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War with low-yield nuclear weapons

  • Climatic consequences of regional nuclear conflicts

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    We use a modern climate model and new estimates of smoke generated by fires in contemporary cities to calculate the response of the climate system to a regional nuclear war between emerging third world nuclear powers using 100 Hiroshima-size bombs (less than 0.03% of the explosive yield of the current global nuclear arsenal) on cities in the subtropics. We find significant cooling and reductions of precipitation lasting years, which would impact the global food supply. The climate changes are large and longlasting because the fuel loadings in modern cities are quite high and the subtropical solar insolation heats the resulting smoke cloud and lofts it into the high stratosphere, where removal mechanisms are slow. While the climate changes are less dramatic than found in previous “nuclear winter” simulations of a massive nuclear exchange between the superpowers,because less smoke is emitted, the changes are more long-lasting because the older models did not adequately represent the stratospheric plume rise

  • Atmospheric effects and societal consequences of regional scale nuclear conflicts and acts of individual nuclear terrorism

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    We assess the potential damage and smoke production associated with the detonation of small nuclear weapons in modern megacities. While the number of nuclear warheads in the world has fallen by about a factor of three since its peak in 1986, the number of nuclear weapons states is increasing and the potential exists for numerous regional nuclear arms races. Eight countries are known to have nuclear weapons, 2 are constructing them, and an additional 32 nations already have the fissile material needed to build substantial arsenals of low-yield (Hiroshima-sized) explosives. Population and economic activity worldwide are congregated to an increasing extent in megacities, which might be targeted in a nuclear conflict. We find that low yield weapons, which new nuclear powers are likely to construct, can produce 100 times as many fatalities and 100 times as much smoke from fires per kt yield as previously estimated in analyses for full scale nuclear wars using high-yield weapons, if the small weapons are targeted at city centers. A single “small” nuclear detonation in an urban center could lead to more fatalities, in some cases by orders of magnitude, than have occurred in the major historical conflicts of many countries. We analyze the likely outcome of a regional nuclear exchange involving 100 15-kt explosions (less than 0.1% of the explosive yield of the current global nuclear arsenal). We find that such an exchange could produce direct fatalities comparable to all of those worldwide in World War II, or to those once estimated for a “counterforce” nuclear war between the superpowers. Megacities exposed to atmospheric fallout of long-lived radionuclides would likely be abandoned indefinitely, with severe national and international implications. Our analysis shows that smoke from urban firestorms in a regional war would rise into the upper troposphere due to pyro-convection. Robock et al. (2007) show that the smoke would subsequently rise deep into the stratosphere due to atmospheric heating, and then might induce significant climatic anomalies on global scales. We also anticipate substantial perturbations of global ozone. While there are many uncertainties in the predictions we make here, the principal unknowns are the type and scale of conflict that might occur. The scope and severity of the hazards identified pose a significant threat to the global community. They deserve careful analysis by governments worldwide advised by a broad section of the world scientific community, as well as widespread public debate.

  • Massive global ozone loss predicted following regional nuclear conflict

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    We use a chemistry-climate model and new estimates of smoke produced by fires in contemporary cities to calculate the impact on stratospheric ozone of a regional nuclear war between developing nuclear states involving 100 Hiroshima-size bombs exploded in cities in the northern subtropics. We find column ozone losses in excess of 20% globally, 25-45% at midlatitudes, and 50-70% at northern high latitudes persisting for 5 years, with substantial losses continuing for 5 additional years. Column ozone amounts remain near or <220 Dobson units at all latitudes even after three years, constituting an extratropical "ozone hole." The resulting increases in UV radiation could impact the biota significantly, including serious consequences for human health. The primary cause for the dramatic and persistent ozone depletion is heating of the stratosphere by smoke, which strongly absorbs solar radiation. The smoke-laden air rises to the upper stratosphere, where removal mechanisms are slow, so that much of the stratosphere is ultimately heated by the localized smoke injections. Higher stratospheric temperatures accelerate catalytic reaction cycles, particularly those of odd-nitrogen, which destroy ozone. In addition, the strong convection created by rising smoke plumes alters the stratospheric circulation, redistributing ozone and the sources of ozone-depleting gases, including N2O and chlorofluorocarbons. The ozone losses predicted here are significantly greater than previous "nuclear winter/UV spring" calculations, which did not adequately represent stratospheric plume rise. Our results point to previously unrecognized mechanisms for stratospheric ozone depletion.

