More than five billion people would die of starvation as a result of a large-scale nuclear war between the US and Russia, according to a new study.
The consequences of such a conflict would be catastrophic for food production, Rutgers University climate scientists found in a peer-reviewed study published in the context of the war in Ukraine.
“The data tells us one thing: we need to prevent nuclear war from ever happening,” said one of the authors, Professor Alan Roebuck.
The warning comes because “humanity is just one misunderstanding, one miscalculation away from nuclear destruction,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said.
Image: Russian troops occupy the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant
Ukraine’s defense intelligence agency has warned of new Russian “provocations” at the occupied Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant in southern Ukraine, while a mayor said the city where the power station is located has come under new shelling.
Rafael Grossi, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), has described the recent shelling of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant as “out of control” and “extremely serious”.
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The new study, published in the journal Nature Food, calculated how much solar-blocking soot would enter the atmosphere as a result of firestorms caused by the detonation of nuclear weapons.
They considered six scenarios involving various sized nuclear arsenals, five based on minor conflicts between India and Pakistan, and one based on a US-Russia war.
Even the smallest scenario caused famine, with global average calorie production falling by 7% within five years of the conflict.
In the largest scenario, a large-scale nuclear conflict, global average calorific production fell by about 90% between three and four years after the fighting.
The massive drop in crop yields would cause billions of people to starve to death within two years, 75% of the world’s population.
According to the researchers, even under the smallest scenario – the 7% drop – the disruption to global food markets would be greater than the largest anomaly on record.
While the study only focused on how many calories were produced globally, humans also need protein and micronutrients to survive, and these are likely to be significantly affected as well.
Nuclear war would have an even greater impact on climate change, according to Lili Zia, an assistant research professor at Rutgers.
“The ozone layer would be destroyed by the heating of the stratosphere, producing more ultraviolet radiation at the surface, and we need to understand that impact on the food supply,” she said.
Read more: What are the risks of a nuclear accident at the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant?
The study uses “state-of-the-art climate, crop and fisheries models” to “calculate how the world’s food availability might change under different nuclear war scenarios”.
It measures how food availability may be affected by export restrictions and actual crop yield reductions, and even takes into account countries that reprocess livestock feed so that it can be used to feed people.
It warns: “Even before a regional nuclear war, large parts of the world could go hungry.”
Curiously, in the scenario analyzed by the researchers, one country’s caloric production would increase or face only small reductions in the event of a large-scale nuclear war: Australia.
The study does not take into account other aspects of the global food supply that would be affected by nuclear war, including the availability of fuel and fertilizer.
Such a war would likely also impact food production infrastructure, increase the ultraviolet radiation that can affect food production, and also lead to radioactive contamination.
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Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, the former head of the British Army’s Chemical, Biological, Radioactive and Nuclear Regiment, told Sky News the report was timely.
However, he warned that the report described “the worst possible outcome, in fact Armageddon, when all nuclear weapons are unleashed – highly unlikely in my opinion”.
“The greatest danger we see in Ukraine at the moment is an accident in Zaporizhzhya or a deceitful Russian commander using a tactical nuclear weapon,” he added, citing a comment he published in the Daily Telegraph calling for Britain better prepared for nuclear war.
“The first scenario could, of course, spread much of the radioactive contamination across Russia and Europe, but would not cause the extremes in climate and crop failure described in this report.”
He told Sky News he expected Western intelligence agencies to quickly pick up the movement of tactical nuclear weapons as they have to be transported on launchers on large trucks.
“NATO would summon them and Russia knows that NATO long-range missiles can disable these launchers long before they have time to fire their missiles,” he added.
“A measure of nuclear complacency has been felt since the end of the Cold War and this report and the arming of nuclear power plants in Ukraine is a stark reminder that nuclear weapons and accidents can change the way we live.”