A nuclear holocaust or nuclear apocalypse would be primarily city focused megadeaths, destruction and widespread nuclear fallout, all resulting in the possible collapse of [modern] civilization, through the use of uninhibited nuclear warfare in hypothetical future world wars. The term therefore excludes many potential nuclear war scenarios, such as were aircraft carriers are sunk with nuclear weapons and in general, limited counterforce nuclear war scenarios occur, which do not result in many civilian deaths.
Detailed Cold War-era studies determined that, in a city targeted, full-scale surprise countervalue thermonuclear war, the largest single human death-toll in history would occur with approximately 1-2 billion human casualties resulting in the first few seconds to weeks, from the heat, blast and nuclear fallout respectively.
In the more speculative realm, based on early computer models, disarmament activists and some climate modelers in the early 1980s began promoting the view that a full-scale nuclear war would result in not only the end of modern civilization on Earth due to the devastation from the widely acknowledged effects of nuclear weapons but that the hypothetical long-term effects of the so-called "nuclear winter" effect poses an existential threat to humankind, as the modeled soot could block "99%" of sunlight from reaching the earth. These primitive and faulty models, were widely popularized in the media and entered into the popular imagery of the post-war environment, despite the "nuclear winter" hypothesis being amongst other things, in its widely ridiculed "apocalyptic" 1-D computer model phase, at that time.
The popularity of this criticized and speculative concern has nonetheless served, along with the far more evidence based comet impact threat, as the motivation for such treatises as Feeding Everyone No Matter What which discusses how food can be produced without sunlight. However, even before such books were written, nuclear winter modelers, and most extinction experts themselves assigned a very low probability of "nuclear winter" threatening human extinction in the event of war. As time passes and better computer models are used, the nuclear winter hypothesis has become increasingly less apocalyptic, albeit, some smaller-magnitude, patchy, regionally "catastrophic" cooling is still an outcome of the models, that is, if firestorms occur in cities. Unlike the predominately wooden Hiroshima which always serves as the example in the nuclear winter papers, the more powerful bomb dropped on Nagasaki did not "cause" a firestorm, instead less intense scattered fires resulted. With decades of modeling and analysis, including in 2010, it is found that firestorms are not possible in modern cities.
Disarmament activists have more recently promoted the speculative view that if the winter models are right and in the future, cities are built that are prone to firestorm. Then the smaller drops in temperature that the newer winter models return, could cause nuclear [winter] famines as a result of the alleged curtailment of agricultural productivity from the moderately cooler temperatures, with this then killing more than a "billion" survivors of the war. Primarily in areas were food scarcity is already commonplace, such as in India. However such speculation, amongst other things, does not factor in continuity of government plans, that have been in existence for decades and which largely intend to organize all survivors towards ameliorating the blast and fallout post-attack food supply issue.
Since 1947, the sensationalist, "Doomsday Clock" of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has visualized how far the world is from "Doomsday", today its "setters" also factor in global warming, a fossil-fuel issue.
Attempts to convince the public that it is a realistic possibility for existing nuclear arsenals to threaten "human extinction" or all forms of human civilization, has a long and diverse history in political persuasion. While perhaps more well known for its other examples of propaganda, the earliest and most widely heard use of the dubious political rhetoric occurred upon Japanese Emperor Hirohito delivering his speech of surrender to his royal subjects in 1945:
...the enemy now possesses a new and terrible weapon with the power to destroy many innocent lives and do incalculable damage. Should we continue to fight, not only would it result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of human civilization.
The threat of a nuclear holocaust plays an important role in the popular perception of nuclear weapons. It features in the security concept of mutually assured destruction (MAD)[dubious ] and is a common scenario in survivalism. Nuclear holocaust is a common feature in literature and film, especially in speculative genres such as science fiction, dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction.
