Ho Hum Nuclear Winter

From the January Scientific American:

Twenty-five years ago international teams of scientists showed that a nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union could produce a “nuclear winter.” … killing plants worldwide and eliminating our food supply. … International discussion about this prediction … forced the leaders of the two superpowers to confront the possibility that their arms race endangered not just themselves but the entire human race. Countries large and small demanded disarmament. Nuclear winter became an important factor in ending the nuclear arms race. … Gorbachev observed, “the knowledge of [nuclear winter] was a great stimulus … to act.”

Why discuss this topic now that the cold war has ended? Because as other nations continue to acquire nuclear weapons, smaller, regional nuclear wars could create a similar global catastrophe.  New analyses reveal that a conflict between India and Pakistan, for example, in which 100 nuclear bombs were dropped … would produce enough smoke to cripple global agriculture. … Not only were the ideas of the 1980s correct but the effects would last for at least 10 years, much longer than previously thought. …

More than 20 million people in the two countries could die from the blasts, fires and radioactivity. … A nuclear war could trigger declines in yield nearly everywhere at once. … Around one billion people worldwide who now live on marginal food supplies would be directly threatened with starvation by a nuclear war between India and Pakistan or between other regional nuclear powers.


The effects of a war involving the entire current global nuclear arsenal … [include] a global average surface cooling of –7°C to –8°C persists for years, and after a decade the cooling is still –4°C (Fig. 2).  … Cooling of more than –20°C occurs over large areas of North America and of more than –30°C over much of Eurasia, including all agricultural regions.

So, the first news about nuclear winter was shocking enough to induce cold war adversaries to agree to big cuts.  Today we know the situation is even worse – not only is nuclear winter easier than we thought to trigger, but more nations now have big enough arsenals to trigger it.  Yet today there is far less international discussion or momentum to prevent such disaster.  Why the difference?

Perhaps what triggered Western citizen interest last time was not so much that disaster loomed, but that disaster seemed attributable to our moral failings – to our being too belligerent.  This time, we don’t feel so belligerent to Russia, and other wars seems like someone else’s fault.  Perhaps we care less about anticipating and avoiding disasters, and more about avoiding moral blame for whatever does happen.

Many huge problems loom on a century or so timescale, but the only one that penetrates our public consciousness is global warming.  I suspect that is because people see it as attributable to a moral failing of theirs, something like greed, gluttony, or insensitivity to nature.  If global warming were just as serious a problem, but caused by an inhuman geological process, I suspect it would get a lot less attention.

If you want the West to attend to a looming future disaster, it seems you must blame it on their current immorality.  The disaster I fear most is an unanticipated em transition; how can we blame that on a current moral failing?  Imprudence is a moral failing of sorts, but alas it ranks low as a dreamtime concern.

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  • Bill

    So, is the author of Superfreakonomics going to suggest limited nuclear wars to counter global warming?

    How about a discussion of the amount of worldwide cancer even for a small nuclear incident.

    Don’t drink that milk. Don’t eat that cheese. Don’t Drink the water. No one wins.

    • Doug S.

      So, is the author of Superfreakonomics going to suggest limited nuclear wars to counter global warming?

      Futurama already did…

      Fry: This snow is beautiful. I’m glad global warming never happened.
      Leela: Actually, it did. But thank God nuclear winter canceled it out.

  • Bill

    Perhaps what we need to do is introduce Greenpeace or an environmental movement into Iran. Iran has an interest in their environment even if they do nothing but enrich uranium.

    How about a public interest broadcasting on the risks of nuclear contamination in Iran. Would give the Ayatollahs something to talk about, given that there is rural illiterate support for the status quo that could easily be convinced about the dangers of radioactivity.

    Go Greenpeace Go.

