Regional Nuclear War Could Devastate World Population, Report Warns

(Mar. 16) -A 1971 French nuclear test at Mururoa Atoll. Climatic changes caused by an Indian-Pakistani nuclear conflict could lead to the deaths of hundreds of millions of people, computer models suggest (Getty Images).
(Mar. 16) -A 1971 French nuclear test at Mururoa Atoll. Climatic changes caused by an Indian-Pakistani nuclear conflict could lead to the deaths of hundreds of millions of people, computer models suggest (Getty Images).

Computer modeling suggests a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan would block out the sun with large amounts of airborne debris, disrupting global agriculture and leading to the starvation of around 1 billion people, Scientific American reported in its January issue (see GSN, March 4).

The nuclear winter scenario assumes that cities and industrial zones in each nation would be hit by 50 bombs the size of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, in World War II. Although some analysts have suggested a nuclear exchange would involve fewer weapons, researchers who created the computer models contended that the panic from an initial nuclear exchange could cause a conflict to quickly escalate. Pakistan, especially, might attempt to fire all of its nuclear weapons in case India's conventional forces overtake the country's military sites, according to Peter Lavoy, an analyst with the Naval Postgraduate School.

The nuclear blasts and subsequent blazes and radiation could kill more than 20 million people in India and Pakistan, according to the article.

Assuming that each of the 100 bombs would burn an area equivalent to that seen at Hiroshima, U.S. researchers determined that the weapons used against Pakistan would generate 3 million metric tons of smoke and the bombs dropped on India would produce 4 million metric tons of smoke. Winds would blow the material around the world, covering the atmosphere over all continents within two weeks.

The reduction in sunlight would cause temperatures to drop by 2.3 degrees Fahrenheit for several years and precipitation to drop by one-tenth. The climate changes and other environmental effects of the nuclear war would have a devastating affect on crop yields unless farmers prepared for such an occurrence in advance.

The observed effects of volcano eruptions, smoke from forest fires and other events support the findings of the computer modeling, the researchers said.

"A nuclear war could trigger declines in yield nearly everywhere at once, and a worldwide panic could bring the global agricultural trading system to a halt, with severe shortages in many places. Around 1 billion people worldwide who now live on marginal food supplies would be directly threatened with starvation by a nuclear war between India and Pakistan or between other regional nuclear powers," wrote Alan Robock, a climatology professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey, and Owen Brian Toon, head of the Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences Department at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

"The combination of nuclear proliferation, political instability and urban demographics may constitute one of the greatest dangers to the stability of society since the dawn of humans," they added. "Only abolition of nuclear weapons will prevent a potential nightmare. Immediate reduction of U.S. and Russian arsenals to the same levels as other nuclear powers (a few hundred) would maintain their deterrence, reduce the possibility of nuclear winter and encourage the rest of the world to continue to work toward the goal of elimination" (Robock/Toon, Scientific American/Rutgers University, January 2010).

March 16, 2010
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Computer modeling suggests a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan would block out the sun with large amounts of airborne debris, disrupting global agriculture and leading to the starvation of around 1 billion people, Scientific American reported in its January issue (see GSN, March 4).