- 1 Etymology and usage
- 2 Likelihood of nuclear war
- 3 Effects of nuclear war
- 4 Origins and analysis of extinction hypotheses
- 5 See also
- 6 References
- 7 External links
Etymology and usage
One early use of the word "holocaust" to describe an imagined nuclear destruction appears in Reginald Glossop's 1926 novel The Orphan of Space: "Moscow ... beneath them ... a crash like a crack of Doom! The echoes of this Holocaust rumbled and rolled ... a distinct smell of sulphur ... atomic destruction." In the novel, an atomic weapon is planted in the office of the Soviet dictator who, with German help and Chinese mercenaries, is preparing the takeover of Western Europe.
In the 1960s, the word principally referred to nuclear destruction. After the mid-1970s, when the word "holocaust" became closely associated with the Nazi Holocaust, references to nuclear destruction have usually spoken of "atomic holocaust" or "nuclear holocaust".
Likelihood of nuclear war
As of 2016, humanity has about 15,000 nuclear weapons, thousands of which are on hair-trigger alert. While stockpiles have been on the decline following the end of the cold war, every nuclear country is currently undergoing modernization of its nuclear arsenal. Some experts believe this modernization may increase the risk of nuclear proliferation, nuclear terrorism, and accidental nuclear war.
In a poll of experts at the Global Catastrophic Risk Conference in Oxford (17‐20 July 2008), the Future of Humanity Institute estimated the probability of complete human extinction by nuclear weapons at 1% within the century, the probability of 1 billion dead at 10% and the probability of 1 million dead at 30%. These results reflect the median opinions of a group of experts, rather than a probabilistic model; the actual values may be much lower or higher.
Effects of nuclear war
Historically, it has been difficult to estimate the total number of casualties resulting from a global nuclear exchange because scientists are continually discovering new effects of nuclear weapons, and also revising existing models.
Early reports considered direct effects from nuclear blast and radiation and indirect effects from economic, social, and political disruption. In a 1979 report for the U.S. Senate, the Office of Technology Assessment estimated casualties under different scenarios. For a full-scale thermonuclear countervalue/counterforce exchange between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, they predicted U.S. deaths from 35 to 77 percent (70 million to 160 million dead at the time), and Soviet deaths from 20 to 40 percent of the population.
Tthis report was made when nuclear stockpiles were at much higher levels than they are today. It did not consider other lesser secondary effects, such as electromagnetic pulses (EMP), and the temporary ramifications they would have on modern technology and industry.
Unlike the relatively low-yield, or low explosive energy "A-bombs" dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, larger "Hydrogen bombs" are not expected to result in very many prompt radiation injuries, as the range at which the radiation from these larger bombs is of primary concern, is also well inside the hyper-lethal blast and flash burn areas.
Origins and analysis of extinction hypotheses
As a result of the extensive nuclear fallout of the 1954 Castle Bravo nuclear detonation, author Nevil Shute wrote the popular novel On the Beach which was released in 1957, in this novel so much radioactive fallout is generated in a nuclear war that all human life is extinguished. However, although the novel was never classed as hard science-fiction, the popularity of the book nonetheless influenced the prevading public opinion on how they viewed the post nuclear war environment, with such figures such as Helen Caldicott regarding the book as a formative experience that "scared the hell out of [her]". This is despite weapon effects experts, and the US government itself voicing criticism of the general premise of the novel and later film - that there was a threat of extinction from nuclear war - because they did not, nor have they ever, had enough nuclear weapons to cause human extinction.
An estimate for the necessary amount of fallout to begin to have the potential to cause human extinction was regarded by Joseph Rotblat, a health physicist turned disarmament activist, to be 10 to 100 times the total world megatonnage in nuclear arsenals as they stood in 1976; however, with the world megatonnage decreasing since the Cold War ended this possibility remains increasingly hypothetical.
In 1982 nuclear disarmament activist Jonathan Schell published The Fate of the Earth, which is regarded by some to be the first carefully argued presentation that concluded that extinction is a significant possibility from nuclear war. However, the assumptions made in this book, particularly those relating to fireballs and ozone loss, have been thoroughly analyzed and determined to be "quite dubious". The impetus for Schell's work, according to physicist Brian Martin, was to argue that "if the thought of 500 million people dying in a nuclear war is not enough to stimulate action, then the thought of extinction will. Indeed, Schell explicitly advocates use of the fear of extinction as the basis for inspiring the "complete rearrangement of world politics".
