Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The Ultimate Scary Scenario

Whatever the worrisome projections for global warming may be, there is an even bigger threat to our well-being—nuclear war. Aging stockpiles of nuclear weapons are a potentially Earth-shattering, ticking time bomb, capable of going off accidentally or deliberately. The United States, Russia, China, Britain and France have thousands of nuclear missiles left over from the Cold War and still primed for waging World War III. India and Pakistan developed competing nuclear arsenals. Israel and North Korea also reportedly developed nuclear weapons. And now, with US-led wars raging on two of its borders, Iran may be trying to join the nuclear club, setting off saber-rattling and threats of military attacks by the US and Israel.

Here’s the problem: “In the 1980's, work conducted jointly by Western and Soviet scientists showed that for a full-scale nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union the climatic consequences, and indirect effects of the collapse of society, would be so severe that the ensuing nuclear winter would produce famine for billions of people far from the target zones,” says a recently update essay in the Encyclopedia of Earth, written by Alan Robock, a professor of climatology at Rutgers University.

That warning was based on computer models of the likely effect of massive radioactive clouds of dense smoke circling the Earth and blocking out sunlight for months, killing food crops and dropping temperatures to deep winter. More recent studies have found that the earlier research may have underestimated these effects, Robock adds: “Based on new work published in 2007 and 2008 by some of the pioneers of nuclear winter research who worked on the original studies, we now can say several things about this topic.

New Science:

A minor nuclear war (such as between India and Pakistan or in the Middle East), with each country using 50 Hiroshima-sized atom bombs as airbursts on urban areas, could produce climate change unprecedented in recorded human history. This is only 0.03% of the explosive power of the current global arsenal.

This same scenario would produce global ozone depletion, because the heating of the stratosphere would enhance the chemical reactions that destroy ozone.

A nuclear war between the United States and Russia today could produce nuclear winter, with temperatures plunging below freezing in the summer in major agricultural regions, threatening the food supply for most of the planet.”

Looking for a comparison to such a scary scenario, Robock points to one of the most devastating climate changes on Earth: “65,000,000 years ago an asteroid or comet smashed into the Earth in southern Mexico. The resulting dust cloud, mixed with smoke from fires, blocked out the Sun, killing the dinosaurs, and starting the age of mammals. This Cretaceous-Tertiary (K-T) extinction may have been exacerbated by massive volcanism in India at the same time. This teaches us that large amounts of aerosols in Earth's atmosphere have caused massive climate change and extinction of species. The difference with nuclear winter is that the K-T extinction could not have been prevented.”

Robock argues that the only way to be sure nuclear winter never happens is to dismantle the nuclear arsenals. Among a growing list of supporters of abolishing atomic bombs and missile warheads are several former US government officials, led by former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Schultz, who signed a joint statement published in the Wall Street Journal last year to endorse “setting the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons and working energetically on the actions required to achieve that goal.”

The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) was launched in 2007 by the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, which received the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize for its public education campaign on the dangers of nuclear war during a tense standoff in US-Soviet relations. The ICAN campaign is based in Australia. The Campaign for a Nuclear Free World was launched in Washington, DC, last year by a number of American peace organizations.

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