Environmental Consequences

Why Any Use of Nuclear Weapons is a Catastrophe for the Planet

In assessing the environmental impact of potential investment decisions, banks should take into account the environmental harm caused by the manufacture and use of nuclear weapons.

Case Studies

Case Study #1: Nuclear Famine

Climate scientists have shown that a limited regional nuclear war involving 100 Hiroshima-sized nuclear weapons – a small fraction of the total number of nuclear weapons in the world today – would result in global climatic disruption. Nuclear explosions would cause smoke and soot from urban firestorms to rise into the upper troposphere and stratosphere, blocking 7–10 per cent of warming sunlight from reaching earth.

A regional nuclear war would also cause significant global cooling and reduce precipitation on average by 10 per cent. The lack of sunlight and rainfall, along with the drop in temperature, would dramatically decrease food production. Growing seasons for many grain-producing areas would be shortened by 10 to 20 days, with some crops being unable to propogate at all. The reduced availability of food would lead to mass global famine. It is estimated that up to one billion deaths would occur from starvation alone.

This global famine would provide the perfect breeding ground for infectious diseases such as plague, typhus, malaria, dysentery and cholera. Competition for limited food would lead to further devastation, war and death caused by food riots and exacerbation of ethnic and regional animosities.

Case Study #2: Nuclear Ozone Hole

A regional or global nuclear conflict would dramatically deplete the earth’s ozone layer. According to scientists, a conflict between India and Pakistan that used 50 Hiroshima-sized nuclear weapons would produce approximately 6.6 teragrams of black carbon, which would deplete the global mean ozone column by as much as 25 per cent for five years following the conflict. At mid and high latitudes, the depletion would be most severe and longest lasting.

The dramatic ozone layer depletion would have major environmental consequences, particularly due to the increase in ultraviolet radiation reaching the earth’s surface. It would impact negatively on the reproduction and survival of aquatic and terrestrial plants and organisms, including phytoplankton, which absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and release sulphur compounds. This has a major effect on the earth’s climate, as the sulphur compounds promote cloud formation and increase global reflectance of the sun’s rays.

A depletion of the ozone layer has also been proven to cause skin cancer and eye damage, and it decreases food production, as plants are unable to adapt quickly enough to the changes in the climate and ultraviolet exposure. This would therefore have negative implications for food security.

Case Study #3: Nuclear Winter

Using state-of-the-art atmospheric models developed to study global warming, scientists have demonstrated that a global nuclear war would result in the world spiralling into a winter worse than that experienced during the most recent ice age. They predict that a nuclear war using the world’s entire current nuclear arsenal would cause 150 teragrams, or 5,000 megatons, of smoke to be released into the upper troposphere and upper stratosphere.

The effects would last more than a decade and include a global average drop in temperature of 7–8° C. People in North America and Eurasia would experience a drop in temperature of 20–30° C. The extreme temperatures would result in a period of no food production for several years.

The scientists have also conducted experiments to predict the results of a nuclear war using one-third of the world’s current nuclear arsenal. They proved that even a limited nuclear war would result in temperature drops and reductions in precipitation of catastrophic proportions. Although the reductions would not be extreme enough to cause a “nuclear winter”, they would still cause severe and unprecedented changes in the global climate. Such a scenario has been referred to as a “nuclear autumn”.

For more information, visit nuclear-zero.org.

written by

Australian director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons
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