The premise that all of humanity would die following a nuclear war and only the "cockroaches would survive" is critically dealt with in the 1988 book Would the Insects Inherit the Earth and Other Subjects of Concern to Those Who Worry About Nuclear War by nuclear weapons, and fallout, expert Philip J. Dolan.
Many activists have posited that a global thermonuclear war may lead to human extinction, and this became somewhat plausible after nuclear winter was first conceptualized and modelled in 1983. However, models from the past decade consider total extinction very unlikely, and suggest parts of the world would remain habitable. There could also be indirect risks, such as a societal collapse following nuclear war that can make humanity much more vulnerable to other existential threats.
In the early 1980s, a few scientists began to consider the effects of soot arising from burning wood, plastics, and petroleum fuels after potentially "nuclear-devastated cities". As it was known that, with firestorm updrafts, the intense heat of the fire can loft soot, water vapor and smoke particulates in general to extremely high altitudes, however at the time, the effects, if any, were largely unknown. A 1983 model, that looked solely at the effects of soot-in-the-air by the so-called TTAPS team (Richard P. Turco, Owen Toon, Thomas P. Ackerman, James B. Pollack and Carl Sagan) was the first to model masses of soot in the air and coined the term "nuclear winter " for their model results, due to the potential effects of fires as a result of nuclear detonations laying behind their motivation for creating the model.
In this popular paper, the quantities of soot are simply assumed to be a product of a "nuclear war", no actual nuclear effects or fires were modeled in the paper, or in any subsequent papers on "nuclear winter".
Indeed it has been noted that as nuclear devices need not be involved in the ignition of a firestorm, the term "nuclear winter" is a grossly misleading misnomer. The Hamburg and Dresden firestorms in WWII for example, burned more ferociously than Hiroshima.
In 1990, TTAPS released an update with a 3-D global model that suggested there would be less severe cooling from the soot but that the effects could still be devastating to agriculture.
More recent models on soot-in-the-air/"nuclear winter", led by Alan Robock, make use of modern global circulation models and far greater computer power than was available for the first 1980s studies. However in the same manner as the 1980s models, Robock's 2007 model starts by assuming 150 teragrams("150 Tg") of soot has found its way into the upper stratosphere and from there, the computer model calculates the magnitude of cooling. This is often presented as an "examination of the consequences of a global nuclear war involving moderate to large portions of the current global arsenal", however a careful reading reveals that no such modeling of war, cities or firestorms actually occurs in the "nuclear winter" papers. With this quantity of soot in the air, the model returned cooling by about 12–20 °C with the greatest cooling in much of the core farming regions of the US, Europe, Russia and China and as much as 35 °C in parts of Russia for the first two summer growing seasons. The model assumed, amongst other things, that no water vapor, which is the primary product of wood combustion, would be co-injected into the stratosphere. Instead the model assumes only soots entry into the upper stratosphere, where in the absence of water, precipitation does not frequently occur, and therefore the clearance was on the order of 10 years.
The authors did not discuss the implications for agriculture in depth, but noted that a 1986 study which assumed no food production for a year projected that "most of the people on the planet would run out of food and starve to death by then" and commented that their own results show that, "This period of no food production needs to be extended by many years, making the impacts of nuclear winter even worse than previously thought."
In contrast to the above presumptive model, that examines 150 Tg of soot-in-the-air effects/"a global nuclear conflict", another model by Robock involving a smaller amount, 5 Tg, from 100 firestorms, a soot to fire ratio and firestorm frequency that while Robock presents as perhaps plausible, is acknowledged as without supporting evidence. In this case of 5 Tg of soot-in-the-air, that is labelled as representative of a "small-scale, regional nuclear conflict". The model, working solely with the 5 Tg of soot, returns global climate cooling by 1-2 degree Celsius for a decade or so. In this "regional nuclear conflict scenario" the soot starts over India and Pakistan, which although not modeled, the author's backstory is that they detonated 100 nuclear weapons on each others cities. However while discussion of nuclear weapons, is the primary eye-catcher to most readers, it again, is not actually supported by the model. This Robock model simply assumes that five million tons of soot, with no water vapor, is injected into the stratosphere and when this number, and this number only, is inputted into his computer model, it returned cooling of 1-2 degrees over large areas of North America and Eurasia, including most of the grain-growing regions. The cooling would last for years, and according to Robock, could be "catastrophic".
