Tag Archives: nuclear war

A nuclear war between the US and Russia would devastate the climate, simulation shows

On the backdrop of growing tensions between Russia and the US, following the latter’s decision to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, researchers have devised a simulation of a nuclear conflict between the two countries. And the results are not good — not good at all.

Nuclear weapon test Bravo (yield 15 Mt) on Bikini Atoll (1954). Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Winter is coming

Although the exact number of nukes in each country’s arsenal is a closely guarded secret, officially there are nine nations who operate a total of 14,500 nuclear weapons. The vast majority are owned by the US and Russia.

Although anxiety over nuclear war is nowhere near what it was during the height of the Cold War, a 2018 World Economic Forum survey of over 1,000 leaders from government, business, and other industries identified nuclear war as a top threat.

To be fair, the actual chances of a nuclear war happening during our lifetimes is small, but even a tiny risk, in this case, is frightening simply because nukes exist.

A single nuke is enough to kill hundreds of thousands of people in mere hours, and millions more in the coming months and years after detonation.

An all-out nuclear war between the US and Russia would simply be devastating, as a recent study shows.

Researchers at Rutgers University, the University of Colorado Boulder, and the National Center for Atmospheric Research performed a simulation using a climate model that analyzed the effects of a nuclear war between the two most nuke-stocked countries in the world.

The study confirms previous simulations, as the one performed in 2007 by NASA, finding that nuclear war would plunge the planet in a 10-year-long nuclear winter.

According to the study, which was published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres, the detonation of the two countries’ nuclear arsenals would result in the injection of nearly 150 million tons of soot into the atmosphere.

“Despite having different features and capabilities, both models produce similar results. Nuclear winter, with below freezing temperatures over much of the Northern Hemisphere during summer, occurs because of a reduction of surface solar radiation due to smoke lofted into the stratosphere,” the authors wrote in their study.

Within weeks from the first detonations, the soot would have spread around the whole stratosphere, blocking sunlight. As a result, during the first year following the soot injection, global temperatures would plunge by more than 7°C. Later, the planet could cool by as much as 9°C.

The knock-off effects of such a dramatic cooling would be devastating. Food crops would be severely affected, rainfall would be reduced by around 30% globally, extreme weather events would become more variable — and that’s without taking into account the effects of nuclear fallout on human health and wildlife.

What’s truly scary is that you don’t need to detonate thousands of nuclear weapons to alter the climate. A 2017 study found that even as few as five conventional nuclear bombs are enough to trigger dramatic changes in the climate, or so-called ‘nuclear autumns’.

Even a nuclear war between India and Pakistan — two neighboring countries which view each other as nemeses — could produce so much smoke that it would produce global environmental change unprecedented in recorded human history.

China’s DF-5 ICBM, armed with a single 5-megaton warhead, can alone trigger a nuclear autumn. If the DF-5 were to be detonated over Los Angeles, the 5 megaton warhead would have a fireball more than two miles wide, and guarantee third-degree burns 15 miles from the point of detonation.

If all that sounds scary, it’s because it truly is. Luckily, the prospect of mutually assured annihilation keeps nuclear powers in check — but for how long? The truth is that the world won’t ever breathe easily until all nuclear warheads are dismantled, something which might never happen.

Observing Alien Armageddon could be our first sign of advanced civilizations in space.

We humans have a lot of reason to be proud.  In the short span of a few million years we have become self-aware and clever, learning to manipulate our world in ways that have greatly enhanced our survival.  The last 100,000 years have seen the evolution of anatomically modern humans, which migrated from our African birthplace to colonize and populate essentially all corners of the globe.  Using sophisticated brains we learned about the world, deciphering patterns in nature, designed and constructed tools, and formed societies and civilizations.  


Unfortunately, there has also been much about our success that is less praiseworthy.   At the same time that we have been building ingenious devices to better feed, clothes, shelter, and move ourselves from point A to point B, we have also been in the business of making ever more efficient weapons to destroy one another.  As our technological progress seems to outpace our societal ethics and maturity, we now have it in our power to completely annihilate our entire species.  In the not too distant future it could conceivably be possible to extinguish all life on planet earth, whether through horrible accident or intentional destruction.


