The concept of a Nuclear Winter remains a theory. However this theory is well ingrained in popular science and is backed up by many scientists. The basic concept is that a nuclear war would cause so much dust to be thrown in the air that it would block out the sun. This would in turn lead to a massive decrease in temperatures (especially in the desertic regions) which would then result in a massive food shortage. Plants being very sensitive to temperature, the majority of the worlds crops would wither. I based part of my article on the research paper entitled "Climate and Smoke: An Appraisal of Nuclear Winter" (1990) by Turco, Toon, Ackerman, Pollack, and Sagan.
How Much Change is too Much?
According to the most recent scientific research as little as a 1 degree Celsius change could possibly destabilize the ecosystem. The worst case scenario could result in a 22 degree Celsius drop in temperature in equator dry regions and up to a 10 degree Celsius drop in humid regions. This would mean the destruction of all crops that aren't resistant to frost, which unfortunately is about 99% of them. The greatest impact on the flora and fauna can be seen in tropical forest regions where pretty much everything would die. The two crops that are most likely to survive frost are potatoes and hemp. This will be discussed in more detail further in this post.
Don't You Count on Solar Panels to Help You Either:
Another effect from the massive amounts of dust thrown in the air by a nuclear war is a enormous decrease in sunlight. The sunlight will be blocked by two sources: the dust from the initial nuclear blast and the smoke and soot and ash generated by the burning cities, forests, and fossil fuels. Soot has a far greater potential that dust for blocking sunlight. The particles are less dense that sand and earth particles and thus can be carrier further. A typical forest fire only carries the particles in the troposphere where most of the weather systems are. Therefore rain and wind eliminate much of the particles. However, a major fire and nuclear blast can carry particles in the stratosphere where they are likely to stay for a longer period. Estimates suggest that they could remain there in sufficient amounts to impact sunlight for a good decade. Since sunlight is necessary for photosynthesis in plants, a major decrease in sunlight (up to 90%) could mean the end of even the toughest plants.
What About the Dinosaurs?
The two factors discussed above were previously seen during the massive dinosaur extinction in the Cretaceous period. The majority of the world's scientist and population adhere to the theory that a giant asteroid (approximately 10 kilometers wide) collided with the Yucatan peninsula. The resulting impact created the same consequences than a nuclear war would. During this event, the great majority of plant and animal life was wiped out.
What are we Supposed to Eat?
Food is going to be the greatest concern of a nuclear war. Since the temperature drop would be similar to February temperatures in Canada, humans would have no problems surviving. However, as discussed earlier plants would not likely survive. Two plants were proposed as eatable crops. In the event of a mild nuclear winter where the temperature would remain over freezing temperatures during the day, potatoes could survive with appropriate attention. Since they are buried underground, they are isolated from the swaying air temperatures. However, if the temperatures below 0 degrees Celsius are observed for prolonged periods, they would not survive. The second option is hemp. Hemp is a family of weeds that includes the cannabis plant but also many other varieties. As a weed hemp is a very resistant crop that can grow in almost all soil types under varying conditions. Hemp is already used for food, textile, construction, fuel, and medical products. The variety used for food provides a very nutritive food from its seeds. Hemp seeds contain all the amino acids and fatty acids for a balanced diet. The seeds can be eaten raw, crushed in a mash, sprouted, made into milk, used for tea, etc. The leaves are also eatable and can be used in salads. It is a crop with almost unlimited uses, similar to the soy bean. In a world where the cultivatable lands will be rare, a versatile plant like hemp would be a viable alternative. If the temperatures are too cold though, food will have to be grown inside. It is important to know that the hemp variety used in the food industry contains very little tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive substance in marijuana. Therefore, this variety does not have the effects of the cannabis plant which contains much more THC.
You Should Seriously Consider Sunscreen:
Even if sunlight would seriously decrease, UV radiation would increase. This is because the smoke encapsulated in the stratosphere would destroy most of the ozone layer. The most affected regions would be the north and south pole but research suggest that there could be up to 20% of the ozone layer destroyed in the tropics and up to 70% destroyed in the northern regions. The resulting ultraviolet light levels could further speed up the extinction of life and provoke cancer and eye damage in living organisms.
To conclude, it is better to just hope that governments realize that they will inevitably destroy everything if they launch a nuclear war. However, the acquisition of nuclear weapons by politically unstable countries might be our biggest concern. In countries where suicide bombers are common, the concern for self-destruction is minimal. Little can be done to prevent this disaster from happening by the layman, but adequate preparation can greatly increase the survival rate.
Keep reading for future posts!