Wednesday, June 6, 2012

After the Winter: Nuclear Famine

Ninety-nine percent of all species that have ever existed on Earth are now extinct. Extinction is the norm. What falls outside normalcy is a self-inflicted extinction, that is, the species being solely responsible for their wipe-out. How certain species met their demise might have several contending theories, but every paleontologist can agree that the dinosaurs, as an example, weren’t annihilated because a tyrannosaurs rex detonated a Jurassic bomb on the triceratops. Our species, humans, has scientific and technological achievements rivaled by no other life-form in the history of Earth. However, these great feats are also what make us so vulnerable; some of our inventions, though ingenious, also hold the grave capability of destroying our population.

“Nuclear winter” is a well-known term in the public vernacular. The theoretical concept predicts the effects on the Earth’s climate in the event of nuclear warfare. Carl Sagan, a renowned astronomer and author, helped develop the nuclear winter climate model in 1983. His model predicts sunlight would be reduced from smoke and soot seeping into the stratosphere. This would cause a drastic drop in surface temperature and a “winter” to blanket over Earth.

Recently, a new term has been introduced within the discussion of nuclear disarmament: “nuclear famine.” The scientists who worked with the late Carl Sagan in the 1980s to study nuclear winter have now produced new research exploring the effects on world agricultural production from a disturbance in global climate.  A report called “Nuclear Famine: A Billion People at Risk” by Ira Helfand from the Physicians for Social Responsibility and the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War was released this year ( The findings are nothing short of terrifying.

In the hypothetical event that a limited, regional nuclear war between India and Pakistan took place, where around 100 Hiroshima-sized nuclear weapons were detonated, or less that 0.5% of the world’s nuclear arsenal, 5 Tg of black carbon particles would seep into the atmosphere. A global average surface cooling of -1.25o C would persist for years from the soot, and the resulting impact on agricultural production would be a disaster unprecedented in human history.

In the US, corn production would decline by an average 10% for an entire decade, with the most severe decline being 20% in the fifth year after the South Asian nuclear exchange. US soybean production would decline by 7%, with the most severe loss being 20% in the fifth year. In China, rice production would fall by an average of 21%. Agricultural markets would fail to function normally. Food prices around the world would inevitably rise due to the shortage, making food inaccessible to hundreds of millions of the world’s poorest citizens. Sustained agricultural shortfalls over an extended period would lead to panic and hoarding by food-exporting nations, further reducing accessible food supplies.

The report concluded that the number of people that would be threatened by nuclear famine would be over one billion. Not enough to cause a mass extinction of the human species perhaps, but enough to bring an end to modern civilization.

A regional nuclear war between India and Pakistan is only one hypothetical event amongst the hundreds of possibilities of nuclear exchange and detonation. To avoid any of these events, the complete elimination of nuclear weapons is imperative. The next mass extinction on our planet must be nuclear weapons before they have a chance to eliminate us.

Blow up all the weapons. It hardly matters. Some kinds of life will survive – grasses, social insects, the worms that inhabit submarine vents on the ocean bottoms. They don’t care about nuclear war. The species that is vulnerable to our technology is us. We are a danger to ourselves. What’s at risk is us. –Carl Sagan, 1994.


  1. Well stated. An alarm bell that we all need to hear. SW

  2. This is soooo true.I wish our leaders listen to someone like you,may be one day you can be one of the leader ( we can dream.:)


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...