End of the world: Putin threatens decade-long ‘nuclear winter’ that would kill billions

Putin believes some areas 'will survive' nuclear war says analyst

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Generally speaking, nuclear weapons work by employing an out-of-control chain reaction in which atoms are split, releasing binding energy and neutrons that, in turn, trigger more splitting and so on. So-called second-generation thermonuclear weapons take this to the next level by using this initial “fission” reaction to fuse hydrogen, releasing more neutrons, creating more fission. Immediate impacts come from the explosive blast and thermal radiation — the latter of which can be hot enough close to ground zero to vaporise a person — while nuclear fallout can also lead to longer-term health impacts and the pollution of water and food supplies.

According to nuclear weapons policy experts Hans Kristensen and Matt Korda, it is estimated that Russia presently has an inventory of around 4,477 nuclear weapons — and around 5,977 of “retired” warheads still awaiting dismantling are also counted.

In a paper published last month, the pair wrote: “Of the stockpiled warheads, approximately 1,588 strategic warheads are deployed – about 812 on land-based ballistic missiles, about 576 on submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and possibly 200 at heavy bomber bases.

“Approximately another 977 strategic warheads are in storage, along with about 1,912 nonstrategic [aka tactical] warheads.”

The US, meanwhile, maintains a similarly sized arsenal of around 5,500 nuclear warheads, of which 3,800 are ready for rapid deployment. Together, it is believed that the two nations’ stockpiles account for 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons.

But what would happen if these stockpiles were brought to bear on the surface of the Earth?

Various studies have been conducted to attempt to plumb the unthinkable impacts of an all-out nuclear conflict between the two superpowers.

In 2008, for example, atmospheric scientist Professor Brian Toon of the University of Colorado Boulder and his colleagues modelled a scenario in which Russia hit the US and other western countries — including the UK — with a total of 2,200 nuclear weapons, with the same deployed against Russia and its major ally, China.

The combined yield of these weapons was 440 megatonnes, which is equivalent to some 150 times the power of all of the bombs detonated throughout the course of World War 2.

The team calculated that the nuclear onslaught would lead to 770 million direct deaths alone — and the US would see a fifth of its population eliminated outright.

This horrific death toll, however, does not account for the risk of a “nuclear winter”, a hypothesised consequence resulting from the injection of soot particles into the atmosphere by firestorms triggered by the atomic explosions.

This soot, the theory goes, would then serve to help block out direct sunlight from reaching the Earth, leading to a severe and prolonged episode of global cooling.

This cooling, experts warn, could lead to widespread crop failure and famine, threatening to starve anyone who managed to survive the original blast.

Prof Toon and his team’s scenario predicted that burning cities and forests would inject some 180 teragrams of soot into the stratosphere — more than enough to cause a nuclear winter.

In a follow-up study published in 2019, the team assessed the slightly smaller particle release of 150 teragrams of soot following a nuclear war on a similar scale, finding that such would block out some 30–40 percent of Earth’s sunlight for at least six months.

This relative energy deficit would result in significantly colder temperatures that would persist for more than a decade, with conditions during the Northern Hemisphere in the direct aftermath of the conflict staying well below freezing for months on end.

For just one example, in Iowa — the corn capital of the US — temperatures would remain below freezing for some 24 months straight.

This, coupled with a halving of global precipitation levels for three-four years, would see global food production slashed by 90 percent, within two years, three-quarters of the global population would likely be dead as a result of famine and starvation.

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For many foreign policy experts, however, an all-out conflict leading to a nuclear winter is a less likely scenario than a more targeted conflict, played out on a smaller scale, using so-called tactical atomic weapons.

According to the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Washington, DC, these armaments are estimated to make up around 30–40 percent of both the US and Russia’s nuclear weapons stockpiles.

They comprise air-and sea-launched weapons with ranges not exceeding around 400 miles, and land-based missiles capable of hitting targets from around 300 miles away.

While a scaled-down nuclear conflict might not be enough to trigger nuclear winter, they would certainly be devastating on a local scale — capable of killing millions, for example, if used against a populated urban target.

And this is assuming that the use of tactical nukes would not lead to a rapid escalation; Russia, for example, has long asserted that it would view the use of any nuclear device against it as a prelude for all-out nuclear war.

Regardless, it is the potential for appalling global consequences from atomic warfare that led the then US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev to both assert in 1985 that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought”.

This sentiment was reaffirmed by both Russia and the US, along with China, France and the UK, on January 3 this year.

The nations asserted that: “As nuclear use would have far-reaching consequences, we also affirm that nuclear weapons — for as long as they continue to exist — should serve defensive purposes, deter aggression, and prevent war.”

Since then, however, Vladimir Putin has increased the alertness of Russia’s nuclear forces and said that NATO interference in the Russia–Ukraine war would be met by consequences “such as you have never seen in your entire history” — a cryptic threat many have taken to also refer to nuclear escalation.

For the sake of human lives, it can only be hoped that Russia honours its previous commitment to avoid nuclear warfare.

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