The soot from these assumed firestorms is also modeled to have an effect on the ozone layer, according to veteran modelers Turco and Toon. Their 2008 model suggests that this 5 Tg of soot, from the "regional nuclear weapons exchange" could create a near-global ozone hole, triggering human health problems and impacting agriculture for at least a decade. This modeled effect on the ozone is a result of heat absorption by soot in the upper stratosphere, which is then assumed to modify wind currents and draw in ozone-destroying nitrogen oxides. These high temperatures and nitrogen oxides would reduce ozone to the same dangerous levels we now experience below the ozone hole above Antarctica every spring according to Robock.
Nuclear winter assumptions and criticism
William R. Cotton Professor of Atmospheric Science at Colorado State University, specialist in cloud physics modeling and co-creator of the highly influential, RAMS atmosphere model, had in the 1980s modeled and supported the predictions made by earlier nuclear winter papers, but has since reversed this position according to a book co-authored by him in 2007, stating that, amongst other systematically examined assumptions; far more rain out/wet deposition of soot will occur than is assumed in modern papers on the subject and that "We must wait for a new generation of General Circulation Model(GCMs) to be implemented to examine potential consequences quantitatively" and "that nuclear winter was largely politically motivated from the beginning".
While many people believe that a full-scale nuclear war would result, through the hypothetical nuclear winter effect, in the threat of extinction of the human species, not all analysts agree on the assumptions inputted into the "apocalyptic"/most popular nuclear winter models.
Climatologist Kerry Emanuel similarly wrote a review in nature that the winter concept is “notorious for its lack of scientific integrity” due to the unrealistic estimates selected for the quantity of fuel likely to burn, the impercise GCM/global circulation models used, and ends by stating that the evidence of other models, point to substantial scavenging of the smoke by rain. Seitz also contends that many others are reluctant to speak out for fear of being stigmatized as closet Dr. Strangeloves, physicist Freeman Dyson of Princeton for example stated "It's an absolutely atrocious piece of science, but I quite despair of setting the public record straight." Stephen Schneider for example was labelled a "fascist" for writing the critical paper, "Nuclear Winter Reappraised" according to Rocky Mountain News.
As nuclear devices need not be involved in the ignition of a firestorm, the term "nuclear winter" is a common misnomer. This is, in greatest part, due to the vast majority of published papers stating, without qualitative justification, that nuclear explosions are the cause of the modeled firestorm-cloud(pyrocumulus) effects. Yet the only phenomenon that is scrutinized and computer modeled in the "nuclear winter" papers is the climate forcing agent of firestorm-soot, a product which can and is routinely ignited and formed by a myriad of other, more common, means.
On the fundamental level, it is known that firestorms can inject soot smoke/aerosols into the stratosphere, as each natural occurrence of a wildfire firestorm has been found to "surprisingly frequently" produce minor "nuclear winter" effects, with short-lived, almost immeasurable drops in surface temperatures, confined to the global hemisphere that they burned in. This is somewhat analogous to the frequent volcanic eruptions that inject sulfates into the stratosphere and thereby produce minor, even negligible, volcanic winter effects.
A suite of satellite and aircraft-based firestorm-soot-monitoring instruments are at the forefront of attempts to accurately determine the lifespan, quantity, injection height, and optical properties of this smoke. Information regarding all of these properties is necessary to truly ascertain the length and depth of the cooling effect of firestorms, independent of the nuclear winter computer model projections.
