant today. The paper explores all nuclear topics, from medicine to warfare, and presents an original overview of the geographical issues of nuclear war.

  • Alexis‐Martin, B., J. Turnbull, L. Bennett, et al. “Nuclear Geographies and Nuclear Issues.” In International Encyclopedia of Geography: People, the Earth, Environment and Technology. Edited by Douglas Richardson, et al., 1–9. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2017.

    This extended definition provides a comprehensive overview of nuclear warfare geographies. It presents an international multiauthor consensus across the social sciences and humanities. Highlights include the consideration of materialities, culture, politics, activism, and more-than-human nuclear geographies.

  • Bunge, W. Nuclear War Atlas. Oxford: Blackwell, 1988.

    Bill Bunge’s atlas presents a dramatic and pacifist Cold War narrative of nuclear war. His illustrated map uses cartography to present the harms of nuclear warfare in vivid red, black, and white. His atlas describes the aftermath of nuclear war in terms of charred bodies and nuclear zombies, subverting cartography to present a graphic and radical understanding of nuclear war.

  • DeLoughrey, E. M. “The Myth of Isolates: Ecosystem Ecologies in the Nuclear Pacific.” Cultural Geographies 20.2 (2013): 167–184.

    DOI: 10.1177/1474474012463664

    DeLoughrey explores how Pacific Island environments became militarized laboratories during the Cold War. Her work introduces the notion of the “myth of isolation,” whereby nuclear places were characterized as pristine and remote environments for scientific, industrial, and military work.

  • Hecht, G. “On the Fallacies of Cold War Nostalgia: Capitalism, Colonialism, and South African Nuclear Geographies.” In Entangled Geographies: Empire and Technopolitics in the Global Cold War. Edited by G. Hecht, 75–100. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.7551/mitpress/9780262515788.003.0004

    Hecht has an extraordinary pedigree of writing on nuclear issues in the context of science and technology studies. This chapter explores the Cold War techno-politics that emerged during the US and UK’s arms race. It provides useful insights into the global networks that emerged during this time, which encompassed India and South Africa.

  • Kuletz, V. “Invisible Spaces, Violent Places: Cold War Nuclear and Militarized Landscapes.” In Violent Environments. Edited by Nancy Peluso and Michael Watts, 237–260. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001.

    An early study of nuclear geographies. The consequences of nuclear violence in the context of place are elegantly described by Kuletz in this chapter. They draw upon a global legacy of nuclear weapon testing to explore and describe the spatialities of nuclear warfare.

  • Lockard, J. “Desert(ed) Geographies: Cartographies of Nuclear Testing.” Landscape Review 6.1 (2000): 3–20.

    Lockard’s work provides one of the earliest geographies of nuclear weapons testing and is an essential citation for those considering a geography of disarmament or nuclear harms. This paper explores why nuclear weapons were tested across less-populated or known state colonies, and provides some insights into the harms that these tests produced.

  • Openshaw, S., P. Steadman, and O. Greene. Doomsday: Britain after Nuclear Attack. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1983.

    This fascinating book situates the United Kingdom geographically within the context of Cold War nuclear geopolitics. Starting with “mutually assured destruction,” this work provides an interesting overview of British geographical thinking during the Cold War. This book provides a novel understanding of the consequences of nuclear war through qualitative, quantitative, and early computational modeling techniques. The rationale for this work may be of interest to cultural and historical geographers too.

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