While we sit on this world powder cake of self destruction, perhaps at times in a little more danger, and at times in a little less, we often wonder if we are alone in the universe.  Not only are we the only example of intelligent life that we know of in the universe, but our little planet is home to the only example of life we know of anywhere.   All evidence seems to indicate that there are a vast number of planetary systems and potential habitable worlds in the universe.  We have detected over 2000 exoplanets, so far, with the first one being discovered only as recently as 1992, and with advancing techniques the numbers have been skyrocketing in recent years.  Yet, there is still no sign of alien life, and even with SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) listening for alien radio transmissions since 1960, we have not detected any confirmed signs of intelligent aliens.  

A few of the exoplanets that the Kepler space telescope has discovered orbiting other stars.

A few of the exoplanets that the Kepler space telescope has discovered orbiting other stars.


In the October 23, 2015 issue of The International Journal of Astrobiology, authors Adam Stevens, Duncan Fogan, and Jack O’Malley James, make an interesting case that we may soon have the technology necessary to detect alien civilizations in the act of self-destruction.  In fact, alien armageddon may provide us with our most likely opportunity to detect the presence of intelligent alien life – even if we are only witness to their last moments.  The authors summarize some of the possible ways that an intelligent civilization could go horribly wrong, and how evidence for these tragic events could potentially be detected by our instruments here on earth.


The first major scenario would be that of global nuclear war.  There are several characteristics of a world that has been annihilated by an intense exchange of nuclear weapons that might be  detectable from our distant vantage point.  The detonation of the devices would emit high energy gamma radiation that would last for a short period of time – on the order of thousandths of a second.  Even given the high energy involved in the detonation of a world arsenal of nuclear devices, it is not very likely we could detect the energy output from so many light years away.  Naturally occurring gamma ray bursts (GRBs) are some of the most intense energy generating events in the universe, and can be observed at the edges of the visible universe, but they are also around 10 billion billion billion times more energetic than the predicted energy release of all the nuclear weapons on earth combined.  


The intense radiation from global nuclear war would, however, ionize the planet’s atmosphere, resulting in an “air glow” due to light emission from energized nitrogen and oxygen.  The atmosphere would have a lovely green glow in the the visible spectrum, is predicted to last several years, and could be observed as an increase in the light intensity at the expected wavelength.  There would also be a depletion of the planet’s ozone layer as reactive chemicals are produced by the explosions.  This too, might be observable as a change in the planet’s atmosphere.  Nuclear war would also generate a great deal of dust and small particles that enter the air, altering the transparency of the atmosphere.  A combination of a gamma ray burst, air glow, drop in ozone concentration, and loss of transparency of the atmosphere would be good evidence for this alien-made disaster.  Any one event on its own might not be enough evidence to be certain of an artificial event.  For example, a change in the atmosphere from transparent to opaque could also be caused by natural events like a large asteroid impact.  


Second on the list for a self-induced civilization-stopping calamity would be use of potent biological weapons.  Genetically engineered organisms, like viruses and bacteria, would potentially be much more deadly than any naturally occurring epidemic.  If the infectious agent was designed to attack all animals and plants, the entire biosphere would be jeopardized.  How would such a horror be detected by us?  Well, a rapid demise of the planet’s multicellular life would result in a huge amount of organic material for bacteria to consume.  The result of this massive decay would be the release of certain chemicals such as methane and ethane, that could be observed by spectroscopic analysis of the atmosphere.  

Artistis depiction of an exoplanet surface in a distant solar system.

Artistis depiction of an exoplanet surface in a distant solar system.


The next deadly scenario is the so called, “grey goo” event.  This involves the engineering of self-replicating nanomachines – tiny machines that use some building material as substrate and convert it into more tiny nanomachines.  The authors of the paper point out that this could be the result of either “goodbots” or “badbots”.  In the goodbot case the self-replicating nanomachines were never intended for destruction, but due to poor system controls, got out of hand leading to world destruction.  Badbots, on the other hand, were designed to cause complete and total destruction – the ultimate doomsday machine!   These replicators would take all carbon containing material on the planet’s surface, (ie. living organisms), and convert them into a growing mass of more replicators that do the same.  K. Eric Drexler – who coined the term nanotechology- pointed out in his ‘Engines of Creation’:  “Replicators can be more potent than nuclear weapons: to devastate Earth with bombs would require masses of exotic hardware and rare isotopes, but to destroy all life with replicators would require only a single speck made of ordinary elements.”


