We’ve long since moved on from the cold war, but any future conflict between the United States and Russia may lead to an all-out nuclear war and the subsequent nuclear winter. While there isn’t a strong possibility of this happening soon, we can analyze information from the cold war to investigate our chances of survival after a nuclear holocaust.
These were the thoughts of Daniel Jefferson Winstead and Gregory Jacobson when they started research on ‘food resilience in a dark catastrophe.’ The study, published in Springer, investigates the effect of nuclear winter on global supply; and how to any possible food shortage.
According to the lead researcher Daniel Jefferson Winstead, the research was started in 2020, and they had no idea it would be of critical importance any time soon. We can evidently see they got that part wrong following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and putting the whole world once again on edge with all Russia’s threats of nuclear retaliation.
At the same time, the intuition to go ahead with the investigation has to be applauded, as findings from this study may be what is needed to survive a nuclear winter. Even though we do not want one, we should prepare for it nonetheless.
After-effects of nuclear winter on food supply
Before publishing this research on 8th February 2022, multiple studies highlighted the dangers of a nuclear war. Of course, it’s all been taken as mere doomsday reports of something unlikely to occur. However, we may need to start preparing for the avoidable catastrophe.
A study published by Alexander Leaf, M.D. on ‘Food and Nutrition in the Aftermath of Nuclear War’ highlights eleven dangers posed by the nuclear winter on food and nutrition. The study suggests the shortage of food supply and the destruction of food processing and preservation in urban areas.
At any rate, we can argue that this was speculation based on the possible dangers of a nuclear war, and it does not directly point to the possibility of survival. Instead, its focus is on a preventive front, encouraging the world and world leaders to back down from any future nuclear confrontation.
Dangers of a nuclear winter on the atmosphere
The peculiar thing about the research done by Winstead and Jacobson is that it focuses more on the possibilities of survival, accepting the slight possibility of a nuclear event. At the same time, it wouldn’t have become overly important if Russia didn’t put its nuclear arsenal on high alert following the invasion of Ukraine.
While that’s the case, there isn’t much to argue about the findings from the research as it also confirms the general belief that high latitude countries with nuclear powers like the US and Russia will ultimately be the most affected because they will be completely void of agricultural production and drastically diminished supply of food after a nuclear holocaust.
The researchers suggest that a nuclear war can cause a blockage of the sun for several years due to a massive emission of carbon soot into the atmosphere. According to the study, the carbon soot deposition is estimated to cover more than half of the planet’s atmosphere; and the coverage may last for at least 15 years. Furthermore, these findings suggest the amount of soot deposited to be at least 165 million tons – more than the weight of the three pyramids of Giza.
The possibilities worsen when you realize that these numbers can be pulled off by only two large nuclear powers, Russia and the U.S, with 90% of the world’s nuclear arsenal. An event like this can reduce light levels by more than 40% in the equator and 5% near the poles. Agricultural production may be impossible in more than half of the world due to freezing temperatures.
Wild edible plants: Key to surviving a nuclear winter
Following findings from the study, there seems to be some light at the end of the tunnel when we consider that limited food production will be possible in the tropical region. Despite the nuclear winter cloud cover, the equatorial regions are expected to remain warm to a reasonable degree that can promote agricultural activities.
Wild edible plants classified into seven categories; fruits, leafy vegetables, seeds/nuts, roots, spices, sweets, and protein can be cultivated. Tropical Food variances like konjac, cassava, wild oyster mushrooms, safou, wild spinaches, amaranth, palms, mopane worm, dilo, tamarind, baobab, enset, acacias, yam, and palm weevil are expected to be available even during the nuclear winter.
The research evaluated the possibility of cultivating 33 out of 247 wild edible plants in the tropical forest in nuclear winter conditions. The result was positive; however, that isn’t the highlight of the study. We find that these foods are impressively drought and low-light tolerant, not just containing the necessary six classes of nutrients for survival.
According to Michael Jacobson, a professor of forest resources, the tropical forest contains a plethora of underutilized crops and resources. Perhaps, this study is what we need to have a new perspective on global food security and possibly eliminate world hunger.
He was also keen to point out that nuclear confrontation isn’t the only threat to global food production. The consequences of problems, including climate change, is a great threat to food security and nutrition. He then concluded that facing these threats will be one of humanity’s significant challenges for the next decades.
We expect a more comprehensive study on food security as the research is part of a larger project, “Research on Emergency Food Resilience,” at Penn State.