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Online references for war with low-yield nuclear weapons

  • Climatic consequences of regional nuclear conflicts

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    We use a modern climate model and new estimates of smoke generated by fires in contemporary cities to calculate the response of the climate system to a regional nuclear war between emerging third world nuclear powers using 100 Hiroshima-size bombs (less than 0.03% of the explosive yield of the current global nuclear arsenal) on cities in the subtropics. We find significant cooling and reductions of precipitation lasting years, which would impact the global food supply. The climate changes are large and longlasting because the fuel loadings in modern cities are quite high and the subtropical solar insolation heats the resulting smoke cloud and lofts it into the high stratosphere, where removal mechanisms are slow. While the climate changes are less dramatic than found in previous “nuclear winter” simulations of a massive nuclear exchange between the superpowers,because less smoke is emitted, the changes are more long-lasting because the older models did not adequately represent the stratospheric plume rise

  • Atmospheric effects and societal consequences of regional scale nuclear conflicts and acts of individual nuclear terrorism

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    We assess the potential damage and smoke production associated with the detonation of small nuclear weapons in modern megacities. While the number of nuclear warheads in the world has fallen by about a factor of three since its peak in 1986, the number of nuclear weapons states is increasing and the potential exists for numerous regional nuclear arms races. Eight countries are known to have nuclear weapons, 2 are constructing them, and an additional 32 nations already have the fissile material needed to build substantial arsenals of low-yield (Hiroshima-sized) explosives. Population and economic activity worldwide are congregated to an increasing extent in megacities, which might be targeted in a nuclear conflict. We find that low yield weapons, which new nuclear powers are likely to construct, can produce 100 times as many fatalities and 100 times as much smoke from fires per kt yield as previously estimated in analyses for full scale nuclear wars using high-yield weapons, if the small weapons are targeted at city centers. A single “small” nuclear detonation in an urban center could lead to more fatalities, in some cases by orders of magnitude, than have occurred in the major historical conflicts of many countries. We analyze the likely outcome of a regional nuclear exchange involving 100 15-kt explosions (less than 0.1% of the explosive yield of the current global nuclear arsenal). We find that such an exchange could produce direct fatalities comparable to all of those worldwide in World War II, or to those once estimated for a “counterforce” nuclear war between the superpowers. Megacities exposed to atmospheric fallout of long-lived radionuclides would likely be abandoned indefinitely, with severe national and international implications. Our analysis shows that smoke from urban firestorms in a regional war would rise into the upper troposphere due to pyro-convection. Robock et al. (2007) show that the smoke would subsequently rise deep into the stratosphere due to atmospheric heating, and then might induce significant climatic anomalies on global scales. We also anticipate substantial perturbations of global ozone. While there are many uncertainties in the predictions we make here, the principal unknowns are the type and scale of conflict that might occur. The scope and severity of the hazards identified pose a significant threat to the global community. They deserve careful analysis by governments worldwide advised by a broad section of the world scientific community, as well as widespread public debate.

  • Massive global ozone loss predicted following regional nuclear conflict

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    We use a chemistry-climate model and new estimates of smoke produced by fires in contemporary cities to calculate the impact on stratospheric ozone of a regional nuclear war between developing nuclear states involving 100 Hiroshima-size bombs exploded in cities in the northern subtropics. We find column ozone losses in excess of 20% globally, 25-45% at midlatitudes, and 50-70% at northern high latitudes persisting for 5 years, with substantial losses continuing for 5 additional years. Column ozone amounts remain near or <220 Dobson units at all latitudes even after three years, constituting an extratropical "ozone hole." The resulting increases in UV radiation could impact the biota significantly, including serious consequences for human health. The primary cause for the dramatic and persistent ozone depletion is heating of the stratosphere by smoke, which strongly absorbs solar radiation. The smoke-laden air rises to the upper stratosphere, where removal mechanisms are slow, so that much of the stratosphere is ultimately heated by the localized smoke injections. Higher stratospheric temperatures accelerate catalytic reaction cycles, particularly those of odd-nitrogen, which destroy ozone. In addition, the strong convection created by rising smoke plumes alters the stratospheric circulation, redistributing ozone and the sources of ozone-depleting gases, including N2O and chlorofluorocarbons. The ozone losses predicted here are significantly greater than previous "nuclear winter/UV spring" calculations, which did not adequately represent stratospheric plume rise. Our results point to previously unrecognized mechanisms for stratospheric ozone depletion.

  • An Assessment of the Extent of Projected Global Famine Resulting from Limited, Regional Nuclear War

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    The recent study by Robock et al on the climatic consequences of regional nuclear war shows that even a “limited” nuclear conflict, involving as few as 100 Hiroshima-sized bombs, would have global implications with significant cooling of the Earth's surface and decreased precipitation in many parts of the world. A conflict of this magnitude could arise between emerging nuclear powers such as India and Pakistan. Past episodes of abrupt global cooling, due to volcanic activity, caused major crop failures and famine; the predicted climate effects of a regional nuclear war would be expected to cause similar shortfalls in agricultural production. In addition large quantities of food might need to be destroyed and significant areas of crop land might need to be taken out of production because of radioactive contamination. Even a modest, sudden decline in agricultural production could trigger significant increases in the prices for basic foods and hoarding on a global scale, both of which would make food inaccessible to poor people in much of the world. While it is not possible to estimate the precise extent of the global famine that would follow a regional nuclear war, it seems reasonable to postulate a total global death toll in the range of one billion from starvation alone. Famine on this scale would also lead to major epidemics of infectious diseases, and would create immense potential for war and civil conflict.