“Limited” Nuclear War Could be Planetary Catastrophe

March 23, 2018

It’s 1962 again.


It’s winter, 2018, in Iowa, five months after the last of the nuclear bombs detonated across megacities in northeast Asia, from Seoul to Tokyo to Shanghai. Radioactive fallout was the initial concern, but now something else is going awry: the weather.

American farmers accustomed to snow and cold during the winter would be forgiven for mistaking their corn and wheat fields for the Arctic tundra, as temperatures dip well below zero at night, and barely recover above 10 degrees Fahrenheit during the day, under a milky, leaden sky.

Forecasters say the corn and wheat harvest may be significantly shortened this year, and for the next several years. In fact, fears of a famine on an international scale are settling in.

This is what our world could look like just a few months to years after a regional nuclear war breaks out on the Korean Peninsula and spreads to include China and possibly Russia.

Whether from a deliberate strategy or a terrifying miscalculation, such a war could trigger a global climate catastrophe, experts warn, that is not being factored into leaders’ planning.

Such a war could cause the planet to cool by up to 10 degrees Celsius, or 18 degrees Fahrenheit, with larger regional swings and extremes, according to Owen Brian Toon, a scientist at the University of Colorado at Boulder. The amount of cooling could be far lower, depending on whether the conflict were more limited in scope.

It’s not just national security experts who are horrified by Trump’s words. Trump’s rhetoric, and history of openly considering using nuclear weapons, is also concerning to climate scientists.

Two researchers, in particular, are taking note of the North Korean threat: Alan Robock, of Rutgers University, and Toon. Robock and Toon are modern day Cassandras, having warned for decades about the potentially ruinous climate change consequences of a nuclear war, most recently focusing on regional conflicts.

Robock has conducted much of the research into the idea of a nuclear winter, whereby a global thermonuclear war vaults so much smoke into the upper atmosphere to block out the sun for years afterwards, causing temperatures to plunge and killing off vital crops and plant and animal species.

Unlike the character from Greek mythology, they don’t make prophesies so much as publishing peer-reviewed scientific studies. But, like the mythical character, few have paid attention to their warnings.

Right now, both Robock and Toon are focused on the mounting tensions on the Korean Peninsula, where a nuclear-armed dictatorship threatens to strike the U.S. or its allies, potentially igniting a regional nuclear war.

Robock says most people, including high-ranking defense officials, are unaware that a nuclear war occurring halfway around the world from the U.S. could seriously harm the homeland, by altering the climate.

A new little ice age

Simulations in the 1980s, he said, found that temperatures would plunge so far after a U.S.-Soviet nuclear war that high temperatures in the summer temperatures would stay below freezing worldwide.

The modern-day nuclear scenario that Robock, Toon and others have studied closely involves an exchange of nuclear weapons between India and Pakistan, with about 50 bombs of 15 kilotons each, which is less than half of those nations’ nuclear arsenals.

A 2007 study published in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics found that, if these weapons were aimed at the center of large cities, the direct fatalities would be “comparable to all of those worldwide in World War II.”

Such a war would induce massive firestorms in urban areas that could send up to 5 million tons of smoke high into the upper atmosphere, where tiny particles known as aerosols would scatter sunlight, preventing it from reaching the Earth’s surface.

This would turn the planet’s climate sharply colder, despite the effects of human-caused global warming, and impact areas far from the actual fighting. The global cooling from such a regional war could be near 1.25 degrees Celsius, or 2.25 degrees Fahrenheit, studies have shown.

Once in the stratosphere, the particles contributed by the smoke would stick around for a long time, Toon and Robock’s simulations show. Observations after volcanic eruptions and wildfires support the model simulations.

“It circles the globe and stays there for many years,” Toon said.

Toon cites firestorms during World War II in Hiroshima and Dresden, Germany, as real-world examples of what computer model simulations show could occur from a nuclear war taking place in an urban setting.

And it’s not just one computer model simulation that is projecting a sharp global cool down and potential famine from a nuclear conflict, Toon says. “This is something that has been confirmed now in multiple climate models,” Toon said, citing both U.S. and European modeling studies.

In an interview, Robock warned that a nuclear war on other side of the Earth, “using much less than one percent of the current nuclear arsenal,” or just .03 percent of the explosive power of all the world’s nuclear weapons in existence, could produce “a larger climate change than ever recorded before in human history.”

Not just a regional issue

Toon also said the central lesson of much of the research into how the climate would respond to a limited nuclear war is not at all comforting.

“It really suggests that it would be damaging for the world’s climate to have even a small nuclear war, to the extent that even if a major power like the US were to launch a nuclear attack against another country,” then the damage to agriculture and ecosystems could “potentially lead to a nuclear famine.”

“It would be suicidal,” he said of using even a limited number of nuclear weapons.

Robock said that an India-Pakistan nuclear scenario would cause such severe climate change worldwide that agriculture in the main growing regions of the U.S. and China would be reduced for more than a decade afterwards. These two areas supply most of the grain that feeds the world, and slashed production could lead to widespread famine.

“That’s our shocking result that we’ve gotten so far,” Robock said of his research.

A war between North Korea and the U.S. would likely involve fewer nuclear weapons than India versus Pakistan, which could limit the global environmental impacts. However, if it draws in China and Russia, which both border North Korea, then all bets are off, Robock says.

North Korea is thought to have anywhere between 10 and 60 nuclear weapons, not all of which are operational.

However, once started, nuclear wars can spiral out of control. “Another issue is once a nuclear war would start it’s really hard to control it,” Robock said, noting that China could be drawn in quickly.

“So the scenario could get really horrible.”

