What Would a Nuclear Winter Look Like?

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©. Artistic illustration of nuclear winter. (Elena Naylor/Shutterstock)

We talk a lot about the devastation of a warming planet, but what if things went the other way? A new study confirms the worst.

Europe is hotter than ever, the Amazon rainforest is on fire, and the Arctic is melting – the planet is warming up, no two ways about it. But as bad as scientists predict things could get, going in the opposite direction wouldn't be much better.

Researchers from Rutgers University and the National Center for Atmospheric Research used a modern climate model to simulate the climatic effects of a nuclear war between the United States and Russia – and the projections are decidedly not pretty.

With the Cold War having cooled its heels, those of us who remember duck-and-cover drills have been breathing easier. (Now we just have mass shootings to worry about.) But for the years following the Soviet Union's detonation of their first nuclear device in 1949, fear of an atomic attack in North America loomed large.

With the state of current international politics feeling a bit, I don't know, unstable ... and with the UN-passed Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons of 2017 still waiting for another 25 countries to ratify before it goes into effect, one does start to worry.

And the results from the Rutgers research don't do much to assuage the fear.

Lead author Joshua Coupe, a Rutgers doctoral student, and his team calculated that a full-on war between the U.S. and Russia could send 150 million tons of soot from fires into the lower and upper atmosphere, where it could remain for months to years and block sunlight. Rutgers notes that:

  • Much of the land in the Northern Hemisphere would be below freezing in the summertime.
  • The growing season would be slashed by nearly 90 percent in some areas.
  • Death by famine would threaten nearly all of the Earth's 7.7 billion people, says co-author Alan Robock, from Rutgers University–New Brunswick.

While the new climate model used higher resolution and improved simulations compared with a NASA model used by a team led by Robock 12 years ago. According to Rutgers, the new model "represents the Earth at many more locations and includes simulations of the growth of the smoke particles and ozone destruction from the heating of the atmosphere. Still, the climate response to a nuclear war from the new model was nearly identical to that from the NASA model."

"This means that we have much more confidence in the climate response to a large-scale nuclear war," Coupe said. "There really would be a nuclear winter with catastrophic consequences."

"Because a major nuclear war could erupt by accident or as a result of hacking, computer failure or an unstable world leader, the only safe action that the world can take is to eliminate nuclear weapons," added Robock.

The study was published in the Journal of Geophysical Research-Atmospheres.