Why should we worry about nuclear weapons? What makes them so important?
The nuclear arsenals now available for immediate use by the US and Russia have the capability to destroy civilization and humanity, along with most complex forms of life on Earth. This supreme act of destruction can be carried out in only a matter of minutes once the order is given by the US and/or the Russian president to launch hundreds of long-range ballistic missiles armed with thousands of nuclear warheads.
How can any weapons be powerful enough to destroy civilization and humanity?
Nuclear weapons are up to a million times more powerful than the “conventional” high-explosive weapons used by armies in modern warfare. The largest “conventional” bomb in the US arsenal today has the explosive power of 11 tons (22,000 pounds or about 10000 kg) of high explosive. The smallest strategic nuclear weapon owned by the US and Russia has an explosive power equal to 100,000 tons (200 hundred million pounds or 91 million kg) of high-explosive.
The heat or thermal energy created by a nuclear explosion is not something which occurs naturally on Earth. When a nuclear weapon detonates, it resembles the birth of a small star. The explosion creates temperatures which are similar to those found at the center of the Sun, on the order of hundreds of millions of degrees Celsius.
A huge fireball forms which gives off deadly heat and light that will start fires for miles in all directions, if the weapon is detonated over areas that contain large amounts of flammable materials, such as a large city. These fires will quickly join together to form an enormous single fire, or firestorm, covering tens, hundreds or even thousands of square miles or kilometers of surface area.
The U.S. and Russia each have many thousands of large, modern strategic nuclear weapons available for immediate launch and use. A single average size strategic weapon, when exploded over a city, will instantly ignite fires over a total area of 40 to 65 square miles (105 to 170 km).
Large strategic weapons can set fires over much larger areas. A one megaton (1 million tons TNT explosive power) weapon will ignite fires over a total area of 100 square miles (260 square kilometers). The explosion of a 20 megaton weapon can instantly start fires over an area of 2000 square miles (5200 square kilometers).
The total energy released by a firestorm as it completely burns an urban area will actually be 1000 times greater than the energy initially released by the nuclear explosion. The incredibly lethal environment created by the firestorm will kill virtually every living thing in the fire zone and produce enormous amounts of toxic, radioactive smoke and soot.
In a large U.S.-Russian nuclear war, thousands of strategic nuclear weapons would be exploded over cities, probably within the period of a single hour. Many large cities would likely be targeted with numerous weapons. All these cities would be utterly destroyed.
Within an hour, hundreds of thousands of square miles/kilometers of urban areas would be engulfed by nuclear firestorms. Everything remotely combustible would burn in the fire zones. In less than a day, up to 150 million tons of smoke produced by these fires would quickly rise above cloud level, into the stratosphere.
As described on the homepage, the smoke would quickly form a global stratospheric smoke layer, which would act to block sunlight from reaching the Earth. This would destroy the protective ozone layer and cause deadly climate change, plunging average global surface temperatures to well below Ice Age levels in a matter of days. Minimum daily temperatures in the continental interiors of the Northern Hemisphere would remain below freezing for a period of years.
Such cataclysmic environmental changes, combined with the massive release of radioactive and industrial toxins from the nuclear war, would collapse the Earth's already stressed terrestrial and marine ecosystems. Many if not most complex forms of life would not be able to withstand such an event.
A mass extinction event would occur, similar to that which wiped out the dinosaurs and 70% of all other species 65 million years ago. Humans live at the top of the food chains and we would surely perish along with other large mammals.
Even the most powerful leaders and richest humans, who had super-shelters equipped with nuclear power, hospitals, and many years supply of food and water, would be unlikely to survive in a post-nuclear war world devoid of complex life forms. Those who can push the buttons should know that there is no escape from the ultimate destruction of a global nuclear holocaust.
If exploding nuclear weapons in cities will cause nuclear darkness and deadly climate change, then why didn't this happen after Hiroshima and Nagasaki were destroyed by nuclear weapons at the end of World War II?
The burning of two medium-sized Japanese cities did not produce enough smoke to create a global smoke layer capable of causing deadly global climate change. In other words, it takes millions of tons of smoke rising into the stratosphere to influence global climate, and incinerating Hiroshima and Nagasaki did not produce this much smoke.
However, new studies indicate that 100 Hiroshima-size nuclear weapons detonated in the large cities of India and Pakistan could produce enough smoke to cause catastrophic climate change. These weapons have only one half of one percent of the explosive power contained in the deployed and operational nuclear weapons owned by the U.S. and Russia.
