Scientists and students under the guidance of the University of Colorado in Boulder and Rutgers University will assess the environmental and humanitarian consequences of a potential nuclear war using the most advanced scientific tools.
Leading authors of the study, professors Brian Ton and Alan Robock, have comprehensively studied the nuclear threat for decades. They were among the first to formulate the theory of “nuclear winter”, according to which a nuclear war between two states can cool parts of the planet, causing massive famine even in countries not participating in the war.
In his work published in 1983, Ton, Robock and other scientists relied on a 1982 study that said that smoke from burning forests, cities and oil reserves caused by nuclear explosions blocked sunlight and would cool the Earth. The work on “nuclear winter” was published in Science in 1983 and attracted the attention of the whole world.
“I am amazed and upset by the fact that the potential catastrophic consequences of nuclear war ceased to be the topic of discussions that began in the 1980s,” Ton said. “One of the purposes of this study is to inform people about how dangerous this weapon is by providing an extensive scientific analysis of the problems.”
The new study will for the first time provide a detailed assessment of the impact of nuclear war on agriculture, the ocean food chain and people, including food availability and migration activity. The team uses different scenarios to calculate how much smoke will be produced by city fire storms and their combustible materials.
“The most important factor is the amount of smoke from fires caused by nuclear explosions in cities and industrial areas and its spread to the upper atmosphere,” said Professor Robock. “For the first time, we will model fires and fiery storms, using detailed estimates of what will burn, based on new likely scenarios for conducting a nuclear war.”
Although the global nuclear arsenal was reduced by about 75% after the end of the cold war in the 1980s, there are still about 15,000 nuclear weapons distributed among the nine countries. The US and Russia have most of the weapons. Other members of the “nuclear club” are Great Britain, China, France, Israel, Pakistan, India and North Korea.
Scientists note that the threat of a nuclear incident has not diminished and it can arise because of misunderstanding, international panic, hacker attacks, terrorism or actions on the part of the leading nuclear power. North Korea, which has 10 to 20 nuclear weapons, continues to demonstrate its military power – more recently, the country launched an intercontinental ballistic missile, allegedly capable of reaching Alaska or the Hawaiian Islands, and was condemned by many countries, including the United States, Russia and China.
The team uses supercomputers and complex climate models developed by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder to calculate the amount of combustible material in large cities and the amount of smoke that can be produced as a result of nuclear explosions. Researchers also use agricultural and world food trade models to assess the impact of a potential nuclear war on crops and famines.
“Calculations show that there is enough food on the planet to feed people for 60 days, and food supplies in the average city will last only 7 days,” Ton said. “The functioning of our society is largely based on our ability to transport food, fuel and other goods that will be seriously affected by nuclear war.”
In 2016, Robock and Ton published a comment in The New York Times under the heading Let’s End the Peril of Nuclear Winter. In it, they point to their 2007 study on the possible impact of a nuclear war between India and Pakistan, in which each country explodes 50 Hiroshima-sized bombs.
According to their estimates, smoke from explosions will lead to a drop in temperature and, consequently, to a 10-40% decrease in the production of wheat, rice, corn and soybean on a global scale for five years. Explosions can also lead to serious depletion of the ozone layer of the Earth, which will damage human health and the environment.
The new project received a three-year grant of three million dollars from the Open Philanthropy Project, which focuses on funding projects in four categories: US policy, global catastrophic risks, research, health and development.
As part of the Open Philanthropy work, Professor CU Boulder Yongping Hee and his students will estimate the amount of flammable building materials in modern cities in different parts of the world. Professor Julia Lundqvist and her students will use complex weather studies and prediction models to model how the terrain and its terrain can affect the behavior of the fire after a nuclear explosion.
Robock works with several graduate students, including Joshua Coupe, who will help in climate modeling. Another of his graduate students, Guanghu Jhong, will work on agricultural modeling. Associate Professor Gal Hochmann and graduate student Hainan Zhang will be engaged in economic modeling.
NCAR scientists Charles Bardeen and Michael Mills use the latest atmospheric and aerosol climatic models to better understand the response of the climate system to soot from fires.
Based on current scientific knowledge, some of it may appear in the stratosphere (16-48 km above the earth’s surface) and remain in the air for many years or even decades.
Working with Ton, Bardeen and Mills will monitor emissions of gases and aerosols from city fires, calculating their transportation, removal and interaction of particles with clouds, sunlight and climate.
In addition, Assistant Professor of the University of Boulder Nicole Lovenduski and students will study how the ocean food chain can change in response to climate disturbances and increased ultraviolet radiation from nuclear explosions.
According to scientists, their work will provide a clearer description of global humanitarian consequences, supported by modern fire assessments, climate change and the impact on food production, prices and restrictions for a number of different possible scenarios of nuclear war.