(ORDO NEWS) — Cornell University conducted a study of the consequences of nuclear war: it turns out that the explosion of just 2% of the nuclear arsenal of Russia or the United States can cause global famine. And the explosion of at least 5% of the nuclear arsenal of Russia or the United States can lead to complete extinction
Many scientists have already explored this issue. Their work is surprisingly little known, probably because in times of peace, no one wants to think about the unthinkable. But we no longer live in peacetime, and the shadows of numerous mushroom clouds again hang over our planet.
Current stockpile of nuclear weapons
As of early 2022, Russia has a stockpile of about 4,477 nuclear warheads, almost 6,000 if decommissioned warheads are included, according to the latest assessment of Russia’s military nuclear capability. The United States has a similar arsenal of 5,500 warheads, of which 3,800 are rapidly deployable warheads.
The explosive power of this weapon is difficult to comprehend. It is estimated that about 3 million tons (megatons or Mt) of TNT were detonated in World War II. In comparison, each of the British Trident submarines carries 4 megatons of TNT on 40 nuclear warheads, which means that each submarine can cause more destruction than during the entire Second World War.
Hiroshima and Nagasaki
In 1945, the US attacked the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with atomic bombs, giving us two real examples of the impact of nuclear weapons on the population.
A total of 140,000 people in Hiroshima and 73,000 in Nagasaki died instantly or within five months as a result of the nuclear explosion, intense heat radiation from the fireball, and ionizing radiation.
Many people within 1 km of ground zero were burned by the heat rays, and those within 1.5 km suffered flash burns, followed by large areas of skin peeling off. Some, especially those in the buildings, turned into white bones as all flesh evaporated from the intense heat.
Many of the survivors, later called hibakusha in Japanese, suffered acute radiation sickness (ARS) from neutron and gamma radiation released from nuclear fission in the explosions. Symptoms included bloody diarrhea, hair loss, fever, and extreme thirst. Many subsequently died. In addition to direct radiation from the explosions, they were also exposed to radioactive fallout from the atomic bomb.
The long-term effects of hibakusha exposure have been extensively studied and include increased levels of leukemia and hard tissue cancer. However, surviving the atomic bomb was not an automatic death sentence: among the 100,000 or so people who survived, the excess rates for cancer in subsequent years were about 850, and for leukemia, less than 100.
Hiroshima and Nagasaki show that, apart from short-term ADR, long-term radiation from fallout will be the least of our problems after a nuclear war. Much more serious will be the social collapse, famine and destruction of much of the planetary biosphere.
Limited “nuclear conflict”
One study, published two years ago, examined the possible consequences of a nuclear exchange consisting of 100 explosions with a yield of 15 kt each. It is estimated that each detonation will incinerate an area of 13 square meters. km, under this scenario, about 5 Tg (teragrams) of soot will enter the atmosphere in the form of smoke from forest fires and burning buildings.
Direct human casualties in this scenario of “limited” nuclear war are not determined in the study, but, presumably, their number will be in the tens and hundreds of millions.
The consequences for the planet are also serious: when the soot reaches the stratosphere, it circulates on a global scale, blocking incoming solar radiation and lowering the Earth’s surface temperature by 1.8C over the first five years.
This is more cooling than any recent volcanic eruption, and more severe than any climate disturbance in at least the last 1,000 years.
Precipitation patterns will change dramatically, and total precipitation will decrease by about 8 percent. (These results are based on widely used climate models, the same types that are used to predict the long-term effects of greenhouse gas emissions.)
Food exports will collapse as stocks run out within one year, and by the fourth year, 1.3 billion people will face the loss of about a fifth of their available food stocks. The researchers concluded that “a regional conflict using <1% of the world’s nuclear arsenal could have negative consequences for global food security unparalleled in modern history.”
A 2014 study under the same scenario (exchange of 100 nuclear weapons) showed that soot penetrating the stratosphere would cause serious damage to the Earth’s ozone layer, increasing ultraviolet penetration by 30-80% at mid-latitudes.
This will cause “widespread damage to human health, agriculture, terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems,” the researchers wrote. “The combined cooling and enhanced ultraviolet radiation will put significant pressure on the world’s food supplies and could trigger a global nuclear famine.”
Full scale nuclear exchange
If a global nuclear famine could result from as little as 100 nuclear explosions, what could a more complete exchange of the several thousand warheads in service with the US and Russia lead to?
One 2008 study considered a nuclear war scenario between Russia and the US, in which Russia would target 2,200 weapons at Western countries and the US would target 1,100 weapons each at China and Russia. Thus, a total of 4,400 warheads will explode, which is equivalent to about half of the current stocks held by Russia and the United States.
Nuclear weapons held by other states were not used in this scenario, which has an explosive yield of 440 Mt, about 150 times the yield of bombs detonated during World War II.
An all-out nuclear war is estimated to result in 770 million deaths and the release of 180 Tg of soot from burning cities and forests. In the United States, about half of the population would be within a radius of 5 km from zero, and a fifth of the country’s citizens would die completely.
A follow-up study published in 2019 looked at a comparable but somewhat smaller release of 150 Tg of soot into the atmosphere after an equivalent scale nuclear war. The destruction creates so much smoke that over the next six months, only 30-40 percent of the sunlight reaches the Earth’s surface.
After that, there is a strong drop in temperature, and during the entire subsequent summer in the Northern Hemisphere, the weather remains below zero. For example, in Iowa, according to the model, the temperature stays below 0°C for 730 consecutive days. There is no growing season. This is a real nuclear winter.
But it’s not just a short burst. For several years thereafter, temperatures still drop below freezing in summer, and global precipitation is halved by the third and fourth years. It will take more than a decade for the planet to return to something similar to the climatic norm.
By that time, most of the world’s population will be long dead. World food production will drop by more than 90 percent, causing a global famine that will starve billions of people to death.
In most countries, less than a quarter of the population will still be alive by the end of the second year under this scenario. Global fish stocks will be destroyed and the ozone layer will be destroyed.
Models are eerily specific. In a nuclear war scenario with a nuclear warhead with a yield of 4400 warheads/150 Tg of soot, averaged over the next five years, China will face a reduction in food calories by 97.2%, France by 97.5%, Russia by 99.7%, United Kingdom – by 99.5% and the USA – by 98.9%. In all these countries, virtually everyone who survived the first explosions will go on to starve later.
The extinction of humanity?
Even a nuclear war scenario with 150 Tg of soot is orders of magnitude less than the amount of smoke and other particulate matter released into the atmosphere by an asteroid that hit Earth at the end of the Cretaceous, 65 million years ago, wiping out the dinosaurs and about two-thirds of the species that lived in that time.
It follows that some humans will survive and eventually colonize the planet, and that extinction of Homo sapiens at the species level is unlikely even after a full-blown nuclear war.
But the vast majority of the human population would have died an extremely unpleasant death from burns, radiation and starvation, and human civilization would most likely have completely collapsed. The survivors will vegetate on a devastated, barren planet.
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