When maps go bad

Both the New York Times and Britain’s Daily Mail newspapers, amongst others,  have run with a story about the radioactive plume that is set to hit the West coast of the US on Friday, March 18th.

New York Times Radioactive Plume

New York Times March 16th

What the Mail reports as a ‘chilling forecast’ shows how prevailing winds are carrying what begins as red ‘radioactivity‘ across the Pacific on the jetstream and is still yellow ‘radioactivity’ when it hits the US. Meanwhile the Times shows the plume with ‘arbitrary units of relative radioactivity levels’ color coded, beginning pink at the highest levels in Japan, arriving at US coastline a kind of pinky purple – the lowest levels shown.

Despite mentioning in both articles that the risks are expected to be extremely low, both are written with a menacing undertone. Official statements are broken into soundbytes, almost suggesting that they are perhaps unreliable. The Mail makes a tenuous link between the US contamination and the decision to withdraw US citizens from Tokyo, while neither paper mentions several key facts including the relatively low odds that the plume can get high enough to join the jetstream, given that the radioactivity is currently dispersing in a lazy plume and not the type of cloud associated with, say, a nuclear bomb.

The origin of these maps appears to lie in something created within the United Nations by the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization in Vienna, designed to determine which of its worldwide monitoring stations would be most appropriate to use to identify dispersal patterns. This map, which was not released to the public but leaked by a UN source,  contained no suggested levels or impact.

Daily Mail March 17th

Daily Mail March 17th

Credit for the worst of examples has to be given to a map circulating under the badge of ‘Australian Radioactive Services’ which shows the same plume with suggested radiation levels. Provocatively titled ‘Nuclear Fallout Map” It shows a deadly 750 rad cloud engulfing the US as far east as Colorado within 10 days. In some cases this is circulating via email with some great accompanying copy – “500-750 Rads – Nausea within a few hours – NO survivors”. ARS has included a statement on its home page denying any knowledge of this map, but Google ‘750 Rads’ or Nuclear Fallout and you are sure to see a variety of articles referring to this sick, irresponsible piece of graphic art. Fema, The California Emergency Management Agency and the United Nations have all issued statements discrediting the map Thursday morning, suggesting that it is more inkeeping with what might be expected from a nuclear attack.


Panic! Fake Fallout Map

The misinformation combined with underlying suspicion of all things radioactive is apparently enough to have triggered some panic buying on the West coast, including big runs on Iodine tablets, used for protection in the event of exposure to radioactive iodine. But for now, it would appear the most immediate concern for US safety should be the effect on the immediate environment around Japan, including the food chain that will be seriously affected by the catastrophe, and poses much more of a threat than any imaginary yellow, red or pink cloud of ‘death particles’ said to be swarming towards us.


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