Einstein’s warning – and why even a small nuclear war could destroy humanity

Albert Einstein once explained that nuclear weapons changed everything – except the way we think. He was right, of course. That worries me. There’s been a lot of talk about rogue-state nuclear weapons of late. A war using such appalling devices seems a real possibility – more so than during the dark days of the Cold War.

A beautiful picture of Earth from 1.6 million km sunwards. It is our only planet. Let’s not break it. NASA, public domain.

That is extremely scary. I am well aware of the theory of international rational operators; such logic on all sides was why the Cold War didn’t get too hot. But that doesn’t preclude accident, or idiots, or international game-playing around a system where the apparent cost of nuclear war isn’t total human armageddon – where ‘rational’ planners make ruthless and cynical calculations about acceptable casualties, or where specific military plans take on a momentum once triggered. It’s happened before – how do you think Europe fell into the First World War?

I say ‘apparent cost’ for a whole raft of reasons. Obviously even a handful of nukes would cause a terrible human catastrophe of unparalleled scale if targeted on any city or group of cities on the globe. That’s quite apart from the wider impact, literally depending on the way the wind is blowing. In some areas fallout patterns might extend to neighbouring nations. And that doesn’t include a potential worldwide cascade of indirect economic effects, given the nature of current systems and the way they work.

All that’s abysmally bad – but there’s more.

Back in the late 1940s and through the 1950s, nukes were tested above ground or in the sea. The risks seemed obvious from first principles, quite apart from empirical data, and calls to ban such tests began early, led by India and followed by the Soviets. Then in 1954 Japan began detecting fallout from relatively distant Soviet tests. It turned out that the by-products were being hurled into the upper atmosphere and carried around the globe in measurable quantity. And in August 1963, despite the Cold War, all world powers agreed to ban atmospheric, space-borne and under-water nuclear blasts. This Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was signed in Moscow.

What this experience tells us is that if there’s a northern hemisphere nuclear war with even a handful of nukes, it’ll eventually distribute radioactive by-products right around the northern hemisphere and possibly into the southern. Not in huge quantity – but nuclear detonation products are incredibly toxic. We can expect cancer rates to rise, worldwide, on top of regional devastation from any war itself.

But wait, there’s even more.

Nukes don’t just throw dangerously radioactive particles around. There is a risk that cities hit by a nuke will then burn in a self-sustaining fire-storm, like Dresden and Tokyo did after massive conventional bombing in 1945. The physics of such combustion tells us that this will send a fine aerosol of carbon (literally super-fine soot) into the stratosphere, above cloud level. In 1983, Richard Turco and Carl Sagan calculated that a ‘city busting’ nuclear war involving up to 12,000 nukes could throw enough raw carbon micro-particles up there to trigger a years-long ‘nuclear winter’, reducing humanity to almost nothing because all our food would be gone.

Test ‘Ivy-Mike’ on Eniwetok Atoll, 31 October 1952 – the world’s first hydrogen bomb. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

Do you think we’re safe today, now the Cold War is over? No chance. Nuclear weapons cannot be un-invented, and idiots keep trying to build them in the supposition that possession makes them safe. And that works, sort of – in a meta-stable kind of way – if rational diplomatic theory applies. Er – you realise that this theory was a culture-specific European invention flowing out of the eighteenth century? And sure, it’s been updated – but it’s still western-centric and pre-supposes ‘system-accepting’ operators by those standards on all sides. Just saying.

In 2007, Brian Toon and Alan Robock used the latest climatic models to figure out what would happen in a ‘limited’ nuclear war – the 50 Hiroshima-size bursts expected of a hypothetical Pakistan-India exchange. A follow-up 2014 paper, extending their conclusions, is here: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/2013EF000205/full

