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Mon Dec 11 13:13:47 CST 2006
Small Nuclear War Would Cause Global Environmental Catastrophe
By Jeanna Bryner
LiveScience Staff Writer
posted: 11 December 2006
08:12 am ET
SAN FRANCISCO?A small-scale, regional nuclear war could disrupt the global
climate for a decade or more, with environmental effects that could be
devastating for everyone on Earth, researchers have concluded.
The scientists said about 40 countries possess enough plutonium or uranium to
construct substantial nuclear arsenals. Setting off a Hiroshima-size weapon
could cause as many direct fatalities as all of World War II.
"Considering the relatively small number and size of the weapons, the effects
are surprisingly large," said one of the researchers, Richard Turco of the
University of California, Los Angeles. "The potential devastation would be
catastrophic and long term."
The lingering effects could re-shape the environment in ways never conceived. In
terms of climate, a nuclear blast could plunge temperatures across large swaths
of the globe. "It would be the largest climate change in recorded human
history," Alan Robock, associate director of the Center for Environmental
Prediction at Rutgers' Cook College and another member of the research team.
The results will be presented here today during the annual meeting of American
In one study, scientists led by Owen "Brian" Toon of the University of Colorado,
Boulder, analyzed potential fatalities based on current nuclear weapons
inventories and population densities in large cities around the world.
His team focused on the black smoke generated by a nuclear blast and
firestorms?intense and long-lasting fires that create and sustain their own
For a regional conflict, fatalities would range from 2.6 million to 16.7 million
per country. "A small country is likely to direct its weapons against population
centers to maximize damage and achieve the greatest advantage," Toon said.
With the information, Robock and colleagues generated a series of computer
simulations of potential climate anomalies caused by a small-scale nuclear war.
"We looked at a scenario of a regional nuclear conflict say between India and
Pakistan where each of them used 50 weapons on cities in the other country that
would generate a lot of smoke," Robock told LiveScience.
They discovered the smoke emissions would plunge temperatures by about 2 degrees
Fahrenheit (1.25 degrees Celsius) over large areas of North America and
Eurasia?areas far removed from the countries involved in the conflict.
Typically when sunlight travels through the atmosphere, some rays get absorbed
by particles in the air, before reaching Earth's surface. After a nuclear
blast, however, loads of black smoke would settle into the upper atmosphere and
absorb sunlight before it reaches our planet's surface. Like a dark curtain
pulled over large parts of the globe, the smoke would cause cool temperatures,
darkness, less precipitation and even ozone depletion.
At the end of the 10 years, the simulated climate still hadn't recovered.
The study showed it doesn't take much nuclear power to drive meteoric results.
Whereas the scenarios presumed the countries involved would launch their entire
nuclear arsenals, that total is just three-hundredths of a percent of the global
Will the conclusions result in worldly changes? "We certainly hope there will be
a political response because nuclear weapons are the most dangerous potential
environmental danger to the planet. They're much more dangerous than global
warming," Robock said.
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