A full-scale nuclear war between Russia and the U.S. could trigger a global famine and kill more than 5 billion people, according to peer reviewed research published in Nature Food on Monday, while a smaller regional nuclear conflict could also lead to the starvation of billions, sober findings that show the wide-reaching implications of nuclear war as tensions between several nuclear-armed states soar amid ongoing conflict in Ukraine.
Soot blasted into the atmosphere following a nuclear exchange would obliterate crop production by blocking out sunlight and lowering temperatures, according to climate models simulating six different nuclear war scenarios.
The models, which analyzed changes to agricultural production and trade in five scenarios for how smaller nuclear wars between India and Pakistan could play out and one large war between Russia and the U.S., showed that even a small, localized nuclear war could have far-reaching consequences and trigger food shortages so severe they would kill billions of people.
Under the most extreme scenario—a large-scale nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia—plummeting agricultural output would mean more than 75% of the planet would be starving within two years, the researchers said, covering almost all countries except for Australia and a few nations in Africa and South America.
More than two billion people could die due to famine within two years of a smaller exchange between India and Pakistan, the researchers found.
Crop declines would be most severe in mid-high latitude nations, which includes exporting powerhouses like the U.S. and Russia, and would likely result in export restrictions that would cause severe hardship in import-dependent countries in Africa and the Middle East.
Savings from offsetting strategies like using crops fed to livestock to feed people or eliminating all food waste could be of limited help in the immediate aftermath of a small nuclear war but would be of minimal use after major conflicts, the researchers said.
What We Don’t Know
The other impacts of nuclear war on food production. The scenarios considered by the researchers focused explicitly on calories and the impact of soot put into the atmosphere. Caloric intake considers only a fraction of the nutritional needs of humans, they note, adding that future research should consider the impact on the various proteins and micronutrients vital to human health. A nuclear war would also have impacts that stretch far beyond initiating a nuclear winter. Heating of the atmosphere by nuclear detonations could destroy the ozone layer and allow more UV radiation to the planet’s surface, for example. There would be large areas impacted by radioactive contamination and key infrastructure and products for food production could be wiped out. These issues should be considered in future research, the researchers said.
What To Watch For
It’s possible humans could adapt agricultural systems to function in the case of nuclear winter, the researchers noticed, though they warned such changes would be challenging to implement in time for the deadly second year predicted by models. Using cold-adapted crops that need less light, greenhouses or switching to alternative food sources like mushrooms, seaweed, insects and cellular protein could also help reduce the impact but were not examined using the models, the researchers said.
The research adds yet another grim insight into the catastrophic consequences of nuclear war and builds on decades of warnings from scientists who say even a limited nuclear exchange could be devastating for the entire planet. The complex nature of the planetary ecosystem mean a great many of these consequences are not known but researchers believe the soot thrown into the atmosphere after a nuclear exchange would block out the sun and send temperatures plummeting, a phenomenon known as a nuclear winter. Models indicate a nuclear winter would trigger widespread famine, dramatic alterations of ocean chemistry—that would likely prove fatal for marine ecosystems like coral reefs—and possibly plunge the world into a new ice age. The study comes at a time when many nuclear-armed states are on edge following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Experts and nations have expressed fears the conflict, which has seen a nuclear power plant become a battleground and threats from President Vladimir Putin to deploy nuclear weapons, may end in nuclear catastrophe. Russia is one of nine nuclear-armed states, a group that also includes the U.S., the U.K., France, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel.
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