Nuclear Obliteration, Nuclear Winter, Nuclear Reality.
For many years the public has unquestioningly accepted the idea that any nuclear war will ineviably lead to the destruction of mankind. What is supposed to follow is deadly radioactivity spread everywhere, and even global atmospheric changes branded "nuclear winter" by the popular media. The most superficial examination of this idea causes it to collapse, because many hundreds of very powerful nuclear weapons have in fact been exploded at or near the surface of the earth, and we are all still here. Today, it is barely even detectable that these explosions ever took place. So, a limited nuclear war, with the exchange of a dozen or so nuclear bombs, might be very devastating near the explosions themselves, but the rest of the world would obviously go on with little damage. The idea that the whole world could be destroyed by this is preposterous. But, what about an all-out nuclear war?
To my knowledge, noone has ever done a calculation of the extent of destruction that would actually result from an all-out nuclear war; at least, not one which was shown to the public. All of what has been presented publically are politically motivated diatribes, purportedly giving factual conclusions. So, having a strong background in physics, I did the calculations myself.
I won't bore you with details and lists of numbers. But, at the height of the "cold war", there were about 22,000 functional sategic nuclear weapons in the posession of the Soviet Union and the United States combined (this number is supposed to be declining). Using the destructive effects measured in actual nuclear explosions (taken from the authoritative text, The Effect of Nuclear Weapons), if all of these weapons, the entire world arsenal, were successfully delivered in a war, they all functioned optimally, and none of them were destroyed in flight, etc., they could completely destroy a maximum of 5% of the earth's surface, and probably much less. Another 10% or less would be considerably damaged, or radioactive for some time. This would leave 85% or more of the earth's surface undamaged and perfectly inhabitable. The 15% or less damaged or destroyed could be rebuilt within a few years by the inhabitants of the other 85% of the world, as demonstrated by Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the two Japanese cities which have actually been destroyed by nuclear bombs, then rebuilt and repopulated. The idea thay mankind could destroy the planet with nuclear weapons outright is a myth. There has never been any factual support for it, and it flies in the face of simple mathematics.
The "nuclear winter" theory has it that, in a large-scale nuclear war, huge amounts of dust and smoke would be lofted into the high atmosphere by the heat of nuclear explosions, blocking out the sun for months and depriving us of its warmth. This is supposed to cause freezing teperatures all over the planet for years, wiping out humanity. While this appears at first blush to make some kind of sense, and was touted for some years as being supported by computer modelling, a little deeper analysis shows it to be nonsense. First, the amount of debris assumed to be lofted to the upper atmosphere and the amount of time it was supposed to stay there did not match any observation of actual nuclear explosions. The rebuttal to this by the supporters of "nuclear winter" was that massive fires were supposed to create the smoke - but this ignores that there is no way for the nuclear explossions to carry this smoke to the upper atmosphere, since the fires happen after the explosions are over! Since massive fires happen anyway, they should provide some scientific evidence of this cooling effect which can be measured - but they don't. The simple reason is that clouds, moisture, dust, smoke - all of the things which block heat from the sun by day, also keep the heat from being radiated away to the sky at night. Even if nuclear explosions could loft more dust into the atmosphere than volcanos, forest fires, and dust storms do anyway, the expected effect would be a moderation of temperatures between day and night - cooler days, and warmer nights - not a perpetual winter.
The supposed mathematical models of the atmosphere held up as supporting the nuclear winter myth were known to be riddled with defects, even at the time they had been cited. Noone takes these atmospheric models seriously today.
It seems to me that those who had a political stake in weakening U.S. policy vis-a-vis the former Soviet Union concocted both of these myths; first the total destruction theory, then, when that seemd to be in danger of floundering, the "nuclear winter" myth. Both went substantially unchallenged in forums of public discussion, even though they were never true.
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This page last updated 11 July 1998.
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