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Aleksandr Ginzburg

Dr. Sci. in Physics and Mathematics, Chief of Laboratory for Mathematical Ecology under the A. Obukhov Institute of Aerophysics (Russian Academy of Sciences), Director of "Development and Environment" Foundation

On May 12, 2022, the RBC news outlet published an article titled “Peskov responded to Medvedev’s Words About Nuclear War Risk.” The article literally says, “Medvedev said that weapons deliveries to Ukraine and NATO drills in the vicinity of Russia’s borders increase the likelihood of a conflict with the alliance, one that can escalate into a nuclear war. Peskov said that everyone wishes to avoid such an outcome.”

Today’s persistent discussions of the danger of a nuclear conflict brings to mind the fact that nuclear weapons not only may bring about colossal destruction and massive human casualties, but they also produce catastrophic environmental and climatic consequences.

Many experts believe that the “nuclear winter” bête noire contributed to changes in the structure of nuclear arsenals and in the strategy and tactics of their possible use. In particular, when developing 3rd and 4th generation nuclear weapons, the U.S. focused heavily on the so-called advanced unitary penetrators as they have a relatively small yield while capable of penetrating dozens of meters into the ground. They rank between subterranean and surface nuclear explosion in the degree of their radiation and atmospheric effects and constitute a sort of a response to the “nuclear winter” threat.

Subterranean nuclear explosions cannot produce climatic effects by emitting large quantities of aerosols into the atmosphere, but they may cause various geophysical problems, including those related to hydrogeological changes and carrying radioactive products from the explosion chamber across long distances.

Current nuclear arsenals and the existing ways of their local use probably won’t cause a global “nuclear winter”—nonetheless, they will inevitably produce grave and largely unpredictable geophysical, climatic, and biological consequences. It is to be fervently hoped that scientists will never have to study the consequences of even a local use of nuclear weapons.

The May cold of a nuclear danger

On May 12, 2022, the RBC news outlet published an article titled “Peskov responded to Medvedev’s Words About Nuclear War Risk.” The article literally says, “Medvedev said that weapons deliveries to Ukraine and NATO drills in the vicinity of Russia’s borders increase the likelihood of a conflict with the alliance, one that can escalate into a nuclear war. Peskov said that everyone wishes to avoid such an outcome.”

The day before, Medvedev pointed out in his channel in Telegram that pumping Ukraine with Western weapons, “sending mercenaries,” conducting NATO drills in the vicinity of Russian borders “increase the likelihood of NATO’s direct and open conflict with Russia,” and such a conflict “always risks escalating into a full-fledged nuclear war.”

Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov previously suggested that risks of a nuclear war are “quite significant”, which means this danger is not to be underestimated. Still, Russia proceeds from the premise that such a development is inadmissible. The White House agreed that a nuclear war will have no winners, while the Pentagon’s chief Lloyd Austin said on May 11 that Russia’s nuclear capabilities “pose significant challenges.”

Today’s persistent discussions of the danger of a nuclear conflict brings to mind the fact that nuclear weapons not only may bring about colossal destruction and massive human casualties, but they also produce catastrophic environmental and climatic consequences. In the late 20th century, it so happened that I was one of those working on the concept of a “nuclear winter,” trying to envisage hypothetical global climatic consequences of a full-fledged nuclear strike exchange.

In today’s turbulent situation, it would be pertinent to remind people of the history of research into both global and regional environmental and climatic effects of using nuclear weapons. It is particularly relevant now—as the academician Aleksey Arbatov has aptly noted, “people have lost the fear of nuclear war.” Andrey Kortunov, RIAC Director General, has recently made quite a timely reminder, saying: “Over the last 30 years, the notion of the nuclear threat being real has been backgrounded in the public mind: it has been edged out by such problems as climate change, uncontrollable migration, international terrorism, and, finally, the coronavirus. Yet, after a global nuclear war, none of these items on the international agenda will matter one whit for those few who will have survived the planet-wide disaster.”

Twilight at noon and the “nuclear winter”

Following World War II, the world was rapidly building up the number and yield of its nuclear weapons in the 1960s-1970s. Consequently, the world needed to assess the effect that high-yield detonations would have on major cities and industrial centers, evaluating possible long-term global consequences of a nuclear war, which at the time seemed quite real.

