Computer Models Show What Exactly Would Happen To Earth After A Nuclear War

By Francie Diep Posted July 18, 2014

Wasp Prime Test From Operation Teapot

Wikimedia Commons

You’ve seen what a nuclear winter looks like, as imagined by filmmakers and novelists. Now you can take a look at what scientists have to say. In a new study, a team of four U.S. atmospheric and environmental scientists modeled what would happen after a “limited, regional nuclear war.” To inexpert ears, the consequences sound pretty subtle — two or three degrees of global cooling, a nine percent reduction in yearly rainfall. Still, such changes could be enough to trigger crop failures and famines. After all, these would be cooler temperatures than the Earth has seen in 1,000 years.

Let’s take a detailed look at some of these super-fun conclusions, shall we?

First, what happened?

The team imagines 100 nuclear warheads, each about the size of the atomic bomb the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima, detonate over the Indian subcontinent. The team members are imagining an India-Pakistan nuclear war. It seems unfair to single out these nations, but I guess they’re the poster children because they have relatively small nuclear stockpiles compared to countries such as the U.S., Russia and China. The idea is, If these lightweights can do this to Earth, imagine what the bigwigs can do.

After the Indian-Pakistani nuclear exchange…

Okay, I know I’ve just made your day with this list. Still, there’s a point to all this doom and gloom, the modelers write in their paper. The scientists want to motivate countries to destroy the estimated 17,000 nuclear weapons they still hold.

Will this work? Well, scientists and artists have been imagining the dire consequences of an atom-bomb war for decades. The very idea of a “nuclear winter” entered the popular imagination in 1983, when a study, authored by a team including Carl Sagan, first proposed that soot from fires after a nuclear war would block sunlight from reaching Earth.

Twenty-five years later, environmental scientists began using modern climate models to figure out what might happen after a nuclear war. Yep, these are the same models that scientists use to predict the effects of human-driven global warming. This new paper combined a number of those state-of-the-art models. If you check out the paper, published in the journal Earth’s Future, you can see how these conclusions compare to previous climate-model-based calculations. Different modeling efforts have come up with slightly different years for when the Earth would be coldest after a nuclear war, for example, but they generally agree that the effects would be, well, severe and long-term.

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