Even a Small Scale Nuclear War Could Trigger Global Famine, Researchers Predict

The reckless political rhetoric of nuclear war places billions of people's lives at risk from starvation. We are just one misunderstanding away from a worldwide catastrophe that could end the human race.
nuclear war

One morning a cow herder minding his cows on the West Coast of Ireland looks down the hill and sees a 500-meter-high tsunami. The tsunami comes crashing down on his house, killing his wife and children, killing many other millions of people in its path as it travels across Ireland and the UK.

This fictional event could become a true story if tensions between Russia and NATO escalate into nuclear war. NATO only has to threaten Russian territory, and the UK, one of NATO’s prominent members, could be mostly submerged underwater according to recent threats demonstrated on Russia’s news.

The war in Ukraine has raised the ugly threat of all-out nuclear war once again.

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According to Dmitry Kiselyov, a Russian TV anchor, his country’s Poseidon nuclear underwater drone could cause a tsunami, plunging the British Isles into the depths of the sea and turning them into a “radioactive desert.” It approaches its target at a depth of one kilometer at a speed of 200 kilometers per hour. Kiselyov says that this underwater drone cannot be stopped. Its warhead has a yield of up to 100 megatons. The detonation of this thermonuclear torpedo near Britain’s coastline will generate a massive tsunami wave up to 500 meters high. It will cause widespread flooding in the United Kingdom, submerging the vast majority of the country and killing millions of people.

Like our fictional cow herder, most of the people of Nagasaki and Hiroshima in Japan killed by nuclear blasts were ordinary citizens, including thousands of children, women, and babies. Unlike the cow herder in our Irish story, the difference was that they weren’t fictional people. They died the most horrific death through no fault of their own. They were citizens of a regime at war.

The people of Nagasaki and Hiroshima are still living with the effects of the nuclear bombs. The people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki express their wish that the world will never see such a tragedy again. They also call for the abolition of nuclear weapons.

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Atomic cloud over Nagasaki by Hiromichi Matsuda

The ethics of nuclear weapons

The ethics of killing such a large civilian population of non-combatants with nuclear blasts during the Second World War remains questionable to this day. The United States government has always maintained that nuclear weapons saved millions of people’s lives by ending the second world war without losing more lives. In addition, the government has argued that the use of nuclear weapons was justified because Japan was not surrendering despite the number of civilians killed by conventional bombing.

Could President Putin make the same claim he was saving lives if he were to use an underwater nuclear weapon and wipe out most of the UK and Ireland (a country that has always maintained its claim to neutrality) with a tsunami tidal wave?

For most of us, nuclear war is just words, catastrophic events that have happened to other people in the past. For people living in Europe now, the prospect of a nuclear war is a realistic and terrifying threat. Russia has more than hinted that it could use nuclear weapons in Ukraine and against its allies.

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Reckless rhetoric by politicians could kill us all

It isn’t just Russia guilty of ramping up threatening nuclear rhetoric. The Trump administration has taken the world to the brink of nuclear war on multiple occasions. Trump consistently threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea in response to the latter nation’s nuclear program. He has also threatened to “unleash fire, and fury like the world has never seen” in response to any further provocations by North Korea.

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On another occasion, Trump had threatened to “blow up” Iran. This was in response to an attack on a US drone that Iran claims was in its airspace. The former president has routinely threatened to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal, provoking Iran to restart its nuclear program and increasing the risk of nuclear war.

Additionally, Trump has threatened to use nuclear weapons in response to “bad guys” using chemical weapons. He has reportedly asked military advisors to increase the number of nuclear warheads in the US arsenal, sparking a nuclear arms race.

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The former president even threatened to use nuclear weapons against hurricanes.

Next, Trump withdrew the US from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. This treaty banned land-based nuclear missiles with a range of 500 to 5,500 kilometers (311 to 3420 miles). He has also withdrawn the US from the Open Skies Treaty, which allowed for unarmed surveillance flights over the territories of its signatories.

All of these actions increase the risk of nuclear war. They make it more likely that nuclear weapons will be used in a conflict.

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People who are politically disinterested and choose to live their lives as peaceful non-combatants are still left with an awful legacy of a world of politicians that can annihilate them with one political misunderstanding.

De-escalating nuclear tensions and threats with reason

In this article, we will read about the recent research efforts of Lili Xia, a climate scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, who, with her colleagues, created a report that examines the severe consequences of nuclear war for non-combatants far from the battlefield. Hopefully, the information will help to de-escalate nuclear tensions between states and provide a catalyst for more peaceful solutions to be found.

Lili Xia and her colleagues are not the first to use reports, models, and computer simulations to try to de-escalate nuclear tensions. 

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A team from Princeton University studying the Program on Science and Global Security, in collaboration with the School of International Service at American University and the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg, has been developing and promoting the project Nuclear Biscuit, a virtual reality simulation that demonstrates what would happen if the United States was – or believed it was – under nuclear attack.

Since 1986, there have been an estimated 70,300 nuclear weapons, with the work of Global Zero and diplomats such as Richard Burt aiming to reduce the cold war arsenals. There are now fewer than 13,150 nuclear weapons in the world. Nuclear weapons reductions have been reversed by administrations such as the Trump administration.

Hopefully, the analysis of Xia and her colleagues will make politicians think seriously again about nuclear disarmament. 

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Big and small scenarios

In a recent publication in Nature.com, Lili Xia and her colleagues gathered data on the effects of nuclear war on the environment, economy, and human health. They found that nuclear war has many lethal consequences, from direct killing in atomic blasts to the long-term effects of radiation and other environmental pollution.