  • Patrick

    Nuclear Winter was a hoax put forward by scientist who thought that it would help further peace talks. As if nuclear weapons weren’t scary enough. No one bothered to seriously counter it at the time, because it signaled you were a bad person in favor of nuclear weapons if you called bunk on the science. No one bothers to deal with it today because it has become irrelevant.

    What I find interesting about it is the idea of taboo science, and how it works with other immoral sciences. What other fields can we not prove or disprove because we’re a bad person if we go against the consensus?

    • Doug S.

      People have several incorrect impressions about nuclear winter. One is that the climatic effects were disproved; this is just not true. Another is that the world would experience “nuclear autumn” instead of winter. But our new calculations show that the climate effects even of a regional conflict would be widespread and severe. The models and computers used in the 1980s were not able to simulate the lofting and persistence of the smoke or the long time it would take oceans to warm back up as the smoke eventually dissipated; current models of a full-scale nuclear exchange predict a nuclear winter, not a nuclear fall.

      • Doug S.

        (That’s a quote from the linked article.)

      • Patrick

        The world has set off over 2000 nuclear weapons, between all the powers. A third of which were above ground. If Nuclear Winter was going to happen, we’d see it in the data.

        They are explosives. Very large ones with some very negative secondary effects involving radiation. They do not block out the sun.

        I’m very much aware of what the original models used. They relied heavily on ‘well, the cities BURN right? So that’s like a Gajillion tons of junk going into the atmosphere!” Then they plug it into some equation they pulled out of their butts, and call get the result they wanted. Like large scale fires don’t happen all the time all over the world, or that we’ve never firebombed cities before.

        The models never include rainfall changes anyways. They never look at the effects of previous nuclear explosives on cities, the effects of large fires, or that the Earth herself sets these things off all the time. St Helens was a 24 MT Bomb being set off, and it had minimal effects on climate change.

        Remember, in a war, most of the bombs set off would probably be atmospheric bursts of much smaller warheads in order to maximize damage over a larger area.

        But, yeah, pointing out stuff like this makes me signal that I’m a bad person. Right now I Just said “It’s ok for Indian and Pakistan to kill a few hundred million people in a nuclear war, because it won’t effect climate that much.” I mean, why would I even bother to check the science on this? Would should I know how nuclear weapons would be used, or the effects of bombing cities? That is bad person knowledge.

      • Patrick

        Now that I think about it, I might be able to prove I’m a bad person.

        Let’s say the probability of Nuclear War in the next 10 years between Indian and Pakistan is .2
        And let’s say some scientist comes along and says If Nuclear War then Nuclear Winter. This causes increased pressure on the officials to seek alternatives to war, since the stakes have risen, and people are more conscious of the effects of their action in general, so that the chance of war drops to .19

        Then along comes another scientist who debunks the original claim, raising the chance of hundreds of millions of people dieing to again, .2

        A 1% increase in Hundreds of Millions dieing! Yikes! Maybe this is dangerous science. In fact, there is a chance that the officials may become dejected somewhat to outside experts and those who seek peaceful alternatives. They may start to question other myths or facts about nuclear weapons, thus raising the probability to like .21!

        I can see why most people don’t like doing this. Especially since the lie at the start is so noble.

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      Patrick, can you point me to an authoritative publication explaining why the SciAm authors are all wrong?

      • Jamie_NYC

        Another thing I remember (but cannot document now – I believe I saw it on TV, not on the internet) is the study of the effect of large fires set off by Iraq during the first Gulf war (remember, they set many Kuwaiti oil wells on fire).

        The huge amount of soot that was released was a good ‘natural’ experiment to test the theory of nuclear winter. What happened, in essence, was that the effects were minimal, nowhere near what the models predicted. The soot quickly drifted down and was captured by the land and see surface, so that the effect on sunlight turned out to be very short lived.

      • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

        They discuss that case – those fires weren’t big enough to get the smoke high enough into the atmosphere.

