Darkness: nuclear winter – fire, ice, famine

Jun 18, 2023
Man in black hood and gas mask on the background of mountains, around smoke, fog and radioactive fallout. Concept of environmental pollution, chemical disaster. Ecological catastrophe.

The Ukraine conflict, and the nuclear threats uttered by Vladimir Putin have made the risk of nuclear war as high as it has ever been. The current position of the Doomsday Clock hands at 90 seconds to ‘midnight’ is the closest ever. Nuclear Winter, together with tech-ending EMP, is one of a number of civilisation- ending things we’ll have to deal with if the hands ever reach midnight.

Let’s look at the year I met my beloved – In 1983, the year Nuclear Winter became an object of discussion, and the world nearly ended twice.

First, on 26 Sept, Colonel Stanislav Petrov, working an unscheduled shift at the Serpukhov-15 nuclear command centre about 70 miles south of Moscow, singlehandedly prevented World War III. If not for his decision-making, the Nuclear Winter simulations I’ve been studying would’ve become reality. In November 1983, The USSR mistook an apocalypse rehearsal by NATO for the real thing.

Smoke, soot, and climate

The TTAPS Nuclear Winter study was published in December 1983. It warned that the smoke from burning cities and forests could create a layer of black carbon soot in the stratosphere, blocking sunlight and drastically reducing ground temperatures, with devastating consequences for life on earth.

The concept of a nuclear winter mistakenly faded from the public consciousness by the 1990s.

In 2007 interest in nuclear winter resurfaced, driven by renewed concerns about nuclear weapons and an improved climate model. Prof. Alan Robock’s study, “Nuclear Winter Revisited with a Modern Climate Model and Current Nuclear Arsenals – Still Catastrophic Consequences,” utilised the latest climate model. Unlike its predecessors, the study ran simulations for decades, incorporating the behaviour of deep oceans.

Robock’s research concluded that even a “limited” nuclear war (India vs Pakistan) could result in a nuclear winter.

The effects of such a catastrophe, it warned, would persist longer than previously thought, extending the global food shortage into decades and leading to widespread starvation.

The 2007 study made several important discoveries. Atmospheric soot, resulting from a nuclear explosion, can linger in the atmosphere for decades. Importantly, Soot could self-loft to much greater heights than previously considered.

Even a nuclear conflict involving hundreds, rather than thousands, of warheads,(e.g. India vs Pakistan) could lead to a nuclear winter capable of triggering global famine resulting in up to 2 billion subsequent fatalities.

Following 2007, researchers focussed on the aftermath of a nuclear conflict between India and Pakistan. This focus had been intensified when, during a 2003 confrontation between India and Pakistan, nuclear weapons were moved to the line of control (over which WW-II was being re-fought with an option to go to WW-III) in Kashmir. The confrontation ultimately de-escalated, but not without a close call, admitted by both countries’ leaders.

In 2008, researchers Brian Toon, Richard Turco, and Alan Robock concluded that even if significant reductions in nuclear arsenals were achieved, the humanitarian and environmental consequences of a nuclear war would still be devastating. The direct effects of using the 2012 arsenals were estimated to cause hundreds of millions of fatalities, while the indirect effects could potentially wipe out the majority of the human population.

Subsequent studies by researchers including Lili Xia, Alan Robock, and Luke Oman particularly focussed on how a nuclear conflict could disrupt global food supplies. Ira Helfand of IPPNW, concluded that up to 2 billion people could face starvation in the decade following such a conflict.

The 2022 Nature-Food study suggests that a large-scale conflict between India and Pakistan could result in a quarter of the world’s population facing famine. A NATO/Russia clash could lead to famine for the vast majority of the Earth’s population.

Comparisons between old and new climate models, consistently affirmed that a large-scale nuclear conflict would lead to nuclear winter, supporting research from the 1980s and underscoring the dire need for nuclear disarmament.

Some variables can significantly impact these conclusions. The amount of black carbon soot generated in a nuclear explosion will depend on the target’s ‘fuel load.’ The altitude that the smoke reaches in the atmosphere is also an essential consideration. The unanimous agreement among researchers, however, is that the effects would be devastatingly catastrophic. The ultimate solution lies in reducing nuclear arsenals and striving for global disarmament.

Wildfires, volcanoes, and asteroids

Can wildfires and volcanic eruptions serve as models for the impacts of a nuclear winter?

Recent wildfires, like the 2019 Australian bushfires and 2023 Canadian fires, shot smoke up into the stratosphere, just as volcanic eruptions, like the Mt Agung and Mt Tambora events in 536 AD and 1815, did.

The asteroid impact at the Yucatan peninsula 65 million years ago, often compared with nuclear winter, was cataclysmic enough to cause mass extinction, including likely that of dinosaurs.

Nuclear wars, even ‘smaller’ ones are expected to have immediate casualties ranging up to 500 million. These conflicts would eject millions of tonnes of soot into the stratosphere, causing a global famine affecting billions.

A US Russia conflict could result in ‘prompt’ casualties in hundreds of millions to a billion. The subsequent global famine could claim up to 5 billion lives.

Countries that are agriculturally challenged or heavily dependent on import for food like wheat or rice will be hardest hit.

Chinese cities have the highest fuel loads, so their targeting would produce more atmospheric black carbon, increasing the severity of a nuclear winter. China also has a very significant nuclear arsenal.

The ideal locations during such a cataclysm would be Australia and New Zealand, though Australia’s connections with major nuclear command and control installations could make them targets.

As nuclear war becomes a real possibility, both between NATO and Russia and between India and Pakistan, nuclear winter seems an imminent threat. This is due to the failure of Governments, primarily Russia and the US, but also China, India, the UK, France, Israel, Pakistan, and North Korea, to honour their legal obligations under the NPT to disarm.

In summary, the quote from Toon, Robock, and Turco in their 2008 Physics Today article speaks volumes:

“What can be said with assurance…is that the Earth’s human population has a much greater vulnerability to the indirect effects of nuclear war…especially mediated through impacts on food productivity and availability, than to the direct effects of nuclear war itself. As a result, ‘The indirect effects could result in the loss of one to several billions of humans'”.

The consequences of nuclear conflict and a potential nuclear winter must be at the forefront of our global discourse, underscoring the urgency for disarmament and peace.

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