Presently, from satellite tracking data, stratospheric smoke aerosols are removed in a time span under approximately two months. The existence of any hint of a tipping point into a new stratospheric condition where the aerosols would not be removed within this time frame remains to be determined.
However unlike the cities of Hamburg and largely "flimsy" wooden construction of Hiroshima of WWII, two cities which both produced firestorms, detailed analysis of modern cities in the US and USSR/Russia has found that they would not firestorm. As they simply don't have a high enough fuel density to produce a firestorm.
It is difficult to estimate the number of casualties that would result from nuclear winter, but in the 1980s it was suggested that the primary effect would be global famine (known as Nuclear Famine), wherein mass starvation occurs due to disrupted agricultural production and distribution from the hypothesized "nuclear winter" effect. In a 2013 report, the disarmament activists International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) similarly write that with nuclear winter more than two billion people, about a third of the world's population, would be at risk of starvation in the event of a regional nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan, or by the use of even a small proportion of nuclear arms held by US and Russia.
"Overkill" and comparisons to WWII
The belief in "overkill" is also commonly encountered, with an example being the following statement made by nuclear disarmament activist Philip Noel-Baker in 1971 – "Both the US and the Soviet Union now possess nuclear stockpiles large enough to exterminate mankind three or four – some say ten – times over". Brian Martin suggested that the origin of this belief was from "crude linear extrapolations", and when analyzed it has no basis in reality.
Another example of the linear "overkill myth" is as follows "A 12.5 kiloton blast at Hiroshima killed approximately 70,000 people, which is a casualty rate of 5600 per kiloton. A nuclear war today could result in some 10,000 megatons of force being released. That is equal to ten million kilotons. Ten million times 5600 equals 56 billion casualties, more than enough to take care of the slightly more than 6 billion inhabitants of the earth today."
In a similar vein, and having reached a large audience with the 1965 pseudo-documentary The War Game, it is commonly stated that the combined explosive energy released in the entirety of the bombing campaigns of World War II was approximately 2.2-3 million tons of TNT,(2-3 megatons of TNT), while a nuclear war with warhead stockpiles at Cold War highs would release 6000 "WWII's worth of explosive energy", with listeners then coming to the conclusion that a Cold War turned nuclear would result in about 6000 times the destruction of WWII by explosive energy alone.
However such linear extrapolations are not borne out in practice when targeting issues and defensive preparations are taken into account, nor are they deemed realistic when the inescapable physics of explosive damage scaling laws in general are known, which are 3 dimensional and therefore do not scale linearly as a 1 dimensional system. Taking the two more easily explained factors first, of targeting site selection and defensive preparations; WWII was not the most energetic bombing campaign in history, instead the most intensely bombed region in the history of warfare was Vietnam,Laos and Cambodia during the Vietnam war, with the US dropping "well over 2 million tons" or greater than 2 megatons of explosives on the sparsely populated Ho Chi Minh Trail alone, and 8 megatons of explosive energy in total being dropped on the greater Indochina region by the US by the end of the war. This bombing campaign took the form of millions of small conventional explosives, and while not dropped individually on each person, instead generally targeted on sparsely populated guerrillas in jungles, one similarly sensationalist way to present these statistics is that on average 331 kg of high explosive for every man, woman and child in Vietnam was dropped. A figure substantially more than the average from WWII, yet deaths and destruction rates were orders of magnitude less than WWII due to target selection differences(largely focusing on bombing the counterforce/military presence) and lastly, the defensive measures taken by the Vietnamese in general(Cu Chi tunnels).
"... more than 10 billion pounds of TNT was dropped on Germany, Japan and Italy during World War II, this equalled more than 50 pounds for every man, woman and child. ... Arithmetically considered, the result should have been the total annihilation of one and all. ... During the Vietnam War, more than 25 billion pounds of TNT were dropped ... an average of 730 pounds for each of a total population of 34 million. ... yet the USA was unable to kill enough people [in Vietnam], or to disrupt economic life, transportation or communication sufficiently."
