Darkness: Nuclear Winter Fire, Ice, Famine

By John Hallam

In September 1983, the world teetered on the brink of destruction twice within six weeks. First, Colonel Stanislav Petrov, working an unscheduled shift at the Serpukhov-15 nuclear command center about 70 miles south of Moscow, singlehandedly prevented World War III. His story was later immortalized in the film, ‘The Man Who Saved the World.’ If not for his judicious decision-making, the simulations we now run would’ve been grim realities, with humanity possibly extinct or at best, severely debilitated.

The second close call occurred during the Able Archer exercises in November 1983. The USSR mistook this apocalypse rehearsal for the real deal, triggering a tense standoff.

SMOKE, SOOT, AND CLIMATE

That same year, the movie ‘The Day After,’ about the aftermath of a ‘limited’ nuclear war in Kansas, captured the largest ever audience for a TV drama. Additionally, the TTAPS study (title referring to the surnames of its authors) was published in December, raising concerns about nuclear winter. 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.

This idea, introduced by Harold Lewis in 1979, was expanded upon by P.J. Crutzen and J. W. Birks in 1982. They suggested that burning cities might generate even more smoke, compounding the problem. However, despite extensive scientific and public debate, the concept of a nuclear winter faded from the public consciousness by the 1990s.

It wasn’t until 2007 that interest in nuclear winter resurfaced, driven by renewed concerns about nuclear weapons and an improved climate model. Professor Alan Robock’s study, “Nuclear Winter Revisited with a Modern Climate Model and Current Nuclear Arsenals – Still Catastrophic Consequences,” utilized these advanced tools to provide a more comprehensive analysis. Unlike its predecessors, the study ran simulations for decades, incorporating more variables, including the behavior of deep oceans.

Robock’s research concluded that even a “limited” nuclear war could result in a nuclear winter, with lasting and devastating global consequences. The effects of such a catastrophe, it warned, would persist longer than previously thought, extending the global food shortage well beyond a year and potentially leading to widespread starvation.

The current resurfacing interest in nuclear winter is timely, considering we are closer to nuclear war now than ever before. 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.

A 2007 study made several important discoveries that significantly updated our understanding of nuclear conflict’s environmental and humanitarian consequences. One of the key findings was that atmospheric soot, resulting from a nuclear explosion, can linger in the atmosphere for decades, considerably longer than previously estimated in the 1980s. Another significant discovery was that soot could self-loft to much greater heights than previously considered.

It was also concluded that even a minor nuclear conflict involving hundreds, rather than thousands, of warheads, could lead to a nuclear winter capable of triggering global famine. This could result in up to 2 billion fatalities, particularly in a conflict between countries like India and Pakistan.

Following the 2007 study, researchers continued to focus on the potential aftermath of a nuclear conflict between India and Pakistan. This was because, at that time, this conflict seemed the most likely to escalate to nuclear warfare. This focus was intensified when, during a 2003 confrontation between India and Pakistan, nuclear weapons were moved to the line of control 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 further explored these ripple effects, particularly focusing on how a nuclear conflict could disrupt global food supplies. These studies fed into a further report by Ira Helfand of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), who concluded that up to 2 billion people could face starvation in the decade following such a conflict.

The study in Nature-Food, released in 2022, models various scenarios, including potential Russia-NATO nuclear conflicts. Its origins can be traced back to the 2007 India-Pakistan studies and the 2012/2013 Helfand study. The findings suggest that a large-scale conflict between India and Pakistan could result in a quarter of the world’s population facing famine, while a large-scale confrontation between NATO and Russia could lead to famine for the vast majority of the Earth’s population.

Studies after 2007 also aimed to validate their methodologies and conclusions by comparing older but respected models with the most current ones. These comparisons, despite their differences in approach and level of sophistication, consistently affirmed that a large-scale nuclear conflict would lead to nuclear winter, supporting earlier research from the 1980s and underscoring the dire need for nuclear disarmament.

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

WILDFIRES, VOLCANOES, AND ASTEROIDS

Can natural phenomena such as wildfires and volcanic eruptions serve as indicators for the potential 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 respectively. These latter incidents had global agricultural repercussions and inspired literary works such as Byron’s ‘Darkness’ and Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’.

Wildfires, despite being primarily ‘conflagrations’, can produce firestorms that inject soot into the stratosphere. Volcanoes, on the other hand, emit more material, primarily silica and sulphuric acid, which doesn’t linger as long. Still, their large-scale eruptions can devastate global agriculture, like Mt. Tambora did in 1815.

The asteroid impact at the Yucatan peninsula 65 million years ago, often compared with nuclear winter, was cataclysmic enough to cause mass extinction, including possibly that of dinosaurs. However, note that some evolved into birds.

Nuclear wars, even smaller ones between nations like India and Pakistan, are expected to have immediate casualties ranging in hundreds of thousands. These conflicts would eject millions of tonnes of soot into the stratosphere, potentially causing a global famine affecting billions.

More recent India-Pakistan conflict scenarios anticipate prompt casualties up to 500 million. Similarly, a conflict between the US and Russia, involving thousands of much larger warheads, could result in 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. China, with its substantial arsenal of warheads, plays a significant role in this. Detailed analyses show Chinese cities have a higher fuel load, so their targeting would produce more atmospheric black carbon, increasing the severity of a nuclear winter.

Notably, China’s agriculture is susceptible to the effects of nuclear war, highlighting the interconnectedness of global consequences. The ideal locations during such a cataclysm would be Australia and New Zealand, though their connections with major nuclear command and control installations could make them targets as well.

Moreover, the impacts are not limited to immediate destruction. The electromagnetic pulse (EMP) caused by detonating even a small number of nuclear warheads in space can fry electronic devices, sending society back to pre-electrical times, resulting in mass starvation. Even without nuclear weapons, a large solar mass ejection could do the same.

These threats make every technological advancement a vulnerability, subjecting us to nuclear-conflict generated EMP, solar mass ejections, and hi-tech glitches. As nuclear war becomes a real possibility between India and Pakistan, and as a potential response from Russia to Ukraine, 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 honor 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’”.

And this is far from good news.

John Hallam is co-convenor of the Abolition 2000 working group on nuclear risk reduction and nuclear disarmament campaigner with PND, and member of the No-First Use Global steering committee.

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