Maybe you’ve heard people say they’d like to see North Korea wiped off the face of the map. Maybe you’ve even said it yourself. You might agree with Americans who think Kim Jong-un should be taught a lesson by way of American nuclear firepower.
Perhaps you agree with those who feel, for any one of myriad possible reasons, that the immediate loss of life—on the Korean peninsula and among its neighbors—is not enough of a deterrent to the idea of unleashing nuclear weapons on North Korea. You may or may not be right, but I am not here to argue that point with you today.
Instead, I would like us to consider the possibility of nuclear winter. This is the term used to describe the earth’s atmosphere being shrouded in a heavy layer of smoke, limiting the sun’s rays and cooling the planet significantly—or worse, causing the sun to be blocked out entirely. Nuclear winter is mostly theoretical, predicted by scientists and computer models as something that could happen under certain conditions. These conditions include extreme amounts of industrial smog, massive fires, volcanoes and nuclear detonation.
I admit that I have not given the concept of nuclear winter much thought before now. It’s an idea that was around in the latter decades of the 20th century and has not gotten much attention since then. Or, at least, it hasn’t gotten much of my attention. But I heard a radio show recently that examined the possibility, likelihood and repercussions of what could happen in the event of a nuclear conflict, and it frankly scared the heck out of me.
The idea of nuclear winter takes the concern for people living on a distant continent and transports it to my own backyard. Nuclear winter would, at the very least, have widespread impacts on agriculture, causing extensive famine. And in today’s global market, even if you and I are not directly affected by sun-blocking clouds, we will still feel its effects.
I have never been the kind of prepper who believes in storing up 10 years’ worth of rice and beans and other dry staples with a long shelf life. I’ve always thought it makes much more sense to instead have land and skills, and be tough and independent. Why have a bunkerful of processed food—why not instead be able to grow and harvest and preserve my own? Sure, that stuff is great for the short term, as my pantry chocked full of both home-grown and store-bought foods will attest to, but nothing I want to rely on for the long haul.
But if the science is correct, even a small-scale nuclear event could cause a cloud to spread over enough of the atmosphere to create significant famine. And if there’s no sun at all, all the land and skills and tough independence in the world won’t be enough.
The prominent 20th-century astrophysicist Carl Sagan was among the first to warn the world about the possibility of nuclear winter. According to a New York Times video, the predictions of Sagan and other scientists influenced decisions by superpower leaders that helped bring about the end of the Cold War.
Successive studies suggested that nuclear winter was not a certainty, and that something closer to “nuclear fall” was more likely to occur. People sort of set it aside and forgot about it.
The Science Behind It
Recently, the topic of nuclear winter and its possible global repercussions is again making the news, as tensions mount between the United States and North Korea, and the threat of nuclear detonation feels more real than it has for decades. And again, scientists are telling us that nuclear winter is real, and it is a big deal. In a January 2017 “Open Letter to President-elect Trump” about Nuclear Weapons and Nuclear Winter, climate science professor Alan Robock offered this dire prediction:
“In the 1980’s…scientists…discovered that smoke from fires ignited by nuclear explosions would be so dense that it would block out the sun, turning Earth cold, dark, and dry, killing plants, and preventing agriculture for at least a year. In the last decade…using modern climate models and computers, I found that this nuclear winter theory was correct, that the effects would persist for more than a decade, and that the New START-reduced nuclear arsenals will still be able to produce this nuclear winter.”
Those are strong words. Strong enough to make people sit up and pay attention, and strong enough to make people like me start thinking about a bunkerful of food. Alan Robock was among the guest experts on the radio show I heard that shook me awake to this topic. The show On Point, entitled “The Ramifications of Going Nuclear,” also featured president Joseph Cirincione of the nonprofit Ploughshares Fund, which seeks to abolish the threat of nuclear warfare.
After hearing the episode, my husband and I mulled over what Robock and Cirincione had said, and we discussed the potential implications in our own lives. Should we begin building a bunker of foods that will last us the duration of a nuclear winter? Should we wait until we hear on the news that the first missile has launched and then run out and max out our credit cards on pasta and canned goods? Should we hope and pray that cooler heads prevail and the crisis is averted altogether?
Some might dismiss the likelihood of nuclear winter, or even nuclear autumn. It’s true that scientists are not always right about the future. None of them are A cardiologist cannot tell you with absolute certainty whether you will have a second heart attack. Meteorologists don’t always get tomorrow’s weather exactly right. Intelligent people do well to maintain a modicum of skepticism.
But experts do know more than we do about their subjects. For example, I assure you that you are far better off driving across a bridge that was designed by engineers, rather than across a bridge that was designed by me. And getting your teeth fixed by a dentist is probably a better choice than asking the guy at the coffee counter to do it. We cannot realistically be specialists in every area of our lives. We can’t be our own pediatricians, electricians, software engineers, homebuilders and astronauts—along with every other area of scientific study most of us rely on in our daily lives. In the end, we have to trust somebody else’s interpretation of science and their predictions of what might happen.
And what some scientists are saying is that nuclear warfare could spell absolute disaster for the planet. Not just for the people and landscape in its immediate vicinity, and not just for a brief period of time. It could be quite literally the end of the world as we know it. They may not be right, but as Carl Sagan said, “I wouldn’t want to bet my life on it.”
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