Radiation, firestorms and global famine: the apocalyptic consequences of a nuclear war

The Hiroshima bomb (AFP)

Two days ago, the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrovwarned that if the conflict with Ukraine escalates and triggers a third world war, this could include the use of nuclear weapons and be destructive.

The consequences of a nuclear war could be devastating for humanity and for planet Earth. That is why reducing the risk of such a war ever being fought must be the number one priority of the entire world.

“The shock wave and heat created by the detonation of a single nuclear weapon can kill millions of people immediately. But even greater is the devastation that would follow a nuclear war.” writes Max Roser, founder and director of Our World in Datathe global data measurement organization that reports to the University of Oxford.

The first reason for this is radioactive fallout: “Radioactive dust from detonating bombs rises into the atmosphere and spreads over large areas of the world from where it falls and causes lethal levels of radiation.”

“The second reason is less well known. But now it is believed that this consequence, the ‘nuclear winter’ and the world famine that would follow, is the most serious consequence of nuclear warRose explains.

As described based on scientific research, cities that are attacked by nuclear missiles burn with such intensity that they create their own wind system, a firestorm: hot air above the burning city rises and is replaced by air rushing in from all directions. Hurricane-force winds fan the flames and create immense heat.

“From this firestorm, large plumes of smoke and soot rise above the burning cities and travel into the stratosphere. There it spreads all over the planet and blocks sunlight. At that high altitude, high above the clouds, it can’t rain, which means it will stay there for years, darkening the sky and thus drying and cooling the planet.”

Estimated Stockpiles of Nuclear Warheads, 1945 to 2022. Stocks include warheads assigned to military forces, but exclude warheads awaiting decommissioning

The nuclear winter that would follow a full-scale nuclear war is expected to lead to temperature drops of 20 or even 30 degrees Celsius (60 to 86 °F) in many of the world’s agricultural regions, including much of Eurasia and North America. Nuclear winter would cause a ‘nuclear famine’. World food production would fail and billions of people would starve.

These consequences mean that the destruction caused by nuclear weapons is not limited to the battlefield. It would not only harm the attacked country. Nuclear war would devastate all countries, including the attacker.

“The possibility of global devastation is what makes the prospect of nuclear war so terrifying. And it is also why nuclear weapons are so unattractive for warfare. A weapon that can lead to self-destruction is not a weapon that can be used strategically.” Rosen says.

The Cold War has been over for years and nuclear stockpiles have been greatly reduced. The world has learned that nuclear weaponry is not the one-way street it was once believed to be. But there are still almost ten thousand nuclear weapons distributed among at least nine countries on our planet. “Each of these weapons can cause enormous destruction; many are much larger than the ones the US dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki”, warns the leader of Our World in Data.

“A nuclear war could very well be humanity’s last war.”

That is why there is what is called “balance of terror”; is the idea that all the political leaders involved are so afraid of nuclear war that they never launch a nuclear attack.

But the truth is that the balance is vulnerable to accidents: “An accidentally detonating nuclear bomb, or even a false alarm, with no weapons involved, can trigger nuclear retaliation because several countries keep their nuclear weapons on ‘launch on warning’; in response to a warning, their leaders can decide in a matter of minutes whether they want to launch a retaliatory attack.”

The ruins of Hiroshima were documented by US Navy photographer Stanley Troutman on September 7, 1945. In this photo, Troutman is standing in the left foreground.  World War II (Historical Collection - Photo by Everett/Shutterstock)
The ruins of Hiroshima were documented by US Navy photographer Stanley Troutman on September 7, 1945. In this photo, Troutman is standing in the left foreground. World War II (Historical Collection – Photo by Everett/Shutterstock) (Everett/Shutterstock/)

Of course, accidents and mistakes are not the only possible path that could lead to the use of nuclear weapons. “There is a risk that a terribly irresponsible person will lead a country that has nuclear weapons,” he says. “There is a risk of nuclear terrorism, possibly after a terrorist organization steals weapons. There is a possibility that hackers could take control of the nuclear chain of command. And there is a possibility that several of these factors play a role at the same time.

How to reduce the risk of a nuclear war?

Reducing to zero if all nuclear weapons are removed from the world. “I think this is what humanity should work for, but it is extremely difficult to achieve, at least in the short term,” he acknowledges. “Therefore, it is important to see that there are additional ways that can reduce the possibility of the world suffering from the horrors of nuclear war.”

Various non-proliferation treaties they have been key to achieving the great reduction in nuclear arsenals. However, key treaties, such as the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty between the US and Russia, have been suspended and additional agreements could be reached. The UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which entered into force in 2021, is a recent step in this direction.

Another way would be with smaller nuclear arsenals: experts consider further reduction of arsenals to be an important and achievable goal. There also has to be better monitoring and control: “The risk can be further reduced through efforts to better control nuclear weapons. Similarly, better monitoring systems would reduce the chance of false alarms.”

Furthermore, Rosen says that “Removing nuclear weapons from ‘snapshot alert’ would reduce the risk that any accidents that do occur could quickly spiral out of control. And a well-resourced International Atomic Energy Agency can verify that the agreements in the treaties are followed.”

It also requires a better public understanding, global relations and culturegiven that “None of us wants to live through a nuclear war, none of us wants to die in one.”

“For eight decades, people have been producing nuclear weapons. Several countries have devoted large sums of money to its construction. And now we live in a world where these weapons endanger our entire civilization and our future”, he concludes. “I hope there are many in the world today who will rise to the challenge of making the world more peaceful and reducing the risk of nuclear weapons. The goal has to be that humanity never ends up using this most destructive technology we’ve ever developed.”

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