By this analysis, it seems that even a ‘limited’ nuclear war in which a relative handful of cities were targeted, triggering firestorms, would provoke massive global damage by throwing up to 5 million tons of carbon micro-particles into the upper atmosphere. The scenario is scary. After one year, Earth’s average surface temperature drops by 1 degree C, more than the recent average rises due to global warming. (As we now know, even a small average temperature shift – either way – suffices to provoke weather chaos.) The wider problem is that this soot is fine enough to be partially kept aloft by random movement of air molecules, so it drifts for an extended period – and over a wide area. It can’t be washed out until it finally drops below cloud level, at which point it turns the rain black and toxic. Ouch. According to the study, after two years, crop growing seasons are cut by up to 40 days, reducing yield. After 5 years, world average temperatures are down 1.5 degrees C, rainfall is down, and the ozone layer is thinned by 25 percent. It takes over 10 years for the ozone to recover, more than 20 years for temperatures to climb back up, and over a quarter of a century for rainfall to recover.

It’s a dire prediction. Possibly extreme, but the science and maths are solid, and do we really want to find out the hard way? And no, this is NOT the answer to global warming.

The lesson is simple. Even one nuke is one too many. And reason must prevail.

What worries me is how, so often, reason doesn’t. Why? Because stupidity, that’s why. Stupidity driven by our unerring ability as a species to rationalise any behaviour in the name of personal validation and the assertion of ‘our’ group at the expense of ‘theirs’, however these may be defined. It’s virtually limitless. Einstein once made the same point. And the problem, as he later observed, is that this violent, aggressive and deeply insecure species known as humanity now has nuclear weapons. Damn.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2017

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7 thoughts on “Einstein’s warning – and why even a small nuclear war could destroy humanity

    1. In an ideal world, people and nations would be happy to coexist, we’d resolve issues with reason, tolerance and kindness, and the need for nuclear weapons would go away. Um… ideal world… Did I just see a pig flap past my window? Of course it’ll never happen – human nature is far too evil for that. I think the fact that the major Cold War powers understood and accepted what would happen in a really big nuclear exchange was a key factor in the dismantling of many US and Soviet/Russian nuclear weapons. But the SALT and other agreements didn’t get rid of them all, and these things cannot be un-invented. Damn.

      In the specific, for the current issue, it’s difficult to see where things will go because the ‘rational operator’ model has been stretched. Nobody wants a war, of course. But there’s always the possibility of accident, or irrational rationality – the way that emotion feeds into personal decisions in such a way that the thought process is entirely logical. Only the outcome is mad. But I am quietly optimistic that sanity will prevail.

  1. The part of the post concerning the upper-level circulation of post-blast products almost irresistibly reminded me of my least-favorite Nevil Shute novel, On the Beach, which had a similar scenario. Come to think of it, I read a lot of post-nuclear-apocalypse novels at one point in my life, such as Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon and a book by Philip Wylie whose title I can’t recall offhand, and the point I would take from all of this is, even if the specifics change, the theme is pretty well known and has been since the early 1960s at least.

    My fear is that there is a certain intoxication in these weapons that might best be described as connoting “god-like power”. “Zeus and his thunderbolts,” for example. This perhaps relates to an earlier post, in the sense that one might ask, why is it that one of the primary characteristics of deity is less the ability to create than the ability to destroy? I realize this is full of holes from the point of view of mythology or anthropology, but it might be the beginning of an interesting line of questions.

    Interesting and possibly vital.

    1. I’ve never read that novel (or seen the film) but I know the story – I think Shute wrote it after he moved to Australia. It’s a horrific scenario and one that could doubtless happen; as I understand it, northern and southern hemisphere wind systems are fairly well isolated via the Doldrums, but not totally so. Ouch (and NZ’s anti-nuclear legislation won’t save us either, though a very large fan might…) Have to say, as an aside, the best ‘nuclear war’ novel I read was Eric L. Harry’s ‘Arc Light’ – really superbly researched.

      I totally agree on the ‘god-like’ sense of power that nuclear weapons potentially bring to a leader or a nation that has them. But it’s an illusory power; as you say, it’s purely destructive.

  2. Yes, the sticks keep getting bigger, but the apes holding them stay the same. My Dad chose Australia because it was the furthest country from world conflict imaginable. Now I wonder if two bad hairdos will wreck the whole darn planet.

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