It might take as little as a few weeks to convert the worlds living biomass into a lifeless desert of tiny replicators – grey goo!  Pretty scary!!  From earth we might be able to detect this as a large increase in atmospheric dust (the masses of nanomachines).  The nanomachines would form giant sand dunes (bot dunes in this case) and would change the apparent brightness of the planet as we observe it.  There would be visual effects of shadowing, as the planet orbits its star due to the changing angle that light hits the grains of nanomachines in the bot dunes.  This is similar to the effect we see as light passes through the small particles in Saturn’s rings at different angles.  Over a period of thousands of years the nanomachines would be recycled through the planet’s interior, as the planet’s normal geological processes continue to operate.


Another apocalyptic possibility would be intentional pollution of the planet’s star.  To dispose of harmful radioactive waste, a civilization might launch such materials into its parent star.  Detecting uncommon radioactive elements in the star’s atmosphere would be evidence for this unnatural process.  Carl Sagan, called this “salting” the star.   We would know that this was an artificial process by the fact that elements present would be produced only in such high amounts by nuclear processes that don’t occur naturally.  Models have shown that if this was carried out to extremes, it would affect the star’s internal balance of forces and cause it’s size to increase, while dropping the surface temperature.  This change in the star’s characteristics could change the location of the habitable zone around the star, making life difficult or impossible on the alien planet that did the salting.  The authors suggest that, “compiling a sample of stars that are bright, cool, and slightly larger than expected as an initial step to search for this particular death channel.”


Finding evidence for intelligent life in the cosmos would radically change our view of ourselves, and our place in the universe.  If aliens have a similar psychology to ourselves (a big if to be sure), they could be prone towards potentially fatal flaws that could escalate to total catastrophe.  Their demise at their own hands (or equivalent body structures) might also be the signal that informs us that they were ever there at all.  Finding one or more civilizations that self-destructed might also give us a way to prognose the long-term health of the human race.  Do civilizations reach a point where their technological power is too great for their wisdom?  Could Homo sapiens one day end up as a signal to the stars that we were here for a brief time, an intelligent species, but just not quite intelligent enough to solve the problem of surviving peacefully with one another?  
Journal Reference:  

Observational signatures of self-destructive civilizations.”  Oct. 23, 2015,  The International Journal of Astrobiology.   Adam Stevens, Duncan Forgan and Jack O’Malley James.




Defy nuclear war with the doomsday survival suit [photos]

Doomsday suit

For the 2012 panicked or just the doomsday memorabilia  collectors, Kacey Wong‘s doomsday survival suit will definitely spark interest. The Hong Kong artist has designed the robot-shaped suit inspiring herself after the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster, with the idea of protecting people from radiation leaking from nuclear power stations.

Mobile and equipped with glowing red alarm lights for eyes, the doomsday suit is entirely made out of led plates and can be unfolded to create a bed so you can have some well deserved rest after a nuclear war night. It also features solar panels to power electrical devices the inhabitant may need during radiation alerts.It only generates about 15 volts of electricity, which is just maybe enough to power an iPod and soundtrack the apocalypse.

Previous robot-like mobile homes by Wong include this one designed for rich people made homeless by the credit crunch and another that doubles as an office for homeless people.

Here’s how Wong describes her doomsday suit.

Natural and man-made disasters killed tens of thousands of people and many more lost their home, Hong Kong being much closer to the Daya Bay Nuclear Power Station than to the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant, maybe it is about time to reflect and address the potential risk and hazard produced by nuclear energy.

Unfortunately for now, the suit is not available for sale and has been designed only for illustrative purposes – or art. If you want to snag a look at it, though, you’ll be able to find it at the 30 x 30 exhibition in Hong Kong from July 7 to August 9.

Doomsday suit