  • An Assessment of the Extent of Projected Global Famine Resulting from Limited, Regional Nuclear War

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    The recent study by Robock et al on the climatic consequences of regional nuclear war shows that even a “limited” nuclear conflict, involving as few as 100 Hiroshima-sized bombs, would have global implications with significant cooling of the Earth's surface and decreased precipitation in many parts of the world. A conflict of this magnitude could arise between emerging nuclear powers such as India and Pakistan. Past episodes of abrupt global cooling, due to volcanic activity, caused major crop failures and famine; the predicted climate effects of a regional nuclear war would be expected to cause similar shortfalls in agricultural production. In addition large quantities of food might need to be destroyed and significant areas of crop land might need to be taken out of production because of radioactive contamination. Even a modest, sudden decline in agricultural production could trigger significant increases in the prices for basic foods and hoarding on a global scale, both of which would make food inaccessible to poor people in much of the world. While it is not possible to estimate the precise extent of the global famine that would follow a regional nuclear war, it seems reasonable to postulate a total global death toll in the range of one billion from starvation alone. Famine on this scale would also lead to major epidemics of infectious diseases, and would create immense potential for war and civil conflict.

War with high-yield nuclear weapons

  • Environmental Consequences of Nuclear War

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    The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (SORT) of 2002 calls for the US and Russia to each limit their operationally deployed warheads to 1700-2200 by December 2012. The treaty has many unusual features: warheads, rather than delivery systems are limited; verification measures are not specified; permanent arms reductions are not required; warheads need not be destroyed; either side may quickly withdraw; and the treaty expires on the same day that arsenal limits are reached. Nevertheless, should the limits envisioned in SORT be achieved and the excess warheads destroyed, only about 6% of the 70,000 warheads existing in 1986 would remain. Given such a large reduction, one might assume a concomitant large reduction in the number of potential fatalities from a nuclear war and in the likelihood of environmental consequences that threaten the bulk of humanity. Unfortunately, that assumption is incorrect. Indeed, we estimate that the direct effects of using the 2012 arsenals would lead to hundreds of millions of fatalities. The indirect effects would likely eliminate the majority of the human population

  • Nuclear winter revisited with a modern climate model and current nuclear arsenals: Still catastrophic consequences

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    Twenty years ago, the results of climate model simulations of the response to smoke and dust from a massive nuclear exchange between the superpowers could be summarized as "nuclear winter," with rapid temperature, precipitation, and insolation drops at the surface that would threaten global agriculture for at least a year. The global nuclear arsenal has fallen by a factor of three since then, but there has been an expansion of the number of nuclear weapons states, with additional states trying to develop nuclear arsenals. We use a modern climate model to reexamine the climate response to a range of nuclear wars, producing 50 and 150 Tg of smoke, using moderate and large portions of the current global arsenal, and find that there would be significant climatic responses to all the scenarios. This is the first time that an atmosphere-ocean general circulation model has been used for such a simulation and the first time that 10-year simulations have been conducted. The response to the 150 Tg scenario can still be characterized as "nuclear winter," but both produce global catastrophic consequences. The changes are more long-lasting than previously thought, however, because the new model, National Aeronautics and Space Administration Goddard Institute for Space Studies ModelE, is able to represent the atmosphere up to 80 km, and simulates plume rise to the middle and upper stratosphere, producing a long aerosol lifetime. The indirect effects of nuclear weapons would have devastating consequences for the planet, and continued nuclear arsenal reductions will be needed before the threat of nuclear winter is removed from the Earth.

  • Environmental Consequences of Nuclear War

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    A regional war involving 100 Hiroshima-size weapons would pose a worldwide threat due to the ozone destruction and climate change. A superpower confrontation with a few thousands weapons would be castastrophic.