      • Patrick

        Nope, I can’t do that. My knowledge on the subject came the old fashioned way, by reading a lot of different sources on the subject, weighing each piece and point, and finally coming to a conclusion based on the integrated whole. It was a single publication, but the body of arguments and evidence throughout the debate. I have not really done any new reading on the subject in 7 years. I do not think there’s been astounding leaps in the science of nuclear warfare in that time to warrant a change of opinion. If anything we’ve lost a lot of knowledge.

        The first time this nuclear winter hypothesis came up, civil defense and nuclear scientists spent a little bit of energy to try to debunk it. The arguments they made in the 1980′s are still valid today, so you’re best starting there. Their conclusion is that we know both how the weapons will be used in war, and what their effects are:
        Millions of People Will Die, but not due to climate change.

        The debate ended with the Gulf War, during which the oil fields of Kuwait were set on fire. If the winter hypothesis was true, then this experiment should have shown it (since it has some properties similar to the model used in the winter hypothesis). While locally devastating on the environment, the Kuwait oil fires had no global impact on climate change.

        After the cold war ended there was little interest in pursing the topic more, especially since better models by that point all seemed to point in favor of the skeptics. It took years for the skeptics to be vindicated by later models, and by the time they were, the political reasons for the nuclear winter hypothesis had vanished.

        My guess is that the reason this stuff is coming back is that all of the people who were on the skeptic’s side of the debate back then are dead. There’s no one left with an incentive to debunk the new claims, and so they won’t be challenged. The new claims appear to be the same as the old ones, and make the same mistakes.

        So why am I spending so much time on this? I think it’s because I’ve been attempting to answer your other question:

        Am I just relearning what hundreds have already relearned century after century, but were just not able to pass on?

        I’d say the above story points to yes, at least with some things, and may help us better understand why we fail to pass on knowledge.

      • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

        Patrick, on one side I see today’s Scientific American, Wikipedia, and current respected academics and journals, and on the other side folks like you disagree, but can’t be bothered to write up your case into a coherent publication. You just say to see “civil defense and nuclear scientists” from the 1980s. Pretty lopsided situation based on these considerations.

      • Former 3L

        If you ever get such a reference, I’ll be very interested in reading it.

        The “Nuclear Winter is a lefty peacenik hoax” crowd is not exactly strong on the concept of scientific evidence.

        One complicating factor is the persona of Carl Sagan. He did not create the theory (and in fact is one of the less-important authors of the TTAPS papers–Turco and Toon did the heavy lifting), but he is the focus the critics’ rage. Sagan was prone, on occasion, to shoot his mouth off in public without having done his homework–as happened with his infamous prediction of global effects from the Kuwaiti oil fires. (There were, as predicted by more careful scientists, local climatic effects from these fires–see the September 20, 1992 issue of the Journal of Geophysical Research for several papers on the subject).

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    Nukes? No Big Whoop
    At least according to John Mueller.

  • Matt

    I’m not sure how accurate the predictions of nuclear winter are, but I do recall reading a comparison of the predicted effects of the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshimo and Nagasaki and their real effects. It seemed scientists grossly overestimated the negative effects on the environment (i.e. spontaneous plant life). I think it was something like they predicted no plant life (without human cultivation) for fifty years and the reality was that plant life resumed within a decade.

    I’m not sure if they were considering the same things that nuclear winter alarmists were considering. Obviously, no one wants to find out if they’re predictions are true, but I do wonder how solid their science is.

  • UserGoogol

    To some extent guilt is a factor, but the thing about responsibility is that it’s easier for you to effect things that you cause, for tautological reasons. Persuading India and Pakistan to not nuke each other is very hard for external players to do. Although it requires international coordination to really attack it properly, global warming can be addressed on a country-by-country level, or even a person-by-person level. Soviet-US disarmament was more difficult, but if you were American you could call up your congressman and tell them to support more friendly relations with the Soviet Union. Yeah, the United States could try to push harder to push peace agreements or whatever, but that would have limited effects and it could easily backfire if it just stoked up paranoia.

