CHICAGO — You don’t have to be a scientist to predict that a nuclear attack of any kind would mean a catastrophic loss of life, but a new study finds that the fallout from a regional nuclear conflict would have global repercussions on the food supply.
Researchers from the University of Chicago say that a nuclear conflict between India and Pakistan would result in far-reaching deadly consequences way beyond the two nations’ borders. After assessing climate-based, agricultural, and economic models, they’ve concluded such an attack would result in a decade of global cooling and an incomprehensible drop in crop production.
While the researchers focused specifically on India and Pakistan, due to rising tensions between the two nations, they say their findings are widely applicable given any nuclear attack anywhere on Earth.
Unbelievably, this is the first study to really refine and update Cold War-era estimates regarding the effects of a nuclear conflict on crop supplies and the global climate. In short, it paints a grim picture; the sudden change in climate sparked by a nuclear attack would seriously harm the world’s food supplies and economy, causing a global crisis.
“Sudden cooling is actually more harmful to global crop production than the same amount of anthropogenic warming,” comments first author Jonas Jägermeyr, a postdoctoral researcher in UChicago’s Department of Computer Science and NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, in a release. “It primarily hits the northern breadbasket regions, while basically happening overnight compared to a gradual, long-term, systemic climate change where societies have potential for adaptation. In this case, cooling happens within a year, and we don’t have the capacity to roll out new varieties of crops to adapt to a changed environment.”
The research team were essentially able to simulate the release of copious amounts of soot into the Earth’s atmosphere. They estimate that roughly 5 million tons of soot will enter the stratosphere, blocking out the sun and causing an average worldwide temperature decline of 1.8 Celsius degrees and an 8% precipitation decrease. Perhaps even worse, it will take 10-15 years for the Earth to fully recover and get back to normal.
Interestingly, as far as climate change, the study’s authors believe a nuclear attack would merely delay its effects. About a decade after the attack, global warming would be expected to “surge.”
In the meantime, though, that unnatural drop in global temperatures would spell doom for crops all over the world. Wheat, soybeans, maize, and rice would all disappear in considerable amounts. For example, maize and wheat harvests would drop by over 10% in the first five years after the attack. High-latitude regions, such as the United States, Russia, Europe, and China would be hit the hardest.
“The impact is very stark,” Jägermeyr says. “It would be the largest anomaly ever recorded, larger than the Dust Bowl event in the ’30s and exceeding the impact from the largest volcanic eruptions in modern history.”
Next, to calculate how these crop losses would impact global food security, researchers utilized economic trade models. What they found was deeply troubling. While food reserves would help in the short-term, eventually supplies would run out. By year four of the ordeal, five billion people would be experiencing food shortages.
“As horrible as the direct effects of nuclear weapons would be, more people could die outside the target areas due to famine, simply because of indirect climatic effects,” notes co-author Alan Robock of Rutgers University. “Nuclear proliferation continues, and there is a de facto nuclear arms race in South Asia. Investigating the global impacts of a nuclear war is therefore–unfortunately–not at all a Cold War issue.”
The study is published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.