Nuclear Winter Reappraised

Courtesy Reuters

Apocalyptic visions of the environmental effects of nuclear war have been a part of our popular culture for decades. But apart from appreciating any entertainment value, the cognoscenti of nuclear war have regarded the doomsday predictions as ignorant at best, or dangerous propaganda at worst. The potential global environmental effects of nuclear explosions that were known before 1982—radioactive fallout and the destruction of the stratospheric ozone layer—were almost universally accepted in the strategic weapons community as being far short of true doomsday proportions. Indeed, for the combatant nations, such uncertain "secondary" effects were thought to pale before the assured direct effects of blast, heat and local radioactivity. From a scientific standpoint, this skepticism of environmental doomsday effects was probably justified in the sense that a large nuclear war would have been more devastating to the superpowers than any known indirect effects. The discovery of "nuclear winter" has challenged this skepticism because it has been much more compelling scientifically than the earlier predictions of global environmental effects. It has even been referred to as an inadvertent manifestation of Herman Kahn’s "doomsday machine."

The nuclear winter hypothesis, stated simply, contended that the smoke and dust placed in the atmosphere by a large nuclear war would prevent most sunlight from reaching the earth’s surface and produce a widespread cooling of land areas. The first two climatic conclusions of the theory were the most important: effects would be severe (weeks of sub-freezing temperatures), and effects would be widespread (at least hemispheric in scale). These grim scientific conclusions gave rise to two unique implications: the possibility of human extinction, and the potential suicide of an attacker even without retaliation by the attacked party. These implications, if confirmed, would indeed approach the definition of the traditional doomsday machine.

Another assertion was added to the hypothesis in the form of a scientific judgment: namely, that a "threshold" existed above which the climatic effects of a nuclear attack would become catastrophic. Thus, this doomsday machine did

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