    • anon

      it’s easier for you to effect things that you cause, for tautological reasons.

      That’s tautological indeed, but it doesn’t make much sense in context. Perhaps you meant to say “affect things that you cause?”

  • Robert Ayers

    From a Michael Crichton talk at Cal Tech, 17 January 2003:

    “… And remember, this is only four years after the OTA study concluded that the underlying scientific processes were so poorly known that no estimates could be reliably made. Nevertheless, the TTAPS study not only made those estimates, but concluded they were catastrophic.

    According to Sagan and his co-workers, even a limited 5,000 megaton nuclear exchange would cause a global temperature drop of more than 35 degrees Centigrade, and this change would last for three months. The greatest volcanic eruptions that we know of changed world temperatures somewhere between .5 and 2 degrees Centigrade. Ice ages changed global temperatures by 10 degrees. Here we have an estimated change three times greater than any ice age. One might expect it to be the subject of some dispute.

    But Sagan and his co-workers were prepared, for nuclear winter was from the outset the subject of a well-orchestrated media campaign. The first announcement of nuclear winter appeared in an article by Sagan in the Sunday supplement, Parade. The very next day, a highly-publicized, high-profile conference on the long-term consequences of nuclear war was held in Washington, chaired by Carl Sagan and Paul Ehrlich, the most famous and media-savvy scientists of their generation. Sagan appeared on the Johnny Carson show 40 times. Ehrlich was on 25 times. Following the conference, there were press conferences, meetings with congressmen, and so on. The formal papers in Science came months later.

    This is not the way science is done, it is the way products are sold.”

    • http://williambswift.blogspot.com/ billswift

      Sagan later predicted substantial global cooling from the Kuwaiti oil field fire that never happened.

  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    Great post, solid reasoning.
    You probably should be blogging more about global existential risk and less about the microsocial concerns of middle aged men.

    • http://lesswrong.com/ CannibalSmith

      Nobody cares about them anyway. :)

      • Jeffrey Soreff

        But do middle-aged men care about global existential risks? :-)

  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    Some of the critical comments (particularly the meta ones on the repugnance of challenging a particular scientific theory because its propaganda benefits regarding a different, real threat may be high) are very good too.

    I think it should be pointed out that the excellence of Prof. Hanson’s post doesn’t rest on the example of nuclear winter, but rather a plausible, test-worthy macrosocial theory for what drives global attention regarding existential risk factors.

  • Julian Morrison

    “Many huge problems loom on a century or so timescale”

    Are you thinking of things that fall into the general category of “existential risks”, or do you have any specific problems in mind?

    Also, if a mere few nukes are so dangerous, I’m curious why all the testing in the latter half of the 20th century didn’t set off a nuclear winter.

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      The issue is the amount of smoke and how high up it is sent. Underground tests and tests in empty deserts don’t do much of that. Nukes set off purposely to burn big cities would do lots more.

      • Jess Riedel

        If the amount of smoke generated is more a function of the amount of city destruction done than of the absolute yield of the bomb, shouldn’t Nagasaki and Hiroshima have provided good data about how much smoke (and how high up) we should expect? No matter how big you make the bomb, you can only destroy the city once.

        Or is the claim that the yield of the bomb is more of a multiplier because, say, a modern high-yield bomb will put the smoke higher for a given amount of destruction?

      • Patrick

        And then a week later it rains, undoing most of the damage.

        Nukes aren’t used to burn cities, they’re used to flatten soft targets with atmospheric bursts, or to hit hard targets deep under ground like bunkers. It is inefficient to use nuclear weapons to burn cities.

        The damage of a nuclear explosion on a modern city would not be in fire, but in the pressure wave and radiation.

        We’ve burned cities before, without the effect you claim happens.
        Do we see it happen with, say, the California fires, on even some small scale?