19 Responses to ““Limited” Nuclear War Could be Planetary Catastrophe”

  1. Sir Charles Says:

    After Hitler, I thought, such a megalomaniac could never become a leader of the “free world” again. But no, it’s got even worse now. Hitler exactly knew what he was doing. In contrast, Trump doesn’t want to know what he’s doing.

    Historian confirms comparing Trump to Hitler is unfair to Hitler

    • Put bluntly, I loathe Trump, but your comparison to Hitler is ridiculous at this point in time. Hitler killed 11 million people. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2011/03/10/hitler-vs-stalin-who-killed-more/

      • Sir Charles Says:

        Before Hitler could spark a war – and his followers could kill millions – he had been in power for more than three years. Hold your breath, Nicole, and hope the best.

        • J4Zonian Says:

          In Germany in WWI, 2 million combatants were killed, 4 million wounded and 1 million captured out of 13 million in the armed forces, an astounding percentage virtually unheard of outside colonial genocide. WWI also marked the dividing line between all of history in which 90% of war casualties were suffered by combatants to modern history in which 90% of casualties are suffered by non-combatant civilians. By the end of the war, mutinies and riots were happening all over Germany; it was close to the kind of political upheaval that took Czarist Russia out of the war and caused its series of revolutions. It finally did end the monarchy in Germany as well (and Austria and Turkey’s Ottoman empire). Then the plague hit–the flu pandemic that killed more than WWI had, including a very high percentage of people in their teens and twenties. In the US we had the Lost Generation despite hardly being in the war at all; in France, the Génération du feu, the Generation of Fire. In Germany it was all just more of the same suffering they had been through for decades.

          So Hitler came into power in a country devastated by a depression much worse than the US, and rent by a series of political revolutions–from monarchy through unprecedented war trauma to dysfunctional republic to dictatorship in less than 20 years. The changes the Nazis were able to institute were also unprecedented and revolutionary, a new level of mechanization of society and the mind. In the US, people who are among the most comfortable in the history of the world are falling for the same lies; it’s only surprising it’s happening at all, not that it’s taking a little longer.

          It’s been aided in the US by the more serious strain of Wetiko infection we caught from the Nazis in WWII.

          As I’ve said many times, the progress toward better relationships (natural, racial, generational, genderal, classial…) took a turn in 1964, after Barry Goldwater lost the presidency and the right wing reorganized and planned the long-con takeover of the US and the world. The complacency of the left and the majority has allowed it to happen, aided by right wing control of media, diabolically clever propaganda, and the 2-sided coin of complacency & helplessness vs. despair–both weaponized memes spread by the right to prevent action on the crisis of the 3 Cs–the Constitution, Corporations and Climate (and the larger implications of each of those).

          Have you seen the latest in this pincer attack–the embracing of Geoengimagical pseudo-solutions to a problem they don’t even admit is real?

          The only surprise here is that some people are surprised that this particular form of appeal to despair is suddenly being used more often as a weapon. It’s a sign of the continuing fighting retreat by right wing lunatics in the face of increasing public recognition of the seriousness of the crisis, (while not admitting the seriousness of the crisis at all, of course).

          Terminal Wetiko. Time for the political equivalent of chemotherapy and radiation plus educated hands-on healing.

          • J4Zonian Says:

            Sorry, correction: should be Génération au Feu, the Generation in Flames.

          • dumboldguy Says:

            “Terminal Wetiko. Time for the political equivalent of chemotherapy and radiation plus educated hands-on healing”.

            Agreed, provided the “educated hands on healing” involves the only thing that will save the nation—-radical surgery—–ITMFA and get rid of the abominable horsemen he has appointed ASAP. Then there might be a chance for “chemo and radiation” (i.e., large losses at the ballot box) to cure those who are not terminal.

  2. Sir Charles Says:

    Trump’s Most Alarming Foreign Policy Move Yet? Warmonger John Bolton Named National Security Adviser

  3. dumboldguy Says:

    The India-Pakistan nuclear war scenario is the most likely—with any luck, Trump will be impeached before any Korea disaster occurs. The irony is that any India-Pakistan clash will likely be ignited by food, water, and refugee wars brought on by AGW, and any cooling that results will therefore have been caused by warming. The I-P conflict is still some number of years down the road, maybe 10 or 12 if we’re lucky.

    • dumboldguy Says:

      Bolton is a modern day Yosemite Sam with a ‘stache trim. Where is Bugs Bunny when we need him?

      (And he needs help with his tie, just as Herr Drumpf does)

  4. That comment about the amount of aerosols produced after military action during world war 2 is really interesting. I wonder if any research exists that links the smoke in the atmosphere to the “warming pause” through the ’50s?

  5. redskylite Says:

    I have to do a rewind, first back to the ’60’s, U.S. President John F. Kennedy and Khrushchev and the nuclear threat in Cuba, and the great public fear at the time, fortunately sense and diplomacy prevailed. Then me and many others joined the CND movement with passionate protests, (who wants this heavy threat hanging over their heads). The Dumb Old Man co-signed a anti Nuke letter to the New York Times, joining the Union of Concerned Scientists. Under your last president we were making wonderful progress, the world seemed to be in harmony. Towards the end of your elections Peter had prepared a great post with message to the new (Democratic) administration telling her/them of the work to do to save the climate. Hastily withdrawn, how many people even noticed it ? . Shockingly Trump prevailed and it seemed Russia and Facebook psychology analysis had something to do with that. I watched a video of former Republican and Democratic presidents jointly worrying about the present administration. Now the dagger of the nuclear winter raises it’s demonic head again. Sir Charles brings us back to the early Hitler days (late 30’s early 40’s).

    Why do we do this to ourselves ?

    All we have to do is ditch fossil fuels!

    We were on the right track !

    Rewind folks we were nearly there !

    People Power forever – we can put things back on track !

    What happened, did someone set Satan loose ?

  6. redskylite Says:

    Never underestimate people;

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