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Nuclear “Famine” Workshop

March 12, 2008

Nuclear “Famine” Workshop – Lead by Dr. Ira Helfand, PSR USA

There are two objectives for the workshop: 1) Show the draft slideshow for critique and input and 2) Present several areas for additional research.

Dr. Helfand presented the purpose of the workshop and asked that people provide feedback on the slideshow and the research agenda. The goal is to make changes to the powerpoint presentation and then make it available for affiliates to use in educating about the issue. A special point should be made that this research could be an important piece of the ICAN (International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons) campaign as the research shows that even a regional, limited nuclear exchange could kill over a billion people from agricultural disruption and essentially end life as we know it!

Regarding the research part, the climate effects of the research have been well established and are considered quite rigorous. It is important to know that the original work by Robock and Toon (and others) about Nuclear Winter was well studied in the 1980s. This new work included 2 separate models which now takes into account more levels of the atmosphere and the oceans in the models. The work presented here in the workshop was confirmed in the two different simulations. There are six other models which have yet to be run, and if anyone has access to these models, it would be good to confirm the results with them, too.  The health effects of Ira’s paper are more speculative and although based on historical experience, are harder to work out. It is in this area that we hope we can further the research to strengthen the paper for eventual publication in a journal like Lancet.

Nuclear weapons obvious inflict serious harm to those directly targeted. The bomb at Hiroshima, although relatively small, killed 150,000 people. It represents only a miniscule portion of the current nuclear arsenals. The heat and explosive effects are well known, but nuclear detonations have important other effects which are distributed more widely. There are two main atmospheric consequences. The burning of cities produces a lot of smoke and this absorbs sunlight. The explosion also kicks up a lot of dust which reflects sunlight: Both of which serve to dim the light and cool the ground temperatures.

The research being presented here is based primarily on work done by Toon and Robock which simulated an exchange of 100 of Hiroshima-size nuclear weapons between India and Pakistan. This was chosen as it represents a probably scenario between two adversaries that have recently fought wars.

In the research, which also recognized the immediate deaths of hundreds of millions of Indians and Pakistan, the climate effects were dramatic. There would be an immediate drop in surface temperatures of 1.5 deg C over days and this effect would be severe for 2-3 years and continue for about a decade. This is the largest amount of cooling ever recorded. The overall warming which has occurred in the last 100 years has only been .75 deg C. The cooling projected by this scenario would bring the average temperature to a point below even the mini-ice age around 1400.

In addition to the cooling, there is a marked reduction in the effective growing season and precipitation around the planet. There are reductions in precipitation of 20-50% in many of the key growing regions of the world. The growing season would be reduced from 10-40 days in the same areas. Other effects reducing consumable agricultural production include decreased light, increased UV radiation due to ozone depletion, and increase toxins and radiation.

These effects parallel the effects of naturally occurring cooling events such as the eruption of the Laki volcano in Iceland in 1783 which caused widespread famine in China and India, and the Tambora eruption in 1815 which produced “the year without a summer” in 1816.

Both of these occurred in much less populated times and with distribution of smoke and ash which were lower in the atmosphere and which washed out more quickly than that anticipated by the limited nuclear war scenario discussed here.

The agriculture effects of these examples are widespread and lead to famine. However, this is not just due to a decrease in production but also the accessibility of food due to hoarding, prices, etc. Work by Amartya Sen, Nobel Prize winning economist, on the Great Famine of Bengal  clearly outlines this issue. Increased fuel prices would also decrease the availability of fertilizer, pesticides and tractors, further reducing agricultural yields.

The world is currently very dependent on grain production. We are currently at the lowest point of grain reserves for a long time. There are 800 million people which are currently undernourished with daily intake of below 1800-2200 calories (minimum daily requirement).  Another 200 million are borderline. It is not unreasonable to assume that these marginal people would not survive the drastic effects of this limited, regional nuclear war.

This would lead to massive epidemics of disease, wars over resources, etc. killing many more people.

Reaffirming the point made earlier… this means that there are many countries (not just the US and Russia) which have sufficient nuclear weapons to create a global climate catastrophe and the deaths of billions of people. This is a strong argument for complete abolition of nuclear weapons.

The discussion that followed the presentation raised several questions:

  1. How do we get this issue into the minds of decision makers? A recommendation was the creation of a 4-6 minute DVD which can be shared. Also inclusion with ICAN materials.
  2. Is this a realistic military scenario? Evidence from Pakistan in 1991 was that they were ready to launch all of their nuclear weapons in bombers. Do we need more evidence of the relevance of the scenario described here?
  3. Slides are too complicated. This was especially true for the general public, but even some for the physicians. Many slides also need more titling and less smaller text or lots of numbers (e.g., the millimeters of precipitation slide).
  4. A participant who was a medical doctor and PhD in Agriculture made some additional comments. This included that the oral presentation in the workshop did not include two other effects: decreased light and genetic effects of radiation (which would generally decrease crop production). However, most of the conclusions seemed reasonable.
  5. What is different about these scenarios from the oil fires and volcanoes? I think this was answered above, but the main difference is the height at which the smoke and dust rise. This greatly extends the duration and scope of the effects.
  6. Will we be considered as jumping on the climate bandwagon? Ira noted that these conclusions are similar to those widely accepted in the 80s by Sagan, et. al.
  7. Does location of the simulation matter? Yes, particularly whether northern or southern hemisphere. This was in South Asia, but the effects quickly become global. We have an animated GIF file which can be used but involves larger number of weapons.
  8. The medical system is already overburdened. Wouldn’t this overwhelm the system in a similar manner to the local systems described in our “bombing run” scenarios? Yes, and this is another good point to make.
  9. Will these shocking pictures lead to further denial from our audience? Will we get caught in arguing about numbers rather than on substance of the research? This is important to be on the watch for.
  10. Need a concise description of the results, similar to an “elevator speech” that can be used to talk to people quickly about.

Ira thanked all the participants for their contributions and promised to take their advice into account and provided an updated PowerPoint presentation with notes attached.

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One Comment
  1. Andrew S. Kanter, MD MPH permalink
    March 26, 2008 1:11 pm

    If anyone has any comments on my notes from this workshop, corrections or questions, please do not hesitate to email me at

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