Environmental consequences of nuclear war

Owen B. Toon, Alan Robock, Richard P. Turco

Research output: Contribution to specialist publicationArticle

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More than 25 years ago, three independent research groups made valuable contributions to elaborating the consequences of nuclear warfare. Paul Crutzen and John Birks proposed that massive fires and smoke emissions in the lower atmosphere after a global nuclear exchange would create severe short-term environmental aftereffects. Extending their work, two of us (Toon and Turco) and colleagues discovered "nuclear winter," which posited that worldwide climatic cooling from stratospheric smoke would cause agricultural collapse that threatened the majority of the human population with starvation. Vladimir Aleksandrov and Georgiy Stenchikov conducted the first general circulation model simulations in the USSR. Subsequent investigations in the mid- and late 1980s by the US National Academy of Sciences and the International Council of Scientific Unions supported those initial studies and shed further light on the phenomena involved. In that same period, Presidents Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev recognized the potential environmental damage attending the use of nuclear weapons and devised treaties to reduce the numbers from their peak in 1986 - a decline that continues today. When the cold war ended in 1992, the likelihood of a superpower nuclear conflict greatly decreased. Significant arsenals remain, however, and proliferation has led to several new nuclear states. Recent work by our colleagues and us shows that even small arsenals threaten people far removed from the sites of conflict because of environmental changes triggered by smoke from firestorms. Meanwhile, modern climate models confirm that the 1980s predictions of nuclear winter effects were, if anything, underestimates.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Number of pages6
Specialist publicationPhysics Today
StatePublished - Dec 11 2008


All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Physics and Astronomy(all)

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