In 1975, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences released a report titled “Long-Term Worldwide Effects of Multiple Nuclear Weapon Detonations”, which noted the possibility of global radioactive precipitation that could cause deaths of tens of millions of people from cancer and genetic mutations, while ionizing radiation could change the Earth’s environment in unpredictable ways. The report also discussed the shrinking of the ozone layer estimated at 30–70%, which could also have a significant impact on the stratosphere, having a minor effect on the temperatures on the Earth’s surface due to the increased solar radiation. In 1981, the “Comprehensive study on nuclear weapons” report—prepared by a group of experts including scientists, diplomats, and military experts from many countries—was presented to the UN Secretary General. This report generally confirmed the findings of the previous studies.

The report’s main conclusion is quite telling, “If this report has proved nothing else, it should at least have served to demonstrate the catastrophic consequences which would result if the nuclear arsenals of today or tomorrow were ever unleashed in War. There are perhaps some who wish to draw comfort from calculations that it may be difficult to kill outright every man, woman and child on earth even in a nuclear war. But such calculations are empty exercises. The danger of the annihilation of human civilization should not be made the subject of theoretical arguments, but be used as a basis for creating a common awareness of the alarming situation the world is facing today and of the need for exercising the political will to search for acceptable solutions.”

A true breakthrough in studying possible consequences of a nuclear war took place in the early 1980s. In 1982, the Swedish AMBIO journal sent shockwaves through the international scientific community with its special issue with a catchy title “Nuclear War: The Aftermath.” Scientists throughout the world were particularly riveted by the article “The Atmosphere After a Nuclear War: Twilight at Noon” penned by Paul Jozef Crutzen and John W. Birks.

Research in this area produced significant progress in studying atmospheric chemistry—in 1995, Paul Crutzen, Mario Molina, and Frank Sherwood Rowland were awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry “for their work in atmospheric chemistry, particularly concerning the formation and decomposition of ozone.”

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The article produced by Crutzen and Birks triggered a boom in researching the hypothesis of “nuclear winter”. The first such study was an article by American scientists titled “Nuclear Winter: Global Consequences of Multiple Nuclear Explosions” and published in 1983 in Science. It inaugurated the notion of a “nuclear winter”. Although the Internet did not exist in the early 1980s, the results of this study quickly reached the leaders of the USSR Academy of Sciences via special communication channels and were forwarded to the Computational Center, the Institute of Atmospheric Physics, and other specialized institutes of the USSR Academy of Sciences.

In 1983–1985, U.S. and Soviet scientists formulated the principal tenets of the “nuclear winter” hypothesis and assessed climatic consequences of a possible large-scale nuclear strike exchange. They started studying other properties of the atmosphere and earth surface that could change after explosions and fires. Since the earth’s climatic system abounds with direct and inverse relationships, these changes may produce catastrophic global and regional climatic effects.

It became apparent rather quickly that atmospheric processes emerging in the wake of an exchange with nuclear strikes should not be considered in isolation, they may produce various effects of various intensities. Assessing their overall effect requires numerical models of atmospheric circulation with account for chemical, optical and other properties. Back then, such models did not exist as they were only being developed, but it was already apparent that the contemporary assessments of the 1980s picturing harmful consequences that a nuclear war would have for the atmosphere did not span the entire complex of dangerous phenomena. The list of possible consequences includes nearly total elimination of stratospheric ozone, huge forest fires and local storms, smoke contamination of the atmosphere throughout virtually the entire northern hemisphere, protracted droughts over large territories, and this list is far from complete.

A “nuclear winter” will be largely caused by massive fires, and, consequently, as numerical modeling developed and computational capabilities increased, work was launched on researching possible atmospheric and climatic consequences of a full-fledged nuclear conflict and on searching for natural analogues of this climatic disaster.

Massive natural and man-made fires and powerful dust storms on Mars and on Earth can serve as such natural analogues showing that “nuclear winter” is in principle possible.

When searching for natural analogues of the “nuclear winter,” scientists became particularly interested in analyzing the largest of the natural fires, the optical properties and the temperature effects their smoke had. Figure 1 gives the map of the best known and largest forest and peat fires of the 20th century.

Fig. 1. 20th-century largest forest and peat fires: fire areas (1), the paths fires followed (2), smoke spread (3) in 1915, 1950, and 1972.