While on the issue of how explosive blast damage response does not scale linearly, the 3-dimensional unit of megatonnage-for-equivalent-destructive-area, in what is termed the “equivalent megatonnage” (EMT), was created during the cold war to compare the destructive potential of vastly different bombing approaches, conventional and nuclear. Physical analysis returns the fact that the EMT(of destruction by blast) is proportional to the product of the number of explosive packages and the 2/3[note 1] power of the explosive energy of each package. Therefore, WWII, with its total of 2.2 megatons of TNT equivalent having a distribution in the form of an estimated 22 million conventional bombs, each with an average filling of 100 kilograms of TNT(10^-7 megaton bombs) is hence equivalent to 22,000,000(10^-7)^2/3 = 474 one megaton blasts of bomb energy, or 948 realistic nuclear bombs each with a total energy yield of 1 megaton each, as blast is approximately 50% of the total energy of a nuclear explosion, a rough doubling is required.
In other words, a nuclear war with the use of almost 1000 nuclear bombs each with the release of 1 megaton of nuclear energy or total yield per bomb, aimed with the same average targeting selection and accurary of the bombs that existed in WWII, would result in a similar scale of building destruction to that observed following the 2.2 megatons of more efficient carpet bombing, that was used in WWII. As the rationale for inventing and using conventional Cluster bombs was the inescapable realization that multiple smaller bombs are always more efficient at destroying hundreds of buildings, such as those in a city, than 1 large bomb. As the latter inherently wastes a large percentage of its useful energy by both over-concentrating pressures at the centre of the blast, when in practise, most civilian buildings do not require massive overpressures to destroy them. While secondly, larger bombs also vertically disperse more of their energy inefficiently up into thin-air, that is, not along a 2-D plane/the surface of the earth, where every building resides.
A full understanding of the efficiency of spreading out clusters of lower yield explosive physics packages also informed strategists to pursue the reality that: "1 bomb with a yield of 1 megaton would destroy 80 square miles. While 8 bombs, each with a yield of 125 kilotons[0.125 megaton], would destroy 160 square miles. This [physical attribute of explosives] is one reason for the development of delivery systems that could carry multiple warheads (MIRVs)." Hence the reduction in the total energy contained in the US nuclear arsenal of the 1960-70s could be implemented without sacrificing destructive potential. In conclusion, without putting both bombing approaches on the same playing field with the use of the EMT unit, all direct megatonnage comparisons with WWII do more to mislead than to give an accurate picture of the scale of likely destruction.
Set off all at once
According to the 1980 United Nations report General and Complete Disarmament: Comprehensive Study on Nuclear Weapons: Report of the Secretary-General, it was estimated that there were a total of about 40,000 nuclear warheads in existence at that time, with a potential combined explosive yield of approximately 13,000 megatons.
By comparison, in the Timeline of volcanism on Earth when the volcano Mount Tambora erupted in 1815 – turning 1816 into the Year Without A Summer due to the levels of global dimming sulfate aerosols and ash expelled – it exploded with a force of roughly 800 to 1,000 megatons, and ejected 160 km3 (38 cu mi) of mostly rock/tephra, which included 120 million tonnes of sulfur dioxide as an upper estimate. A larger eruption, approximately 74,000 years ago, in Mount Toba produced 2,800 km3 (670 cu mi) of tephra, forming lake Toba, and produced an estimated 6,000 million tonnes (6.6×109 short tons) of sulfur dioxide. The explosive energy of the eruption may have been as high as equivalent to 20,000,000 megatons (Mt) of TNT, while the Chicxulub impact, connected with the extinction of the dinosaurs, corresponds to at least 70,000,000 Mt of energy, which is roughly 7000 times the maximum arsenal of the US and Soviet Union.
However, it must be noted that comparisons with supervolcanos are more misleading than helpful due to the different aerosols released, the likely air burst fuzing height of nuclear weapons and the globally scattered location of these potential nuclear detonations all being in contrast to the singular and subterranean nature of a supervolcanic eruption. Moreover, assuming the entire world stockpile of weapons were grouped together, it would be difficult due to the nuclear fratricide effect to ensure the individual weapons would go off all at once.
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