Climate Change, and the Potential for War

February 28, 2019

While Americans are preoccupied with the antics of an insane criminal president, the world spins on.

Perennial tensions between nuclear armed India and Pakistan boiled over – and above, two senior glacier experts remind us that as a warming climate causes glaciers to retreat in the Himalayas, water and food pressures will increase in the most densely populated areas of the world.

Jeff Masters in Weather Underground:

As nuclear-armed India and Pakistan engage in military clashes over the disputed Kashmir region, consider that a “limited” nuclear war between them is capable of causing a catastrophic global nuclear winter that could kill two billion people. The inevitable wars and diseases that would break out could kill hundreds of millions more.

A 2008 paper by Brian Toon of the University of Colorado, Alan Robock of Rutgers University, and Rich Turco of UCLA, “Environmental Consequences of Nuclear War”, concluded that a war between India and Pakistan using fifty Hiroshima-sized weapons with 15-kiloton yield on each country, exploded on cities, would immediately kill or injure about forty-five million people. However, the final toll would be global and astronomically higher, according to recent research.

The most recent study of the environmental aftermath of a nuclear conflict, Mills et al. 2014, Multidecadal global cooling and unprecedented ozone loss following a regional nuclear conflict, used an Earth system climate model including atmospheric chemistry, ocean dynamics, and interactive sea ice and land components, to investigate a limited nuclear war where each side detonates fifty 15-kiloton weapons over urban areas—less than half of the existing arsenals of the approximately 140 warheads each that India and Pakistan have. These urban explosions were assumed to start 100 firestorms. Firestorms are self-feeding fires that suck air into themselves and generate immense columns of rising smoke which lofts into the stratosphere, where it spreads globally. The model predicted the smoke would block enough sunlight for the Earth to experience the coldest temperatures since the last ice age, thousands of years ago.




Since it does not rain in the stratosphere, the smoke would stay aloft for years, and surface temperatures would stay depressed for more than twenty-five years, due to thermal inertia from the cooled ocean waters and to extra reflection of sunlight back to space by expanded sea ice. The effects would be similar to what happened after the greatest volcanic eruption in historic times, the 1815 Tambora eruption in Indonesia. This cooling from this eruption triggered the infamous Year Without a Summer in 1816 in the Northern Hemisphere, when killing frosts disrupted agriculture every month of the summer in New England, creating terrible hardship. Exceptionally cold and wet weather in Europe triggered widespread harvest failures, resulting in famine and economic collapse. However, the cooling effect of that eruption only lasted about a year. Cooling from a limited nuclear exchange would cause 5 – 10 consecutive “Years Without a Summer”, and more than a decade of significantly reduced crop yields. Killing frosts would reduce growing seasons by ten to forty days per year for five years at mid-latitudes. Global precipitation would fall 6% during the first five years, and be reduced by 4.5% ten years later, resulting in a crippling increase in regional droughts. Over the Asian monsoon region, including the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, and Southeast Asia, annual rainfall would fall by 20% – 80%, so that even the “winner” of the nuclear war between India and Pakistan would experience devasting famine due to the failure of the life-giving monsoon rains.

An added global calamity would result from the intense heating of the stratosphere by 30°C (54°F), due to absorption of sunlight by the smoke there. In the hot stratosphere, ozone would be destroyed by chemical reactions, causing global ozone losses of 20 – 50 percent over populated areas. UV light would increase by 30 – 80 percent over midlatitudes, suggesting widespread damage to human health, agriculture, and terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems beyond what the cold temperatures and drought would wreak.

The cold temperatures and increased drought might reduce global grain production by 20 percent for the five years after the war, and 10 – 15 percent for the following five years, said Toon et al., 2017. Helfand (2013) estimated that two billion people who are now only marginally fed might die from starvation and disease in the aftermath of a nuclear conflict between India and Pakistan, due to the cold weather and drought. The inevitable wars and diseases that would break out would likely kill hundreds of millions more.

The insanity of global nuclear war

It is sobering to realize that the nuclear weapons used in the study represented less than 0.7% of the world’s total nuclear arsenal of about 14,500 warheads. A larger-scale global nuclear war would have much more severe environmental impacts. In the 1980s and early 1990s, a series of scientific papers published by Soviet and Western scientists (including prominent scientists Dr. Carl Sagan, host of the PBS “Cosmos” TV series, and Nobel Prize winner Paul Crutzen) laid out the dire consequences on global climate of a major nuclear exchange between the U.S. and Soviet Union. The nuclear explosions would send massive clouds of dust high into the stratosphere, blocking so much sunlight that a nuclear winter would result, they said. Global temperatures would plunge 20°C to 40°C for months and remain 2 – 6°C lower for 1 – 3 years. Up to 70% of the Earth’s protective stratospheric ozone layer would be destroyed, allowing huge doses of ultraviolet light to reach the surface. This UV light would kill much of the marine life that forms the basis of the food chain, resulting in the collapse of fisheries and the starvation of the people and animals that depend on it. The UV light would also blind huge numbers of animals, who would then wander sightless and starve. The cold and dust would create widespread crop failures and global famine, killing billions of people who did not die in the nuclear explosions.

