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Nuclear winter

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Abstract Nuclear winter is the term for a theory describing the climatic effects of nuclear war. Smoke from the fires started by nuclear weapons, especially the black, sooty smoke from cities and industrial facilities, would be heated by the Sun, lofted into the upper stratosphere, and spread globally, lasting for years. The resulting cool, dark, dry conditions at Earth's surface would prevent crop growth for at least one growing season, resulting in mass starvation over most of the world. In addition, there would be massive ozone depletion, allowing enhanced ultraviolet radiation. More people could die in the noncombatant countries than in those where the bombs were dropped, because of these indirect effects. Nuclear proliferation is now expanding the threat. A nuclear war between India and Pakistan could produce so much smoke that it would produce global environmental change unprecedented in recorded human history. Although the number of nuclear weapons in the world has fallen from 70,000 at its peak in the 1980s to less than 10,000 currently deployed, a nuclear war between the United States and Russia could still produce nuclear winter. This theory cannot be tested in the real world. However, analogs can inform us about parts of the theory, and there are many that give support to the theory. They include the seasonal cycle, the diurnal cycle, forest, fires, volcanic eruptions, and dust storms on Mars. The only way to be sure to prevent the climatic effects of nuclear war is to rid the world of nuclear weapons. Copyright © 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. This article is categorized under: Climate Models and Modeling > Knowledge Generation with Models Assessing Impacts of Climate Change > Evaluating Future Impacts of Climate Change

Hiroshima after a 15‐kt bomb was dropped on August 6, 1945. The streets were cleaned before this picture was taken. Where have all the buildings gone? They burned in the resulting fire, pumping thick clouds of black smoke into the atmosphere. (Original picture copied by author from US Air Force Photo Library, Bolling Air Force Base, Washington, DC).

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Global average surface air temperature change from the 5 Tg (red), 50 Tg (green), and 150 Tg (brown) cases in the context of the climate change of the past 125 years. Observations are from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Goddard Institute for Space Studies analysis.32 (Figure 8 from Ref 14, copyright 2007 American Geophysical Union, used by permission).

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Global average surface air temperature change from the 5 Tg standard case (red) in the context of the climate change of the past 125 years. Observations are from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Goddard Institute for Space Studies analysis.32 The large global warming we have experienced in the past century would more than be erased, but with 20,000,000 dead immediately, many more injured from the effects of blast, fire, and radioactivity, cities rendered uninhabitable for long periods, and the effects on the global food supply, this should not ever be considered as a solution for global warming. (Figure 9 from Ref 15, copyright 2007 Alan Robock, used by permission).

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New nuclear states have steadily appeared since the invention of nuclear weapons. In this graph the date of the first test, or the date when weapons were obtained, is noted. Israel and South Africa did not test weapons so their dates to obtain weapons are uncertain. South Africa abandoned its arsenal in the 1990s. Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan also abandoned the weapons they inherited after they left the Soviet Union. The red lines show growth in the number of nuclear weapons states at the rate of one new state each 5 years. Although the growth halted during the 1980s and 1990s, just after nuclear winter research was published and the Cold War ended, the recent resumption of growth is of great concern. (Modified from Ref 28, used by permission).

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Number of nuclear warheads in Russia (formerly USSR), the US, and the total for all the nuclear weapons states.16 Russia and the US have more than 95% of the warheads worldwide. The number of warheads began to fall after 1986 following the Intermediate‐Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and by 2005 it was about one‐third of its value at the peak in 1986. Current treaties do not require a future reduction in the numbers of warheads, only a reduction in the numbers of warheads that are on strategic delivery systems. Weapons on strategic delivery systems should decline to 1700–2200 for each country by 2012 based on current treaties. (Updated from Figure 1 from Ref 17, used by permission).

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