  • milieu

    This seemed to be one of the motivations for India to conduct the nuclear tests. It believed that the rest of the world (specifically US and China) were allowing Pakistan to acquire nuclear weapons covertly, like Israel, to keep India perpetually inside the box.
    By conducting the nuclear tests and forcing Pakistan to conduct and become a “nuclear power” openly, the Indians wanted this to become a world problem. So that there might be some chance of a solution.
    I think.

  • TranshumanReflector

    Bob is making some good points. A radio talk show host mentioned the ‘nuke in Times Square’ scenario, and that hit me in the gut. Before that, nukes on our doorstep was just an abstract idea.

    Perhaps that’s what’s really going on. We transact on an emotional level, most of the time. We feel good sometimes, we feel bad other times, and we try to plan for decisions and activities that make us feel good. We don’t normally act on threats ‘out there’, unless we or someone close to us has been affected by such an external event.

    This is just speculation, but the problem might be simpler than the our morality sense; it might just be that most existential threats are unable to hit our emotional centers, until they actually happen somewhere close enough.

    There’s also the mistrust in what ‘they’ tell us. Scare tactics are a reality, and it’s easy to become numbed, eventually, to any type of ‘we must act now!’ type of claim.

    Personally, I think it’s going to come down to moving off our biological framework, and accepting non-biological augmentions, which will help make us less vulnerable to man-made viruses, at least.

    For nuclear type threats, who knows how long it will be before mind uploading is possible? But that may be the only answer, as pie-in-the-sky as it sounds.

    As purely biological entities, we are always going to be chasing our tails, watching out for the next ‘nutcase’ group or individual, and always being afraid.

    Good topic, Bob. We need to be reminded, from time to time.

  • Unnamed

    It seems a little strange to use global warming as an example of a problem that we focus on when we haven’t actually done anything about global warming. Dan Gilbert came up with psychological explanations of our lack of concern about global warming, given the scope of the problem and our reactions to other problems like terrorism. Interestingly, he highlighted the same dimension: we don’t worry enough about global warming because there is no villain.

    I think that part of why global warming gets the amount and kind of attention that it does is that 1) there’s something clear that we could do about it and 2) there is opposition which feeds into standard left-right battle positions. The first of these seems like a good reason to pay attention, and the second leads to more public consciousness but probably not in a useful way.

  • http://samsonblinded.org/news/ ilona@israel

    i have amusing thought that when the countries will understand that the nuclear weapon-is only for pressure, and to use it impossible because of consequences in environment all over the world,we will return to primitive guns again.

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  • http://geniusnz.blogspot.com GNZ

    How can a nuclear weapon eject a lot of soot from the burning of the city into the stratosphere? the vast majority of the city wouldn’t have time to burn until after the blast was gone and, without that, the fire wouldn’t be more special than a major forest fire like the recent australian one,

    But if its not the fire itself but instead the power of the bomb blowing the rubbish into the atmosphere then the big eruptions in recorded history displaced over 100 billion cubic meters (vs 50 million tonnes or so of soot) of stuff into the air much higher than (i presume) a nuclear bomb could throw things.

    Both of those seem to have made a bit less than a degree of difference. So either they are over estimating or they seem to have some other assumptions that they should highlight…

  • http://nextbigfuture.com Brian Wang
  • http://nextbigfuture.com Brian Wang

    I wrote up my view that the cities of India and Pakistan and modern USA do not seem to be right for firestorms. If there are no firestorms then there is no trigger for nuclear winter even if the later modeling (which is still uncertain) would even need to be considered. It also shows that civil defence that reduces the likelihood of fires and firestorms is relevant and useful.

