Nuclear Attack on Hawaii: The 2018 False Alarm

Lauren Murphy
March 12, 2018

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2018


Fig. 1: A Rainbow over the Big Island of Hawaii. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Hawaii is known around the world as a beautiful paradise located in the Pacific Ocean. As seen in Fig. 1, Hawaii's incredible scenery often includes deep blue oceans and colorful rainbows. It is hard to imagine anything horrific occurring in this marvelous state. However, in the beginning of 2018, the Hawaiian Islands faced trouble in paradise. On January 13, a state-wide alarm warning of an incoming nuclear attack sent Hawaii into a frenzy. At 8:10 a.m., this message was delivered to millions of Hawaiian residents and vacationers: [1]


For forty minutes, the people on the Hawaiian Islands anticipated their impending doom. [1] At 8:48 a.m., 38 minutes after the alerts went out, authorities announced to the public that the aforementioned alarm was a terrible mistake. [1] Officials declared that the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency's internal testing system would be suspended until new protocols were placed to prevent a false alarm from happening again. [1]

North Korea's Nuclear Threats

Hawaii had already been on high alert before the false alarm in January 2018. [2] Monthly air-raid drills with sirens began in December 2017 after President Trump and North Korea leader Kim Jong-un began threatening nuclear attacks. [2] In September 2017, North Korea successfully carried out its sixth and most powerful nuclear test to date. [3] It is thought to have been around a 120 kiloton explosion, or 5.02 × 1014 J. It is estimated that it would take a little more than a half hour for a missile launched from North Korea to reach Hawaii, traveling over a distance of 9,173 km. [2] This would give Hawaiian residents as little as 12 minutes to find shelter once an alert was issued. [2]

Public Response

In the aftermath of the initial warning, residents and visitors of Hawaii were incredibly distraught. Videos have emerged of adults removing manhole covers and lowering their children into sewers to attempt to protect their children from the missile. [1] Many people were in tears and expressing love to their friends and families. [1] The 911 system was completely swamped, leaving anxious callers even more terrified from a lack of response from the system. [1]

How Did This Happen?

According to the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, the false alarm occurred when an employee accidentally hit the wrong button during routine tests. [1] The emergency system asked whether a staffer wished to send an actual alert out to the public, at which point the employee made the mistake of clicking yes. [1] The name of the employee has not been released. [1] The worker who caused the great mistake did not realize his error until he received an alert on his own cell phone. [1] From now on, two employees will be required to send out an alarm: one to request the alert and another to verify and send it. [1]

© Lauren Murphy. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] S. Kohli, M. A. W. Ottey, and H. Chang, "For Nearly 40 Minutes, Hawaii Thought the End Was Near. Why Did it Take so Long to Learn Missile Alert was a Mistake?," Los Angeles Times, 13 Jan 18.

[2] A. Nagourney, D. Sanger, and J. Barr, "Hawaii Panics After Alert About Incoming Missile is Sent in Error," New York Times, 13 Jan 18.

[3] C. Campbell, "North Korea Says Its Sixth Nuclear Test Was a Missile-Ready Hydrogen Bomb," Time, 3 Sep 17.