Nuclear war would cause global food and climate catastrophes, study finds

“Our results are globally relevant regardless of the warring nations,” the study says of the discovery that soot from nuclear blasts would cause massive worldwide famines.

(CN) — Food may seem like it would be the least of your concerns after experiencing a nuclear event, but a new study has shown that the detonation of nuclear warheads would devastate global food resources and cause extensive fatalities around the world.

The study, published Monday in the journal Nature by researchers at Rutgers University, modelled several nuclear war scenarios to demonstrate how soot released into the atmosphere as a result of the bombings would create substantial food insecurity and famine. In all scenarios, deaths by famine surpassed deaths from the bombs directly.

The study quantifies, “More than 2 billion people could die from a nuclear war between India and Pakistan, and more than 5 billion could die from a war between the United States and Russia.”

The team of researchers, led by Lili Xia of Rutgers’ Department of Environmental Sciences, investigated specifically how worldwide climate would change after nuclear detonation. Beyond the obvious radioactive damage and the subsequent political and infrastructure breakdowns, a nuclear war would eventually disrupt worldwide climate for roughly a decade after the initial detonations.

The study explains that soot from the blasts entering our atmosphere would blanket the world, reducing light and causing widespread cooling on both land and sea, and consequently disrupting crop production. The most extreme effects on food production would occur in the immediate years following.

Models run for the study presumed a weeklong nuclear war, with scenarios ranging from the lowest estimate of 100 bombs dropped to a whopping 4400 nuclear weapons set off. The study then analyzed how the resultant amounts of soot would affect crop production, fish catch productivity and livestock response.

Xia and her colleagues found that, even with the most conservative estimate of 5 Tg (glass transition temperature) of soot from 100 bombs, average caloric intake would decrease worldwide by at least 7% (a more significant decrease than has ever been documented in modern history) and could even reach up to a 90% decrease with 150 Tg of soot in the years immediately following nuclear war. Famine related fatalities would increase concurrently, totaling into the billions.

Cropland would see the greatest impact, particularly in the first several years following a nuclear war, according to the study; as temperatures and amount of rainfall and sunlight all drop, crop yield would follow, and then caloric intake after that. Although ocean conditions would also see less drastic decreases, it would not be enough to compensate for the new lack of resources on land. The study also mentions that certain regions may see more extreme effects based on latitude. Higher latitude nations, including the United States, would see a greater decrease in crop yield than lower latitude countries.

The study does take some adaptations into account, particularly the societal response to livestock. With livestock, the study contemplates scenarios where human populations may or may not continue to maintain livestock to supplement diminishing harvests.

“Using crops fed to livestock as human food could offset food losses locally but would make limited impacts on the total amount of food available globally, especially with large atmospheric soot injections when the growth of feed crops and pastures would be severely impaired by the resulting climate perturbation,” the study states.

The study does not, however, include modelling for any other adaptations, like possible radioactive fallout or shifts to alternative food sources.

The researchers did take some political components surrounding nuclear war into consideration, alongside the environmental effects. Although not modelled, the study includes how trade disruptions could further exacerbate famine conditions in its analysis.

The study acknowledges limitations in its scope, noting that “impacts in warring nations are likely to be dominated by local problems, such as infrastructure destruction, radioactive contamination and supply chain disruptions, so the results here apply only to indirect effects from soot injection in remote locations.”

Although the study is mainly concerned with food security, nuclear detonation will have an impact that reaches much further than the initial event. Recent world conflicts have brought an increasing concern for how nuclear weapons may come into play in our near future.

Globally, there are over 13,000 nuclear weapons scattered amongst nine countries. The United States and Russia have the largest stockpiles by far, with around 5,000 each. Each of the countries’ individual hoard is enough to account for even the most dramatic scenario modelled by the study, which resulted in a death toll of over 5 billion.

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