    • http://nextbigfuture.com Brian Wang
      • http://nextbigfuture.com Brian Wang

        Summarizing the keypoints of why there will be few or no city firestorms:

        1. Firestorms are not so easy to start

        Firestorms have always required at least 50% of buildings to be ignited. A 71 pages long report by Robert M. Rodden, Floyd I. John, and Richard Laurino, Exploratory Analysis of Fire Storms, Stanford Research Institute, California, report AD616638, May 1965, identified the following parameters required by all firestorms:

        2. Nagasaki did not have a firestorm

        Problems of fire in Nuclear Warfare (1961), Jerald E. Hill,
        Rand Corporation

        Jerald E. Hill
        Rand Corporation

        In Nagasaki, in spite of the similar yield, altitude of burst and weather conditions, a fire storm did not develop, probably because of the uneven terrain, the irregular layout of the city and the location of ground zero. In a long relatively narrow river valley north of the center of the city.

        the mechanism for the firestorm in Hiroshima which had nothing to do with thermal radiation but was just due to overturned breakfast charcoal braziers

        3. From indian housing census
        Material of Roofs in India

        Concrete 19.8%
        Tiles 32.6%
        Grass, wood, mud 21.9%
        Other 25.7%

        Material of Walls

        Burnt Brick 43.7%
        Mud, Unburnt Brick 32.2%
        Grass, Wood, etc. 10.2%
        Other 13.9%

        4. The original case listed pakistan and india each having 200 nukes of 100kt each. Most reports have each having less than 90 nukes and most being 25kt. Targeting in an exchange would have one side shooting first and trying to take out the other nukes. Seems like a max of 100 nukes exchanged

      • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

        Do you expect us to believe that the authors of these publications are unaware of these points of yours? Shouldn’t you first try to submit such critiques for publication in similar journals to the articles on the other side, before asking non-expert readers to believe you are more expert than the other authors? Eventually you might claim your papers are being unfairly rejected due to politicxs, and we might then have to decide how believable is your claim then, but if you don’t even bother to try, that looks bad for your degree of expertize and attention to this issue.

      • http://nextbigfuture.com Brian Wang

        Is the fact stated in the Rand report that there was no firestorm in Nagasaki to be believed ? Yes or no ?

        Can non-expert readers look at papers and historical record that say that historically no firestorm occured in Nagasaki ?

        I will try to publish my article.

        I do not see the authors mentioning the building composition or having any focus on the firestorm starting aspect. It is taken as an assumption that firestorms will occur. They only take loading into account to say how big the fires get.

        They only listed the 200 weapons for India and 200 for Pakistan and the 100 kt per weapon. I do not see any serious attempt to investigate it. They do not discuss targeting and likely nuclear war targeting strategy. they do not discuss delivery mechanisms. Most of Pakistan and India’s weapons must be delivered by planes. If those planes are blown up on the ground and the airfields destroyed then it will be tough for the attacked side to respond. Only the missiles that are not destroyed could respond.

        This is standard analysis methods used for analysing situations during the cold War.

        Again non-experts can grasp that if you assume all the weapons are launched and hit cities that this shows that the authors of that scenario chose not to try to make a first pass at that aspect of the question.

        Can non-experts take the time to read all of the powerpoints and research papers on the Robock and Toon pages ? It is tedious but yes it can be done. Can it be seen that 90-95% of the work all relates to proving the climate effect after the smoke is in the stratosphere ? I think it can be. Can it be seen that Robock and Toon make no attempt to personally analyze the firestorm ignition aspect ?
        I say it can be without expert opinion.

        I see dozens of powerpoints and papers on the Robock and Toon sites. I have looked them over and it is quite clear that I as a non-expert can read and only see climate analysis. they do not deeply examine how many nuclear weapons are there, how many would be launched in a realistic scenario, what they would target, what the composition of the cities are, topology and city layout, firestorm ignition conditions, how much smoke there would be from a partially burning city. If I missed some critical powerpoint or paper then a non-expert can find the link and present it.

