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The impact on food crops from even two nations engaging in nuclear war could have a deadly global impact, according to a new study published in Nature Food.
Climate disruption and nuclear contamination would spread well beyond two nations engaging with nuclear weapons.
Trade restrictions following the start of a war could have a greater impact on countries unable to produce their own food.
Not to go all doomsday on you, but even the smallest of nuclear wars could be enough to spark global famine. And while “nuclear war” and “small” are certainly relative terms nobody hopes to ever define, a new study shows that the ramifications from even two nations battling with nuclear weapons could be enough to turn the Earth’s crops to failure.
“The reduced light, global cooling, and likely trade restrictions after nuclear wars would be a global catastrophe for food security,” write the authors in a study published by Nature Food. By global catastrophe—known as a nuclear winter—the authors, led by Lili Xia, a climate scientist at Rutgers University in New Jersey, say that more than 2 billion people could die from starvation if India and Pakistan engage in nuclear war and more than 5 billion could die if the United States and Russia engage.
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The ramifications stretch aplenty. Atmospheric soot loadings from nuclear weapon detonation would cause disruptions to the Earth’s climate. There’s potential this leads to “mass food shortages” and livestock and aquatic food production wouldn’t be enough to compensate for reduced crop output in almost all countries, the study says.
Using various models of how the climate could change and how crops would be impacted, the team of researchers analyzed six scenarios. Each situation loaded the atmosphere with a different amount of soot, which was enough to reduce surface temperatures as much as 60 degrees Fahrenheit by blocking sunlight, causing decades-long impact. That’s a nuclear winter lasting far more than one season.
We’ve already seen how a volcanic eruption and the spewed ash can impact the atmosphere, contaminating rain, changing the chemical makeup of soil, and poisoning livestock. The 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in The Philippines, the world’s largest eruption in the last 100 years, left a lasting change on the region’s economy and food sources.
The political response to declining food opportunities could hurt some even further. As crops get destroyed, countries will likely stop exporting food, the study theorizes, meaning those areas able to produce their own food will have a better opportunity to feed the population. In this case, those countries in northern latitudes—and shorter growing seasons—suffer a disadvantage, as do countries already importing large quantities of their food.
That leaves Australia and New Zealand as potentially the countries in the best position to withstand the devastation, largely based on the location. Other countries in Africa and South America may be better positioned to survive the starvation onslaught if, for example, a U.S. vs. Russia nuclear war reduces agricultural output enough to have 75 percent of the global population suffering from starvation within two years.
“But if this scenario should actually take place,” the study says, “Australia and New Zealand would probably see an influx of refugees from Asia and other countries experiencing food insecurity.”
This study didn’t look at how a nuclear winter could impact the ocean or just how changes to the food production model—such as increasing cold-adapted crops and changing to alternate food sources—might offer benefits. “Our analysis of the potential impacts of nuclear war on the food system does not address some aspects of the problem, leaving them for future research,” the authors write.
The ramifications from even one nuclear attack could have deadly consequences for billions. And for decades.
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