The nuclear winter papers were widely credited with helping lead to the nuclear arms reduction treaties of the 1990s, as it was clear that we risked catastrophic global climate change in the event of a full-scale nuclear war. But even a limited nuclear war between India and Pakistan is a catastrophic threat to Earth’s climate. I urge India and Pakistan to seek a peaceful solution to their dispute. Pakistan said on February 28 it will release a captured Indian pilot in a ‘peace gesture’, and that is a hopeful sign. There is nothing more important than preventing nuclear war.

Dr. Jeff Masters co-founded Weather Underground in 1995, and flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990.


12 Responses to “Climate Change, and the Potential for War”

  1. mbrysonb Says:

    Too many leaders have spent their lives in a cocoon where no mistake, no act of arrogance or self-indulgence will have any impact on their own security and comfort. They have forgotten that there are boundaries we cannot cross without terrible consequences for everyone, including themselves, not just for the far-away poor and unfortunate or for others they simply don’t care about.

  2. redskylite Says:

    In the 60’s, 70’s and early 80’s nuclear warfare was a big worry for many in the population, it weighed heavily on many minds. The CND was a movement, where at least you could protest, get information, artifacts (including those badges and tee-shirts), and release tensions. Then the cold war broke, India-Pakistan was calmed and all seemed to relax. Now climate change is in focus – the damage mankind has done through it’s industrial revolution is looming – we must take great action. The nuclear warfare threat in the 21st century is a ghost from the past. We just do not have any time left to tolerate the threat. Let’s just hope that the leaders of India and Pakistan realize that and resolve their latest tension. We need global peace and cooperation to beat man induced climate change. Nothing less will do the trick. If we must continue with nuclear let’s at least use it for the good of mankind and generate power. Modi and Khan the onus is on you – do it for the rest of us.

    Evidence for man-made global warming has reached a “gold standard” level of certainty, adding pressure for cuts in greenhouse gases to limit rising temperatures, scientists said on Monday.

  3. The conflict between India and Pakistan has nothing to do with climate change. The conflict already existed from the independence of both countries.

    • neilrieck Says:

      Go back and read the 2009 book “Climate Wars” by Gwynne Dyer”

      which is based upon a lot of military research, including interviews at the Pentagon. The 6 largest rivers in Asia all come from shrinking glaciers in the Himalayas. One river, the Indus, is directly controlled by India and they determine (under treaty) how much water is diverted into Pakistan. When the waters run dry for whatever reason, farming in Pakistan will trigger food shortages (starvation changes all politics). The Pakistanis will accuse the India of keeping precious water for themselves so Pakistan will be the first to threaten a nuclear strike. If s strike occurs, India will be tempted to retaliate.

      • dumboldguy Says:

        The “Third Pole” is likely to be he flash point for some major catastrophes in the future, first from climate change induced food and water shortages, then from war between the countries that will be impacted, all of them nuclear powers (add China into the mix—it draws its water from the Tibetan plateau and the north side of the Himalayas).

        Hate to say it, but a “nuclear winter” disaster in the near future might ultimately save some of the planet. The killing off of a few billion humans and the destruction of much of the industrial society and capitalism that have brought us to this point might actually be preferable to the present slow do-little-or-nothing that may turn into runaway warming and have Earth following the path of Venus.

        • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

          The aerosol parasol of a nuclear winter might address the #1 CO2 problem of AGW, but it would aggravate the #2 CO2 problem of ocean acidification.

          In any case, the planet does not need saving.

          • dumboldguy Says:

            The three statements of ‘fact” in this comment make me ask if Omno lives on in RWG, and WHAT-WHAT-WHAT???

        • redskylite Says:

          I watched the movie “Watchmen” too. I’m with Rorschach on the dilemma to kill millions to save billions. I’d rather hope that the U.S can get a decent president in two years time (if not before) and that the India, Pakistan and China can rise above their local tensions, and give peace a chance.

    • Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

      The conflict between Pakistan and India has nothing to do with AGW so far!

  4. Ann Rogers Says:

    I am reading The End of Ice, and highly recommend it. Climate Crisis and Nuclear War: can you think of any issues more critical? peace Ann

    Sent from my iPad


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