Nuclear war can cause major environmental damage, including the release of radiation that can cause cancer and other diseases. The economic impact of nuclear war can be devastating, as it can cause a sharp decline in GDP. And the human health effects of nuclear war can be catastrophic, as it can cause widespread death and injuries.

The researchers hope their work will help policymakers and others understand the devastating consequences of nuclear war and work to prevent it from happening.

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A worldwide food shortage could result after a nuclear conflict between two countries

A global crop failure is predicted if the models are accurate. Some scientists predict that a pall of smoke from burning cities will engulf Earth, causing global crop failures. The smoke will cause a decrease in the amount of sunlight that reaches the ground, which would cause a reduction in the plants that can photosynthesize. This could lead to widespread famine and poverty.

Following a minor nuclear war, many warehouses worldwide would be depleted of crops such as wheat. This would lead to a food shortage, as people would have to find other ways to get their daily sustenance. This could lead to riots and other forms of social unrest.

According to new research, even a minor conflict in which two countries use nuclear weapons against each other could result in global famine. Soot emitted by burning cities would encircle the planet, cooling it by reflecting sunlight into space. This, in turn, would cause worldwide crop failures, putting 5 billion people at risk of starvation in the worst-case scenario. Releasing radioactive material from nuclear explosions would create a “nuclear winter” even more destructive than the cold war. The resulting darkness would cause massive animal and plant deaths, leaving much of the world’s population homeless and starving.

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A large percentage of the people will starve,” says Lili Xia, the study’s lead author.

The study, which was published in Nature Food on August 15, is the latest in a decades-long thought experiment about the consequences of nuclear war. It appears to be especially relevant today, as Russia’s war against Ukraine has disrupted global food supplies, highlighting the far-reaching implications of a regional conflict.

How a minor nuclear war would alter the entire planet

A minor nuclear war would cause widespread damage to the planet, significantly impacting weather patterns, food production, and human health. The resulting radiation would also cause extensive damage to infrastructure, homes, and wildlife.

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The researchers predicted how climate would change following a nuclear war and how crops and fisheries would respond. The scientists examined six war scenarios, each emitting varying amounts of soot into the atmosphere and dropping surface temperatures by 1 to 16 degrees Celsius (34 to 61 Fahrenheit) . The consequences could last a decade or more.

One scenario the researcher investigated was a nuclear war between India and Pakistan, possibly sparked by the disputed Kashmir region, could spew into the atmosphere between 5 million and 47 million tonnes of soot, depending on the number of warheads deployed and cities destroyed. A full-fledged nuclear war between the US and Russia could generate 150 million tonnes of soot. The enveloping pall would last for years until the skies finally cleared.

Xia and her colleagues stated that nuclear war could have devastating consequences for the environment and human populations. The soot created by a nuclear exchange would block sunlight, resulting in a prolonged period of darkness and cold weather. It would also contaminate the atmosphere with dangerous radiation levels, which could cause cancer and other health problems. In a full-scale nuclear war, millions of people could be killed or injured, and vast areas of land could be rendered uninhabitable.

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After a nuclear war people would have less to eat

After a nuclear war, the number of calories available for people to eat would be significantly reduced. Some people may choose to raise livestock, but many others may divert crops intended for livestock to humans to keep people fed. Biofuel crops may be repurposed for human consumption, and food waste may be reduced or eliminated. International trade would likely cease as countries choose to feed their people over exporting food.

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Xia points out that the study makes numerous assumptions and simplifies how the complex global food system would respond to a nuclear war. However, the statistics are stark. Even in the simplest war scenario, a conflict between India and Pakistan that results in 5 million tonnes of soot, global calorie production could drop by 7% in the first five years after the war. Global average calories drop by up to 50% in a 47-million-tonnes-of-soot scenario. In the worst-case scenario of a US-Russia war, calorie production drops by 90% three to four years after the conflict.

The nations most affected would be those in the mid to high latitudes, which already have a short growing season and would cool more dramatically after a nuclear war than tropical regions. 

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Nuclear war would be devastating for the UK

The United Kingdom, for example, would experience sharper drops in food availability than a country like India, which is located at lower latitudes. 

France, a major food exporter, would fare relatively well in the lower-emission scenarios, experts believe if trade were halted, France would have more food available for its own people.

Australia and the tropics best places to relocate to

Nations in the tropics would be the least affected because they would have a longer growing season and would not experience a sharp drop in food availability.

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Assuming Australia would be cut off from trade in the aftermath of a nuclear war, it would rely primarily on wheat for food. And wheat would do well in the cooler climate caused by atmospheric soot. Even in the direst war scenarios, Australia gleams an untouched green on the team’s map, which shows large portions of the world colored red for starvation. “The first reaction my son had when I showed him the map was ‘let’s move to Australia,’” Xia says.

Alexandra Witze writing for nature.com, says that this study was useful in understanding the global food impacts of a regional nuclear war.

However, more research is needed to accurately simulate the complex mix of how crops are produced around the world. For example, the study took into account national crop production figures, but the reality is much more nuanced, with different crops grown in different regions of a country for different purposes.

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Findings of the study

The study used computer models to estimate the global food impacts of a regional nuclear war. Still, these models are not accurate enough to simulate the complex mix of how crops are produced worldwide. For example, the study took into account national crop production figures. Still, the reality is much more nuanced, with different crops grown in different regions of a country for different purposes.

Although the study may not be completely accurate in all of its predictions, the prospect of a worldwide famine caused by nuclear war should give people food for thought and an incentive to create more peaceful politics.


Featured image credit: Explosion by Andrew Kuznetsov under CC BY 2.0

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