        A non-expert can also determine that the Robock and Toon case is based upon many cities burning nearly completely and if this is shown to be clearly not the case then the rest of the analysis has lost a foundational element. they could say that it would be bad for an attacker to hit cities with a lot of extra fire accelerants (fuel, incindiaries etc…) to help ensure that all of the cities burn to help meet the starting conditions.

        I will send my questions to Robock and Toon and give them an opportunity to show that I am wrong that they have considered this and have a case on this.

        I see no claims that my case is flawed on any technical basis. You are just saying that I have not published and they have so they must be more right. This seems to be going to a bias to authority, which goes counter to the overcomingbias of the title.

        Does India, Pakistan have more and bigger nuclear weapons ? 200 each and 100kt average or do they eah have less than 90 with most at 25kt.

        Did Nagasaki have a firestorm ? If that does not matter then why not ?

        Are there counter documents and studies which indicate that starting citywide firestorms are easier ?


  • Steve

    > If global warming were just as serious a problem, but caused by an inhuman geological process, I suspect it would get a lot less attention.

    I can guarantee that this is the case. I have heard arguments about the average temperature on Mars used as the sole support for the proposition that we should stop worrying about climate change.

  • Jean L.

    Robin Hanson asks:

    “Do you expect us to believe that the authors of these publications are unaware of these points of yours? Shouldn’t you first try to submit such critiques for publication in similar journals to the articles on the other side, before asking non-expert readers to believe you are more expert than the other authors?”

    Well, there are disciplinary issues here, as well as historical ones.

    I read with great interest the piece in the _Scientific American_ and I’ll willingly grant that the predicted consequences would follow from the assumed causes. However, even a peer-reviewed paper may only have been validated with respect to the disciplinary field it is addressing. A climate science paper will be validated by other climate scientists looking for what *they* find interesting, i.e. a novel way to perturb the climate and original predictions of climatic effects down the line. But the reviewers might not take issue with the underlying assumptions (they would be ignoring the fact that cows aren’t spherical and of homogeneous density, to quote an old joke) about the initial conditions.

    And while it is purely subjective, I was struck by the authors’ insistence that their past work could now be applied to a new and different situation, spanning at least an order of magnitude in distance from the original case study. No, I haven’t looked into the issue, but to what extent are they continuing to use the same models they used two decades ago, when computers were much less powerful and simplifying assumptions were absolutely necessary? I’d be leery of rejecting out of hand some of the objections raised above.

  • http://glasstone.blogspot.com Nige Cook

    One of the Scientific American’s Cold War publishers, Gerard Piel, had a long history of lying and publishing lies about fires from nuclear weapons to attack civil defense readiness, just as his predecessors did in Britain during the 1930s (which made the Prime Minister appease Hitler, encouraging him to start WWII). Typical example of lie:

    “A heading in one recent report concerned with effects of nuclear detonations reads, ‘Megatons Mean Fire Storms,’ and the report predicts that a 20-megaton nuclear burst is sure to produce a 300-square mile fire storm. [Reference: Gerard Piel (then the anti-civil defense publisher of the Scientific American), ‘The Illusion of Civil Defense,’ published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, February 1962, pp. 2-8.] The report further states that blastproof bomb shelters afforded no protection in World War II fire storms, and the reader is left to conclude that vast fire storm areas in which there will be no survivors are an assured consequence of future nuclear attacks. … the 40,000-50,000 persons killed by the fire storm at Hamburg constituted only 14 to 18 percent of the people in the fire storm area and 3 to 4 percent of Hamburg’s total population at the time of the attack. … Two of three buildings in a 4.5 square mile area were burning 20 minutes after the incendiary attack began at Hamburg, and similar figures were reported for other German fire storm cities.”

    - Robert M. Rodden, Floyd I. John, and Richard Laurino, Exploratory Analysis of Fire Storms, Stanford Research Institute, AD616638, 1965, pages 1, 5.

