Can Cockroaches Survive Nuclear Apocalypse?
Cockroaches are renown for how hard they are to kill; they’ve even been rumored to be tough enough to survive nuclear Armageddon. But is their resilience exaggerated?
Resistance To Physical Trauma
Modern day atomic bombs release the equivalent energy of 15 megatons of TNT. That explosion force can be represented as approximately 63,000 petajoules (“peta” meaning add 15 more zeroes) of force.
A cockroach’s exoskeleton can withstand significant force, making them hard to squish. Their exterior frame is made from a series of overlapping plates connected via a stretchy membrane. As they are pressed, they can also distribute weight to each of their six legs to lessen the impact.
A study published by the National Academy of Sciences found that cockroaches were able to withstand forces of up to 900 times their body weight, meaning about two pounds. Two pounds is pretty impressive for an organism that has the same weight as a paperclip. To put that in perspective, these sugar loving critters are strong enough to survive the entire weight of a box of one dozen donuts crushing down on them.
Unfortunately, however, two pounds only equals about 0.02 joules of force resistance for the average cockroach. This number pales in comparison to the nuke’s 63,000 petajoules in a head to head confrontation. While the bug loses in a direct match-off, they do earn points for their heightened ability to survive crumbling buildings in the wake of a nuclear detonation, provided they are far enough away from the explosion and have barriers lessening the impact.
It’s probably pretty obvious that people don’t mean a roach can withstand the blast from a nuclear device when they say they “can survive a nuclear winter,” but what makes them think the cockroach survives the deadly radiation fallout any better?
Compared to a human, who can withstand about 1,000 rads of radiation, a cockroach can withstand between 5,000-10,000 rads, depending on the variety.
When a nuclear device detonates, it releases nuclear isotopes that are propelled high into the air by the explosion itself. As these particles fall, become carried by the wind, and even contaminate clouds carrying rainwater, poisonous fallout spreads.
Based on mortality rates and estimates by Army physicists, any people within two kilometers of the initial blast site at Hiroshima were exposed to lethal amounts of radiation in the first 48 hours, and were at risk onward depending on how much time they spent in contaminated areas, so it is possible that some roaches would survive the radiation, but many would die.
Modern day nuclear ordnances, however, are much stronger, and often more radioactive, making it unlikely that cockroaches would be able to survive the radiation in any significant way.
What Can Survive Fallout?
There are other insects that were known to have easily withstood the Hiroshima fallout, including the Braconidae wasp, which can withstand 180,000 rads without any damage to their reproductive abilities. Water bears and certain types of bacteria can withstand up to 3,000,000 rads.