NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. — For more than 60 years, the idea of a nuclear war between the United States and Russia terrified hundreds of millions of people. During the height of the Cold War, it felt like a real possibility, but the promise of mutually assured destruction always necessitated that cooler heads prevail. It’s obvious that such a conflict would spell doom for countless Americans and Russians, but what about the rest of the world? According to a new study, nearly all of Earth’s 7.7 billion human inhabitants would face death by famine thanks to the nuclear winter that would almost certainly be brought on by a nuclear war.
In the event of a nuclear conflict between the United States and Russia, most of the Northern Hemisphere would be engulfed in freezing temperatures all year long, according to researchers at Rutgers University. This bonafide nuclear winter would seriously hurt crop growth and growing season in some areas by nearly 90%.
To come to their conclusions, researchers used a modern climate model to simulate what would happen, climate-wise, in the event of a full-blown nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia. They discovered that all of those atomic explosions would likely send 150 million tons of black smoke into the lower and upper atmosphere. It would take months to years for the black smoke to dissipate, effectively blocking out the sun in the meantime.
Prior investigations into the likelihood of a nuclear winter had been performed by NASA 12 years ago, but the climate model used in this study boasts more advanced technology, improved simulations of smoke particle growth and ozone destruction, and the ability to represent the Earth at far more locations. Nonetheless, the Rutgers researchers generally came to the same conclusions that NASA personnel did years ago: a nuclear winter would almost certainly occur, and it would be absolutely devastating for all life on earth.
“This means that we have much more confidence in the climate response to a large-scale nuclear war,” lead author Joshua Coupe says in a release. “There really would be a nuclear winter with catastrophic consequences.”
Across both the new and old climate models, the planet’s global average surface temperatures would drop by over 15 degrees Fahrenheit as all of that black carbon blocks out the sun.
Researchers say it’s not enough to simply place safety measures or failsafes on nuclear weapons and missiles; accidents, hackers, computer failures, and unstable world leaders all represent possible worst case scenarios. The only real way to do away with the grim possibility of a nuclear winter is to completely eliminate all nuclear weapons.
That’s why the study’s authors say their findings support The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, a measure passed by the U.N. two years ago that will effectively outlaw all nuclear weapons once a total of fifty countries sign off on the treaty. So far, 25 countries have agreed to the measure, but not the United States.
The study is published in the Journal of Geophysical Research–Atmospheres.