    Media lying about the thermal ignitions (leading to lies about firestorms and nuclear winter caused by the soot of such fires blocking sunlight) can be traced back to the secret classification of the full three-volume 1947 report on Hiroshima by the Strategic Bombing Survey, which was edited out of the brief single volume “summary” that the openly published a year earlier, 1946. Here is the key revelation (originally ‘secret’ May 1947 U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey report on Hiroshima, pp. 4-6):

    ‘Six persons who had been in reinforced-concrete buildings within 3,200 feet [975 m] of air zero stated that black cotton black-out curtains were ignited by flash heat… A large proportion of over 1,000 persons questioned was, however, in agreement that a great majority of the original fires were started by debris falling on kitchen charcoal fires …There had been practically no rain in the city for about 3 weeks. The velocity of the wind … was not more than 5 miles [8 km] per hour…. Hundreds of fires were reported to have started in the centre of the city within 10 minutes after the explosion… almost no effort was made to fight this conflagration … There were no automatic sprinkler systems in building…’ [Emphasis added.]

    Please show me a modern city that is today built out of 1945 Hiroshima style wood frame houses with charcoal stoves amid bamboo furnishings and paper screens. Even Hiroshima is no longer built like that, it’s a modern steel, concrete, and brick city and would not suffer a firestorm if a bomb dropped on it again. By the way, the “nuclear winter” from the Hiroshima fire storm blocked out the sun for 25 minutes (from burst time at 8:15 am until 8:40) in Hiroshima as shown by the meteorological sunshine records printed in Figure 6 (3H) of Drs. Ashley W. Oughterson, Henry L. Barnett, George V. LeRoy, Jack D. Rosenbaum, Averill A. Liebow, B. Aubrey Schneider, and E. Cuyler Hammond, Medical Effects of Atomic Bombs: The Report of the Joint Commission for the Investigation of the Effects of the Atomic Bomb in Japan, Volume 1, Office of the Air Surgeon, report NP-3036, April 19, 1951, U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (linked here). There were no reported casualties due to 25 minutes of sunlight deprivation.

    So even where city firestorms have actually occurred, there was not a nuclear winter. What about the theoretical predictions that a nuclear attack on oil supplies will cause a nuclear winter, made by the founder of nuclear winter hype, Paul Crutzen? Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army invaded Kuwait and set all of its oil wells on fire as it was driven back into Iraq by America in 1991.

    Peter Aldhous, ‘Oil-well climate catastrophe?’, Nature, vol. 349 (1991), p. 96:

    ‘The fears expressed last week centred around the cloud of soot that would result if Kuwait’s oil wells were set alight by Iraqi forces … with effects similar to those of the “nuclear winter” … Paul Crutzen, from the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz, has produced some rough calculations which predict a cloud of soot covering half of the Northern Hemisphere within 100 days. Crutzen … estimates that temperatures beneath such a cloud could be reduced by 5-10 degrees C …’

    Dr Richard D. Small of Pacific-Sierra Research Corporation, California, responded in Nature, vol. 350 (1991), pp. 11-12, that 16,000 metric tons of actual soot is produced from 220,000 metric tons of oil burned every day, and anyway:

    ‘My estimates of the smoke produced by destruction of Kuwait’s oil wells and refineries and the smoke stabilization altitude do not support any of the purported impacts. The smoke is not injected high enough to spread over large areas of the Northern Hemisphere, nor is enough produced to cause a measurable temperature change or failure of the monsoons.’

    It turned out that the nuclear winter hype was false, because even if you do somwhow manage to start a firestorm in the modern world (the wooden medieval areas of Hamburg and Dresden weren’t rebuilt with wood after they burned in firestorms), it simply doen’t produce a stable layer of soot in the stratosphere like the computer simulation. At Hiroshima the soot returned to the ground promptly because it is hydroscopic: it forms water droplets, rain. (It wasn’t fallout: the firestorm took over 20 minutes to get doing, by which time the radioactive mushroom cloud had been blown miles downwind.)

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