What is nuclear winter, the latent threat that revived with the war in Ukraine and Russia

Projection of a desolate city covered in snow in a nuclear winter scenario (Getty) (Bulgac /)

The population is not aware of thenuclear winter”, that is, of the potential catastrophic long-term environmental consequences of any exchange of nuclear weapons.

It is the conclusion of a survey carried out last month in the United States and the United Kingdom published by the Center for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER) at the University of Cambridge.

Paul Ingram, a CSER research associate, says that, despite the fact that the risk of a nuclear exchange is the highest in the last 40 years “due to Russian warmongering”, the low public awareness of nuclear winter is mainly a residue of the Cold War era.

The scientific theory of nuclear winter believes that detonations from nuclear exchanges spew vast amounts of debris into the stratosphere, ending up blocking much of the sun for a decadecausing global temperature drops, massive crop losses and widespread famines.

Combined with radiation, these knock-on effects would cause millions of people to perish after a nuclear war, even if they were far from the blast zone. Ideas about nuclear winter permeated British and American culture during the Cold War through television shows, movies, or novels.

The scenario would be catastrophic for years (Getty) (Bulgac /)

In the latest survey, conducted online in January 2023, 3,000 respondents – half in the UK and half in the US – were asked to indicate on a sliding scale whether they thought they knew a lot about “nuclear winter” and whether they had heard of it through the media or contemporary culture, which was answered in the affirmative by 3.2% in the UK and 7.5% in the US.

1.6% in the UK and 5.2% in the US said they had done so in recent academic studies, while 5.4% in the UK and 9% in the US said they had heard of or still they recalled beliefs held during the 1980s.

“In 2023 we are facing a greater risk of nuclear conflict than we have seen since the early 1980s. However, public opinion hardly knows or debates the unimaginable long-term consequences of a nuclear war for the planet and the world’s populationsays Ingram.

“Nuclear winter ideas are predominantly a persistent cultural memory, as if it were a thing of history, rather than a terribly contemporary risk -continues-. Of course it is distressing to think of large-scale catastrophes, but decisions must take into account all potential consequences, to minimize risk.

“Any stability within the nuclear deterrence is undermined if it is based on decisions that ignore the worst consequences of the use of nuclear weapons,” he adds.

The survey also presented fictitious near-future media reports (dated July 2023) broadcasting news of Russia’s nuclear attacks against Ukraine, and vice versa, to all participants to gauge support in the United Kingdom and the United States to Western reprisals.

In the event of a Russian nuclear attack on Ukraine, fewer than one in five people surveyed in both countries supported retaliation in kindwith men more likely than women to support nuclear retaliation: 20.7% (US) and 24.4% (UK) of men vs. 14.1% (US) and 16.1% (UK) Women’s.

The survey used infographics summarizing the effects of nuclear winter exposed in a recent study led by Rutgers University (published in Nature Food in August 2022). The Rutgers research used climate models and observations of wildfires and volcanoes, and found that even a limited nuclear war could cause mass starvation of hundreds of millions of people in countries not involved in any conflict.

Half of the respondents in each country (750 in the UK and US) were shown the infographic before they read the fictitious news about the nuclear attacks, while the other half – a control group – were not. He showed them.

Support for nuclear retaliation was 16% lower in the US and 13% in the UK among participants shown the “nuclear winter” infographic than among the control group.

This effect was more significant among those who supported the parties of the President of the United States and the Government of the United Kingdom. Support for nuclear retaliation fell by 33% among British Conservative Party voters and 36% among US Democratic voters when participants were briefly exposed to the recent nuclear winter research.

There is an urgent need for public education in all countries with nuclear weaponsbased on the latest research,” Ingram alerts. We need to collectively reduce the temptation that leaders of nuclear-armed states may have to threaten or even use such weapons in support of military operations.”.

As he points out, if we assume that Russia’s nuclear arsenal has a destructive force comparable to that of the United States – just under 780 megatons – then the least devastating scenario in the study, in which nuclear winter claims 225 million lives, could involve just 0.1% of this combined arsenal.

(With information from Europa Press)

Keep reading:

Why Putin is now betting on a long and exhausting war

The US tracked the Chinese spy balloon since its launch on the island of Hainan by an unusual route