Time to Take Nuclear Winter Seriously
In a March 23 news story in The New York Times, the general in charge of our nuclear arms arsenal, Jack Weinstein, called for “…a strengthened and modernized nuclear deterrence force in this country.” Why? Because nuclear deterrence has worked in the past and it will work in the future. On that premise, General Weinstein said, “I sleep very well at night.”
Many of us don’t. We recall that four or five times during the Cold War, when the U.S. and the Soviet Union had over 60,000 nuclear missiles on hair-trigger alert, there were accidents that came close to triggering a catastrophic exchange of nuclear missiles. For example, in 1979, North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) computers showed that 200 Soviet missiles were streaking towards U.S. targets. “It took us several days to ascertain that an operator had mistakenly installed a training tape in the computer, “ said William Perry, in his book My Journey at the Nuclear Brink.
The unavoidable fact is, no plan of defense is perfect and the leadership of any country is not always reliably rational. What’s more, the belief in failsafe deterrence does not take into account the lightening fast response required in the face of a perceived nuclear missile attack—with only 15 minutes to decide whether to respond.
Nine countries now have nuclear weapons, and that in itself makes the current risk of mishap or misbehavior even higher than it was during the Cold War. What if an unstable commander in chief is seized by a maniacal sense of humiliation, depression, fury? History is replete with unlikely events spinning out of control. For example, the assassination of an Austro-Hungarian prince in 1914 triggered a concatenation of events that exploded into the horror of World War One-–a horror magnified because all countries were armed to the teeth. .
Contrary to General Weinstein, nuclear deterrence does not mean we can sleep more peacefully. It means rather that we had better start taking a closer look at the possibility of nuclear winter.
Recall that nuclear winter was the subject of a major scientific paper called TTAPS published in Science Magazine in December of 1983, so-named for the initials of the authors on the project, Robert Turco, Owen Toon, Thomas Ackerman, James Pollack, and Carl Sagan, the most famous of the group. Although there was a flurry of media for a short time, the subject evoked a vigorous backlash from industrial and military interests, and then vanished from attention once the Cold War collapsed at the end of the decade. Between 1990 and 2003 no new scientific papers on the subject were published.
However, after 9/11 and our headlong plunge into a misbegotten “war on terror” came a resurrection of interest . A number of leading climatologists and physicists returned to their laboratories to re-investigate the subject, only this time with new computers and advanced modeling tools, including NASA’s latest climate models. Within the last decade or so these scientists have produced at least five notable scientific papers in prestigious scholarly journals, each of which has been subject to peer review by reputable scientists. These studies not only confirmed the soundness of the basic physics but also showed a nuclear war could be even more devastating than previously thought.
One of the most riveting examples was a scientific paper published by the American Geophysics Union in the journal Earth’s Future in April, 2014. Four scientists, Drs. Owen B. Toon, Michael J. Mills, Julia Lee-Taylor, and Alan Robock studied the likely effects of a regional nuclear conflict between India and Pakistan, assuming each side would detonate 50 bombs of the same size as the one dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. The immediate result would be 20 million deaths. This would be followed by massive firestorms which would send millions of tons of smoke and black carbon into the stratosphere, higher than the cleansing effects of rain, where a layer of particles would then form and circle the globe. The earth’s temperature would drop to the coldest average surface levels in the last 1000 years—and killing frosts would reduce growing seasons by 10 to 40 days, producing a 30 to 40 percent reduction in agricultural yield over five years and cause massive human starvation.
What’s more, the bombs used in this computer study were only 15 kilotons, whereas the actual bombs in the present nuclear arsenal are seven to eight times more powerful. Dr. Steven Starr, director of clinical laboratories at the University of Missouri, declares that “Nuclear Winter would cause most humans and large animals to die from famine in a mass extinction event similar to the one that wiped out the dinosaurs.”
These scientists are saying, in effect, that a war fought with nuclear weapons is a game of Russian roulette with bullets in all chambers. Nuclear war, in short, is tantamount to mass suicide. If we choose to believe this science has any credence at all, and if we wish to bequeath a habitable planet to our offspring, then we had better start mounting a much louder cry to abolish these dreadful weapons.