The current Russia-Ukraine conflict has brought back to the surface the potential risk of a nuclear war which we thought we’d put to rest almost forever after the end of the cold war. Hoping to open our leaders’ eyes a little more, scientists at LSU are now showing us again what the catastrophic consequences of such a conflict would be to living things on earth.
It turns out there are over 13,000 nuclear weapons in the world, ready to be launched. These are the figures from the International Peace Research Institute in Stockholm, Sweden. A nuclear power arsenal controlled by just nine countries.
Researchers at Louisiana State University have asked the question in retrospect. What impact would a nuclear war have on the world we live in? To answer that question, they ran several computer simulations. The simulations depended on whether the war in question was confined to a particular region or was more global.
There is one aspect on which all the US researchers’ scenarios agree. Exploding nuclear bombs would release enough soot and smoke into the upper atmosphere to block a significant portion of the sun’s rays. It doesn’t matter who they bomb. What happens in the upper atmosphere spreads globally. The result: in the first month, the average temperature drops by about 10°C. That’s more than the Earth experienced during the last ice age. As a result, there will be colossal crop losses around the world.
Temperatures in the oceans would also drop. But they won’t rise again quickly after the smoke dissipates. Because it takes longer for the oceans to recover. In the most dramatic scenario – nuclear war between the US and Russia, with 4,400 weapons detonated and 150 teragrams of dust dumped into the atmosphere – it would take decades for them to recover. And it would probably take hundreds of years to return to the depths we know today.
As for the ice, it will stretch until it blocks some major ports. Tianjin, the largest port in northern China, Copenhagen (Denmark), and St Petersburg (Russia) are just a few examples. In general, sea ice will block a number of shipping routes in the northern hemisphere. This would make it very difficult to transport food. Thousands of years of a real “nuclear ice age” in the event of a major conflict between the US and Russia.
Declining temperatures and light in the oceans would kill seaweed which is the base of the food chain. This could endanger all life in the sea and put most fisheries at risk.
This work by researchers at Louisiana State University shows once again how interdependent Earth’s systems are. How fragile our supply systems are, even in the face of regional conflict! The researchers hope that their simulations, as in the 1980s, will help warn world leaders of the catastrophic consequences of nuclear war for everyone so that more and more countries ratify the UN treaty banning nuclear weapons. “We really must do everything we can to avoid nuclear war,” they conclude.