A nuclear holocaust or nuclear apocalypse would be a possible complete or nearly complete annihilation of human life through the use of nuclear weapons. Under such a scenario, all or most of the Earth is made uninhabitable by nuclear warfare in future world wars.
Nuclear physicists and theorists have speculated that nuclear war could result in the end of modern civilization on Earth due to the immediate effects of nuclear fallout, the temporary loss of much modern technology due to electromagnetic pulses, or the hypothetical effects of a nuclear winter and its resulting extinctions.
Importantly however, despite modern high civilization being at risk, assuming weapons stockpiles at the previous Cold War heights, analysts and physicists have found that billions of humans would nevertheless survive a global thermonuclear war, but there is much debate about how the planet's environment would be affected by it and its consequences for the surviving population.
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.
Etymology and usage
The English word "holocaust", derived from the Greek term "holokaustos" meaning "completely burnt", is commonly defined as "a great destruction resulting in the extensive loss of life, especially by fire."
Possibly the first printed 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".
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 fallout is generated in a nuclear war that all human life is extinguished. However 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 expert Philip J. Dolan.
In 1982 nuclear disarmament activist Jonathan Schell published The Fate of the Earth, which is regarded by many 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 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 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. Similarly, it is common to see stated that the combined explosive energy released in the entirety of World War II was about 3 megatons, while a nuclear war with warhead stockpiles at Cold War highs would release 6000 WWII's of explosive energy. An estimate for the necessary amount of fallout to begin to have the potential of causing human extinction is regarded by physicist and disarmament activist Joseph Rotblat to be 10 to 100 times the megatonnage in nuclear arsenals as they stood in 1976; however, with the world megatonnage decreasing since the Cold War ended this possibility remains hypothetical.
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,[better source needed] 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. Nonetheless, many people believe that a full-scale nuclear war would result, through the nuclear winter effect, in the extinction of the human species, though not all analysts agree on the assumptions inputted into these nuclear winter models.
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- American Heritage Dictionary definition of "holocaust"
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- Jon Petrie, The Secular Word "HOLOCAUST": Scholarly Sacralization, Twentieth Century Meanings
- For instance, U.S. President Bush stated in August 2007: "Iran's active pursuit of technology that could lead to nuclear weapons threatens to put a region already known for instability and violence under the shadow of a nuclear holocaust," McElroy, Damien; Spillius, Alex (28 August 2007). "Bush warns of Iran 'nuclear holocaust'". The Telegraph. Retrieved 20 November 2015.
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- Nuclear Holocausts: Atomic War in Fiction, By Paul Brians, Professor of English, Washington State University, Pullman, Washington