The importance and popularity of “nuclear winter” studies in the USSR in the 1980s was so great that Andrey Voznesensky wrote a poem he called “Nuclear Winter (from Byron)” with his epigraph, “I have translated the ‘Darkness’ poem as ‘Nuclear winter.’” I will quote two excerpts from it:

Listen! Sun is furled
With smoke from across the world.
Cold came. Cities burned and were lost.
Hungry people are shackled by frost.
Forest burned. Fell. Oh, orphaned earth —
Rayless and pathless and the icy Earth...

Nuclear winter in the atmosphere...
Known to science itself for only a year.
Turning to ice will be the winner’s curse.
Kapitsa showed me Byron’s verse.
Read Byron whose nose was better than a dog’s, His poem is our climate disaster’s epilogue.

Sergey Kapitsa told me he had always admired the way Byron described the atmospheric effects of the Mount Tambora volcanic eruption in Indonesia in 1812 that is poetically presented in “Darkness.” His admiration is entirely justified. Just look at the single image from Byron’s poem (“rayless and pathless and the icy Earth”) that perfectly captures both the iced-over Earth and sunlight without sun rays that happens when the Sun is shining through a layer of smoke. For instance, the “blue” Sun effect was seen in 1952 in North America, when the Sun was seen through a layer of smoke from forest fires in Alberta.

Regional nuclear “frost”

In the last decade of the 20th century, the interest in studying the phenomenon of “nuclear winter” significantly waned, which was the case for a variety of reasons. However, in the early 21st century, it began to wax again (for another variety of reasons). The last couple of decades saw a particular focus on environmental and climatic consequences of possible regional nuclear conflicts involving relatively small nuclear payloads.

In the late 20th – early 21st century, the threat of a nuclear war between the largest nuclear powers seemed less real, but the danger of local nuclear incidents and nuclear terrorism using relatively small and “dirty” nuclear payloads increased. At the dawn of the 21st century, the situation appeared particularly dangerous on the Hindustan Peninsula, given that India and Pakistan both have nuclear weapons.

The consequences of a global exchange with nuclear strikes and the environmental and climatic consequences of a possible nuclear India-Pakistan incident have certain fundamental differences: a relatively small total explosive power of all the nuclear warheads that India and Pakistan have (about 1 Mt as of 2000); natural and climatic features of the region where the nuclear incident may potentially happen; the region’s specific demographics and population’s vulnerability to significance environmental changes.

These differences make it impossible to directly apply the findings of previous studies to this case; this situation needs to be specifically researched with particular account for specific military, technical, natural, climatic, and demographic conditions.

Clearly, a possible nuclear India-Pakistan incident will not entail large-scale atmospheric changes and subsequent environmental disasters as in the case of a “nuclear winter,” but it will certainly have local and regional meteorological and environmental effects that could, nonetheless, affect the life of the population and the regional demographic situation in a much stronger manner than the destruction directly wrought by nuclear explosions.

In addition to the possible consequences of a hypothetical India-Pakistan nuclear conflict, a group of U.S. scientists modeled in the first decades of the 21st century the effects of the dust cloud that enveloped downtown New York when the Twin Towers collapsed on September 11, 2001. They used numerical models similar to the climatic effect models for relatively small nuclear explosives.

Many experts believe that the “nuclear winter” bête noire contributed to changes in the structure of nuclear arsenals and in the strategy and tactics of their possible use. In particular, when developing 3rd and 4th generation nuclear weapons, the U.S. focused heavily on the so-called advanced unitary penetrators as they have a relatively small yield while capable of penetrating dozens of meters into the ground. They rank between subterranean and surface nuclear explosion in the degree of their radiation and atmospheric effects and constitute a sort of a response to the “nuclear winter” threat.

Subterranean nuclear explosions cannot produce climatic effects by emitting large quantities of aerosols into the atmosphere, but they may cause various geophysical problems, including those related to hydrogeological changes and carrying radioactive products from the explosion chamber across long distances.

Current nuclear arsenals and the existing ways of their local use probably won’t cause a global “nuclear winter”—nonetheless, they will inevitably produce grave and largely unpredictable geophysical, climatic, and biological consequences.

It is to be fervently hoped that scientists will never have to study the consequences of even a local use of nuclear weapons.

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