The idea of an arms race conjures in some minds a heightened possibility that a nuclear power might actually unleash the most devastating weaponry known to humanity. Those fears have not been quieted by North Korea’s successful test earlier this month of an intercontinental ballistic missile that appeared capable of hitting Alaska and Hawaii. The test was framed by the United States as a “dangerous escalation” of serious tensions between the two countries.
Against that backdrop, researchers and students at the University of Colorado and Rutgers University are studying the human and environmental impacts of a potential nuclear war, using the most advanced scientific tools available.
U Professor Brian Toon and Rutgers Professor Alan Robock are hardly new to their subject matter, having been among those involved in the initial research that revealed the potential for nuclear winter, showing that the effects would last more than a decade, with smoke from nuclear conflagrations rising as high as 25 miles into the atmosphere.
Toon, at CU’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, said their new study is intended to calculate for the first time the impacts of nuclear war on agriculture, on the oceanic food chain and on humans, as well as migration activity and food availability.
‘Ice age temperatures’
Toon was a co-author — along with Carl Sagan and others — in 1983 on “Nuclear Winter: Global Consequences of Multiple Nuclear Explosions.”
Termed the TTAPS study — an acronym taken from the authors’ last names — it coined the term “nuclear winter,” advancing the theory that uncontrolled fires would send hundreds of millions of tons of smoke and soot into the atmosphere, ultimately blocking out the sun and plunging surface temperatures by 20 to 40 degrees Celsius for a prolonged period of time.
While noting that he doesn’t believe Trump has given the issue a lot of thought, Toon said, “To be fair, I don’t think Obama gave it very much thought, either. I think he was aware of the problems. But there is no indication that the Department of Defense wants the American public to think about this kind of thing.”
He is well into his fourth decade of doing just that.
“A full-scale war between Russia and the U.S. would cause basically ice age temperatures on the planet,” said Toon, a professor in CU’s Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences and a recognized contributor to the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize that went to former Vice President Al Gore and the International Panel on Climate Change.
“It would be below freezing at our latitude for several years — even in the middle of the summer. It would stop all agriculture at mid latitude. This would lead to starvation. … There would be nothing to eat, basically, and people would starve to death.”