Data visualisation artist Neil Halloran has a knack for turning incomprehensibly large and complex data sets into content that's both coherent and engrossing. In his latest project, the filmmaker uses his skills to convey the unthinkable: The total number of deaths caused by an all-out nuclear war.
A couple of years ago, Halloran used animated data visualisations to illustrate how many soldiers and civilians were killed during the Second World War, but he's now turned his attention to something that's potentially far worse — the next world war.
In his new 15-minute video, The Shadow Peace, Halloran uses inverted population pyramids to show how global population figures and death rates are tracked over long timescales, and how these pyramids sometimes "spike" during calamitous events, such as WWII. But when projecting the effects of global nuclear war, the size of these spikes enter into the absurd.
The video starts off with a quick demography lesson, reminding us how many people have come and gone in human history, and how many of us are living today. Halloran goes on to predict WWIII casualties by extrapolating the effects of atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, by factoring the destructive potential and scale of the warheads that can be used today, and by considering the cities that are likely to be targeted during a mass nuclear exchange (one of the more chilling parts of the video). His figures account for the first three weeks following a global nuclear war, after which time Halloran admits it's practically impossible to know the death toll, given the onset of a nuclear winter. The final part of the video involves a discussion of nuclear proliferation, disarmament efforts, and the efficacy of peacekeeping initiatives.
Halloran says he can't offer easy answers for how we can best confront the challenges of nuclear weapons, particularly in the case of North Korea, but he believes his latest video is a good way to illustrate the insanity of using nukes.
"I can promote that we have these difficult discussions on top of the correct facts and figures — many of which I didn't personally grasp until I started working on this film," he told Gizmodo. "In my work, I try to find ways to make statistical information less boring and intimidating. I believe it's often appropriate to express numbers with emotion and cinematic drama, particularly when there is a humanitarian component. I'm hoping that new forms of data-driven storytelling can help us as an informed democracy close the troubling gap between expert and public opinion."
Hopefully, the current tensions between the United States and North Korea will begin to settle, but until that happens, we all have a right to be worried about our civilisation's future.