It’s been 77 years since the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It’s been 33 years since the Berlin Wall’s fall and the Cold War’s end.
But the bomb is back.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is making thinly veiled threats. China’s embarking on a massive nuclear weapon-building campaign. And the menace of atomic annihilation coming out of North Korea is so common as to become background noise.
Has the world forgotten how close these weapons can bring us to extinction?
A new study in the science journal Nature Foodhas built upon recent lessons from Australia’s and Canada’s catastrophic 2019-20 forest fires to anticipate the impact of nuclear detonation on global food production.
Estimates place the amount of smoke produced by the recent fires as up to 1 teragram (1 trillion grams). Heavier soot ejecta was up to 0.02Tg. Both quickly encompassed the globe – lingering in the sky for months afterwards.
“This adds confidence to our simulations that predict the same process would occur after a nuclear war,” reads the research published today (Tuesday, August 16) in Nature Food, from lead author Lili Xia of Rutgers University, along with contributors including Dr Ryan Heneghan of the Queensland University of Technology.
The study’s not without immediate relevance.
The bomb is back
When President Putin marched his army into Ukraine on February 24, he issued a dire warning: Any nation that dared oppose his invasion would face “ominous consequences”. The world has “never seen (its like) in its entire history”. “I hope that my words will be heard,” he concluded.
He’s since seemed to backtrack. Somewhat.
“We believe that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought, and we stand for equal and indivisible security for all members of the world community,” the Russian leader told recent nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty talks at the UN.
Secretary-General Antonio Guterres didn’t sound convinced.
He warned that “humanity is just one misunderstanding, one miscalculation away from nuclear annihilation”. Ukraine. Asia. The Middle East. The Koreas. All are experiencing heightened levels of nuclear threats.
With 13,000 nuclear weapons sitting in stockpiles worldwide, the secretary-general warned delegates “the risks of proliferation are growing and guardrails to prevent escalation are weakening”.
“Future generations are counting on your commitment to step back from the abyss.
“This is our moment to meet this fundamental test and lift the cloud of nuclear annihilation once and for all.”
Such a war would reach far beyond the battlefield.
We’re seeing that right now.
The fighting between Russia and Ukraine has disrupted more than 20 per cent of global grain exports – threatening famine in Africa and the Middle East while causing prices to soar globally.
Even a “small” nuclear exchange between Pakistan and India would have catastrophic implications. The handful of weapons both nations possess would kill some 52 million people instantly. They would also eject more than 16 teragrams (16 trillion grams) of soot into the stratosphere.
National borders will not constrain this. Instead, the soot will quickly be picked up by high-altitude jet streams and circle the world.
The result would be a global famine killing an additional 926,000,000 people within two years.
Australia, however, appears to get off relatively lightly. At least at first.
Food for thought
The study, Global food insecurity and famine from … nuclear war soot injection, examines the implications of wars scaling up from 100 warhead detonations through to 4400.
Only Australia and some other southern hemisphere nations would potentially avert starvation.
And that may include the worst-case “all-out exchange” scenario.
Some 360 million would die in the initial blasts. Two years later, an additional five billion would be dead of hunger.
The study calculates the impact on significant crop types, fish stocks and other livestock production systems. This produces an estimate of global calorie supply – after the exhaustion of existing food stockpiles after one year.
“The scale of the resulting food shortages will depend on the amount of cooling, and changes in precipitation and surface sunlight, which are determined by the amount of soot lofted into the upper atmosphere,” the researchers say.
In the case of an all-out war, global cooling would be about 14.8C – triggering an ice age.
“Any nuclear weapon detonation that produces more than five teragrams (5 trillion grams) of soot is predicted to likely cause mass food shortages in almost all countries,” they add.
Emergency measures such as eliminating food waste and diverting calories from stock feed to humans would not be enough to cover the shortfall, they warn.
And the outcome for Australia?
Its example may represent a flaw in the modelling system.
“In Australia, with increasing soot injection (that is, as the intensity of nuclear war increases), a decrease in calories available is projected first, followed by a 24 per cent growth in calories in the second year,” the study finds.
This was an “unrealistic” result, the authors concede.
However, Australia’s export of wheat would cease. This means it could be diverted to fill about half the nation’s required calorific intake. And the study’s simplified simulation of spring wheat crops shows increasing yields based on more favourable temperatures.
“But if this scenario should actually take place, Australia and New Zealand would probably see an influx of refugees from Asia and other countries experiencing food insecurity,” the study warns.
A matter of resilience
The study did not examine “year 3” beyond saying farmers would find it difficult to adapt to new crop types and challenges such as spare parts and food distribution.
For example: Can Australia build a tractor from scratch? That includes the engine and all its parts. And the tyres. What about producing the machinery needed to make these? Or even processing the necessary metals and materials?
Then, of course, there’s the matter of powering it … Does that mean finding fossil fuels and building refineries? Or establishing homegrown alternative hydrogen supplies? Do we have enough electricity from solar and wind?
It’s not just about nuclear winters, says ex-Major General now Senator Jim Molan.
“I’m quite confident we are not putting enough resources into the situation we’ve got at the moment, and I think this is something we should not be too scared to address,” he recently told Radio 6PR.
The Liberal Party senator says he is concerned about Australia’s inability to cope with any level of international crisis – be it a naval blockade or an exchange of nuclear bombs.
“They have called it a Defense Review,” he says of recent Albanese government moves to reassess Australia’s strategic needs.
“It shouldn’t be a defence review because what good is a defence force if your people don’t have fuels in order to make the harvest and to carry the food from the fields to the factories? To run the factories? If the nation is not resilient?”
He was referring to the economic and strategic shocks experienced by Australia under the Covid-19 pandemic. Everything from silicon chips to medical masks was suddenly in critically short supply.
Any war – conventional or nuclear – is likely to have an immediate impact on supplies of fuels, pharmaceuticals, fertilisers and critical minerals and materials. In his book, Danger On Our Doorstep, Molan says that Australia’s stockpiles would be exhausted after just 32 days for fossil fuels alone, before adding: “The prospect of a war in the Western Pacific is dark enough for the US, but it is even darker for Australia, with our one-shot defence force, our enormous vulnerability.”
Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel