Small Nuclear War Could Reverse Global Warming for Years

Regional war could spark "unprecedented climate change," experts predict.

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A nuclear bomb explodes in a test on the Mururoa atoll in French Polynesia in the early seventies.

Even a regional nuclear war could spark "unprecedented" global cooling and reduce rainfall for years, according to U.S. government computer models.

Widespread famine and disease would likely follow, experts speculate.

During the Cold War a nuclear exchange between superpowers—such as the one feared for years between the United States and the former Soviet Union—was predicted to cause a "nuclear winter."

In that scenario hundreds of nuclear explosions spark huge fires, whose smoke, dust, and ash blot out the sun for weeks amid a backdrop of dangerous radiation levels. Much of humanity eventually dies of starvation and disease.

Today, with the United States the only standing superpower, nuclear winter is little more than a nightmare. But nuclear war remains a very real threat—for instance, between developing-world nuclear powers, such as India and Pakistan.

To see what climate effects such a regional nuclear conflict might have, scientists from NASA and other institutions modeled a war involving a hundred Hiroshima-level bombs, each packing the equivalent of 15,000 tons of TNT—just 0.03 percent of the world's current nuclear arsenal. (See a National Geographic magazine feature on weapons of mass destruction.)

The researchers predicted the resulting fires would kick up roughly five million metric tons of black carbon into the upper part of the troposphere, the lowest layer of the Earth's atmosphere.

In NASA climate models, this carbon then absorbed solar heat and, like a hot-air balloon, quickly lofted even higher, where the soot would take much longer to clear from the sky.

Reversing Global Warming?

The global cooling caused by these high carbon clouds wouldn't be as catastrophic as a superpower-versus-superpower nuclear winter, but "the effects would still be regarded as leading to unprecedented climate change," research physical scientist Luke Oman said during a press briefing Friday at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C.

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