New research has found that even a small nuclear war could initiate a catastrophic nuclear winter, starving and killing up to one billion people. The ominous findings, by Rutgers University professor and climatologist Alan Robock, underscore why disarmament is a critical concern that requires immediate international attention.

The risk of nuclear war is rising. Though the Cold War is over, it spurred the development of nuclear weapons, now present in at least nine countries. The combination of unstable stockpiles and reactionary government officials has made experts increasingly concerned that nuclear war is an inevitability unless we collectively disarm. One Stanford professor quantified that risk in 2009 by estimating that a person born in present-day has at least a 10% chance of dying early due to nuclear war in his lifetime.

Robock argues that such a war could happen even if countries aren’t interested in going to war — in fact, that is the more likely scenario. Nuclear weapons “would never be used on purpose by the major powers, but could be used by accident,” he explains. “Some countries might use them in a moment of panic, or in response to imagined threats and insult, or in a fit of religious hysteria.”

If, during one such war, countries dropped a total of one hundred atom bombs the size of Hiroshima on urban areas, one billion people would end up dying in the following years. Robock studied climate models and found that the smoke from the explosion would absorb the sunlight and freeze the Earth’s surface. The radiation would dramatically deplete the Earth’s ozone layer. “Crop models show that it would reduce agricultural production by 10-40% for a decade. The impact of the nuclear war simulated here, using much less than 1% of the global nuclear arsenal, could sentence a billion people now living marginal existences to starvation,” he noted.

As a result, Robock warns that the costs of nuclear weapons “are enormous to any nation building them. They cannot be used, and their continued existence makes the world a much more dangerous place.”

He will discuss his findings at a symposium for the Dynamics of Possible Nuclear Extinction this weekend in New York City.

(Photo: Maarten Heerlien)