A large nuclear war, in which the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals were detonated, would put 50 to 150 million tons of smoke into the stratosphere. This would be enough smoke to block the majority of sunlight from reaching the surface of the Earth for many years.
How do you know the computer studies that predict climate change from nuclear war are correct? How can you test this idea out if nuclear war has never occurred?
To create the new studies, U.S. researchers used the latest NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies climate model (Model IE, shared by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), which is able to model the entire troposphere, stratosphere and mesosphere from the Earth's surface up to 80 kilometers. The same methods and climate models used to predict global warming were used in these studies to predict global cooling resulting from nuclear war.
While it is true that it is impossible to be certain of the results of a nuclear war without actually fighting one, this obviously is one method of study we must avoid. However, these climate models have proved highly successful in describing the cooling effects of volcanic clouds during extensive U.S. evaluations and in international intercomparisons performed as part of the Fourth Assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. These types of models have also been used to successfully predict the cooling effects of dust storms on Mars (dust blocks the sun from reaching the surface of Mars, just as smoke in our stratosphere would block sun from reaching the surface of the Earth).
This research has also been extensively evaluated by other scientists around the world, in a common scientific process called “peer review”. All important and widely accepted scientific studies undergo this type of review in order to find if the studies are verifiable, repeatable and without error.
In other words, the studies which predict climate change from global warming or global cooling have been performed in the best and most honored traditions of the scientific method, and have been reviewed by scientists around the world. This process has provided us with most of the scientific discoveries and advances of the last several centuries. There is a large consensus in the global scientific community that these results should be taken seriously and acted upon.
If nuclear war can destroy mankind, then why do nations continue to maintain and modernize their nuclear weapons? Do nuclear weapons prevent war?
Nations which keep nuclear weapons as the cornerstone of their military arsenals (the U.S., Russia, the U.K., France, China, Israel, India, and Pakistan) do so in large part because they subscribe to the ideas of nuclear deterrence. That is, they believe their possession of nuclear weapons will deter other nations from attacking them. Conversely, they believe that if they did not have nuclear weapons, they would be more likely to be attacked by a nation which did possess them.
Thus nuclear deterrence remains as a key operational strategy of the U.S. and Russia - and every other Nuclear Weapons State. Deterrence provides the rationale for the continued existence of all nuclear arsenals.
The U.S. Department of Defense Military Dictionary says, “Deterrence is a state of mind brought about by the existence of a credible threat of unacceptable counteraction.” The current “credible threat” posed by operational U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons is equal to 1000 times the explosive power of all the bombs detonated by all the armies during World War II. It seems quite clear that the “unacceptable counteraction” posed by these weapons includes the destruction of most people on the planet.
The same leaders who rely upon deterrence also believe that there is no realistic path to the abolition of nuclear weapons. The question they fail to ask is what are the likely outcomes over time of these two alternative courses of action? Is it ultimately more dangerous to persist with nuclear arsenals governed by deterrence policies or to instead earnestly pursue a nuclear-weapons-free world?
Those who see utility and legitimacy in the perpetual maintenance of nuclear weaponry often tend to regard nuclear abolition as a “destabilizing” goal, and apparently assume that deterrence will forever prevent a nuclear war. Their long-term optimism, however, is supported neither by logic nor history.
Deterrence will continue to work only as long as all sides remain rational and fear death. Many extremist groups, however, are undeterred by any credible threat of retaliation, regardless of how large that threat might be. And history is filled with examples of irrational leaders and decisions which lead to war. Nuclear weapons combined with human fallibility not only make nuclear war possible, they will eventually make it inevitable.
Suicide is not a defense.
If the ultimate goal of national security is to ensure the survival of the nation, then the pursuit of this goal through nuclear deterrence should be viewed as an utter failure. Because deterrence set no rational limits on the size and composition of military forces, tens of thousands of nuclear weapons were created. They still are ready and patiently waiting to destroy not only our nation, but every nation on Earth.
Thus, the consequences of a single failure of deterrence could be the end of human history. A large nuclear war will make our planet uninhabitable. Even a conflict between India and Pakistan, that detonates less than one half of one percent of the explosive power of the global nuclear arsenal, is predicted to cause catastrophic disruptions of the global climate.
Leaders who choose to “defend” their nations with nuclear weapons must face the fact that nuclear war is suicidal and not an option if their citizens are to survive. Suicide is not a defense.
Should we choose to accept the assertion that “there is no realistic path to a world free of nuclear weapons”, then we sentence the children of the world to a dark future indeed. We must instead reject this 20th century mindset, which is still driving us towards the abyss, through an understanding that nuclear weapons pose a threat to the human species.