Nuclear Winter: Does Anyone Care?

The article Local Nuclear War, Global Suffering discusses the possible effects of a “nuclear winter,” an event following nuclear conflict that would have a major impact on the environment and on global agriculture. Nuclear explosions are theorized to throw enormous amounts of debris and fine particles into the high atmosphere, where it is trapped for long periods of time. This layer of particles blocks sunlight, thereby lowering global temperatures and affecting crops. In addition, a nuclear winter would heat the atmosphere and cause a drastic thinning of the ozone layer, which could cause future effects on global climate in the future. In the event of even a regional conflict in northern India and Pakistan (with, as the authors propose, only 100 nuclear detonations), the resulting nuclear winter could cripple agriculture globally, and possible cause the deaths of one billion people from food shortages. Even in the case of a “local” or regional war then, the authors argue, the impact of this war can be felt in a severe way across the entire world. They recommend abolition of nuclear weapons, to preclude a nuclear winter from happening.

One question that came to my mind as I read this is whether the possibility of a nuclear winter is appropriately taken into account by political and military decision-makers in debating when and why to use nuclear weapons. I can’t say that I’ve heard much about an event like this in debates on nuclear weapons. It also seems that the people who would be most affected by hunger (the global poor) are extremely far from the decision-making process for two other nations to go to war.

Another question that I had was what precautions can be made to mitigate the effects of a nuclear winter, if one were to occur. For example, have agricultural methods and seeds been engineered in order to sustain production in this type of event? Or, are there potential ways to hasten the clearing of the atmosphere (by capturing particles early, for example)? — Jay