A recent panel of scientists has analyzed the real effects of the nuclear arsenals of several major powers. The group wanted to look at just how likely nuclear winter was with different types of weapons, as well how many it would take to cause the less apocalyptic but still globally devastating “nuclear autumn.”
During the cold war, estimates suggested that it would take many, many weapons close to the same time to muck with the planet. But as we update our models, we now understand that nuclear winter, like most things, is a little more complicated (and worse) than we thought.
When a nuclear weapon goes off, especially if it hits a huge city, it can cause a massive firestorm — basically an out-of-control wildfire that will be hot enough to incinerate just about everything from steel and rubber to concrete. That would kick up millions of tons of particulates and ash that, thanks to the air currents set off from the bomb, would reach the upper layers of the atmosphere. And at that point, we might as well be hit with a meteor. Global rainfall would drop off dramatically, and the havoc with global climate and temperature could devastate crop yield for the next five years, and that’s not to mention the radiation belts we’d have to deal with.
If you’re wondering what changed between the Cold War and now, it’s two things. First, we’re just better at science now, and our predictions and models are more accurate, and two… bombs got a lot more powerful.
China’s workhorse nuclear warheads have a yield of five megatons. During the Cold War, strategy and planning were based on the older, smaller 15 kiloton bombs. If one of China’s nukes hit a large city like London, for instance, the world would feel not just the loss of millions, but starvation and thirst for years to come.
The study also suggests that recent shifts in global politics have made the use of nuclear weapons far more likely today than during the tensest moments of the Cold War.
We do indeed live in dark times. Many of our greatest minds have rightly warned about the possibility of nuclear apocalypse. It’s in Star Trek, even, as a grim warning against the trend towards conflict and warfare throughout human history. The scale of the tragedy that can be inflicted with these terrible machines was great enough that, with only a handful of exceptions, the scientists who made it possible all regret their choice to participate. And why wouldn’t they?
We struggle with keeping our species alive as it is, what with the climate change, famine, disease, and… sadly, conventional warfare. We have plenty of ways to die and maim and kill without these beasts around.
In Iron Man, Tony Stark demonstrates the power of his new Jericho Missile. He starts by saying “They say the best weapon is the one you never have to fire,” before flipping that. “Find an excuse to let one of these off the chain, and I personally guarantee the bad guys won’t even wanna come out of their caves.”
After that, we see a massive explosion that takes out the side of a whole mountain range. The scene is clear — weapons will always find a way to wind themselves into the wrong hands. Stark’s growth throughout the series, the entire Avengers series and another huge piece of all of modern Geekdom — the Marvel Cinematic Universe — sets itself against the use of weapons of mass destruction.
Earlier this month almost all of the world’s nations elected to ban nuclear weapons outright. The law said that ridding the world of nukes was “a global public good of the highest order.” The ban would require that no country under any circumstances “develop, test, produce, manufacture, otherwise acquire, possess or stockpile nuclear weapons.” It also bars them from even threating to use a nuclear weapon or helping another country use them.
Now that we know that even one nuke could wreck the world for a decade or more… this doesn’t sound like a bad idea at all. Unfortunately, while the rest of the world fears the threat of global extinction, all the countries with nukes, as well as their closest allies, boycotted the vote.
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