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Nuclear Winter

Nuclear winter is a theory estimating the global climatic consequences of a nuclear war: prolonged and worldwide cooling and darkening caused by sunlight-blocking smoke and soot entering the atmosphere. The term nuclear winter was first defined and used by American astronomer Carl Sagan (1934–1996) and his group of colleagues in their 1983 article (later referred to as the TTAPS-article, from the initials of the authors' family names). This article was the first one to take into consideration not only the direct damage, but also the indirect effects of a nuclear war.

During the Cold War concern about the use of nuclear weapons initially concentrated on initial blast damage and the dangers of radioactive fallout. Subsequently, researchers began to explore the possible environmental effects of nuclear war.

The basic assumption during a nuclear war is that the exploding nuclear warheads would create huge fires, resulting in smoke and soot from burning cities and forests being emitted into the troposphere in vast amounts. This would block the Sun's incoming radiation from reaching the surface of Earth, causing cooling of the surface temperatures. The smoke and soot soon would rise because of their high temperature, allowing them to drift at high altitudes for weeks without being washed out. Finally, the particles would settle in the Northern Hemisphere mid-latitudes as a black particle cloud belt, blocking sunshine for several weeks.

The ensuing darkness and cold, combined with nuclear fallout radiation, would kill most of Earth's vegetation and animal life, which would lead to starvation and diseases for the human population surviving the nuclear war itself. At the same time, the upper troposphere temperatures would rise because the smoke would absorb sunlight and warm it up, creating a temperature inversion, which would keep smog at the lower levels. Another predcited consequence is that nuclear explosions would produce nitrogen oxides, which would damage the protective ozone layer in the stratosphere, thus allowing more ultraviolet radiation to reach Earth's surface.

Although the basic findings of the original TTAPS-article have been confirmed by later reports, some later studies report a lesser degree of cooling would occur, and only for weeks instead of the initially estimated months. According to different scenarios, depending on the number of nuclear explosions, their spatial distribution, targets, and many other factors, this cloud of soot and dust could remain for many months, reducing sunlight almost entirely, and decrease average temperatures to well below freezing over a majority of the densely inhabited areas of the Northern Hemisphere.

In contrast, some climate models postulate a 'nuclear summer,' stating that a worldwide warming would follow a nuclear war because of the many small contributions to the greenhouse effect from carbon dioxide, water vapor, ozone, and various aerosols entering the troposphere and stratosphere.

Opponents of the nuclear winter theory argue that there are many problems with the hypothesized scenarios either because of the model's incorrect assumptions (e.g., the results would be right only if exactly the assumed amount of dust would enter the atmosphere, or because the model assumes uniformly distributed, constantly injected particles). Other critics of the nuclear winter scenario point out that the models used often to not include processes and/or feedback mechanisms that may moderate or mitigate the initial effects of nuclear blasts on the atmosphere (e.g., the moderating effects of the oceans).

The nuclear winter scenario remains scientifically controversial because the exact level of atmospheric damage, along with the extent and duration of subsequent processes cannot be agreed upon with full confidence.

What all scenarios and models forecast is that a nuclear war would have a significant effect on the atmosphere and climate of Earth, and consequently, would drastically and negatively affect many aspects of life such as food production and energy consumption.

Resources

Periodicals

Ehrlich, Paul, et al., "Long-Term Biological Consequences of Nuclear War." Science 222, 4630 (1983).

Turco, R.P., O.B. Toon, T.P. Ackerman, J.B. Pollack, Carl Sagan, "Nuclear Winter: Global Consequences of Multiple Nuclear Explosions," Science, 222,4630 (1983).

Weinberger, Casper. "The Potential Effects of Nuclear War on the Climate," Nuclear Winter, Joint Hearing before the Committee on Science and Technology and the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, U.S. House of Representatives. GPO 1985): 274-277.

White Paper. "Nuclear Winter: Scientists in the Political Arena." Physics in Perspective. 3:1 (2001):76-105.


Agnes Galambosi

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