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David Nightingale: In The Event Of Nuclear War

Frigate Bird nuclear explosion (viewed throuh the periscope of USS Carbonero (SS-337) 480 nm ENE of Christmas Island)
Public Domain

In a new war of words, we have Iran condemning fresh U.S. sanctions by using expressions like ‘mentally retarded’, and Mr. Trump threatening to ‘obliterate’ their country. It is these kinds of testosterone-loaded reactions that cause me to wonder: what if?

Now, whether or not atomic weapons are ever used again – and they were first and last used in 1945 – let’s look at what could transpire, using only what we know already.

A scenario has been given by the American Geophysical Union of a war between two nuclear states, such as India and Pakistan [ref.1], and the first thing we know will happen after the blast is that there will be gigantic fires, with huge updrafts of smoke and soot. We already know of the huge updrafts from the furiously concentrated conventional bombing of Hamburg during WW2. Nuclear warfare will also cause giant fires, and the Nagasaki mushroom reached to about 59,000 feet, i.e. into the stratosphere, and when the bomber circled around to take photographs of the damage the mushroom cloud was by then way above the pilots. (At mid-latitudes the stratosphere starts at about 33,000 feet, or typical airliner heights, and gets less as you go towards the poles.) The weather, of course, is below the stratosphere, and so soot up there will not get rained on. Sunlight, depending on latitude, will be blocked, for different periods of time. Food production will be curtailed, again depending on location. If it’s a limited war some of the carbon may fall back to earth very slowly. At the same time, some will be heated up and thus rise higher. For a global war the scenario could lead to years of winter, loss of crops, subsequent famine and death. Normal human life as we have known it would end.

So the moral right there is never to play with overly powerful explosions.

But of course there is more. In the Hiroshima/Nagasaki bombings, which were only 3 days apart, the immediate radiation of alpha, beta and gamma (always produced when you split the atom) killed many instantly, and the radiations induced slow cancers further away. The alphas, betas and gammas generated secondary radioactivity, with different half-lives – for example Strontium 90, with a half-life of ~29 years.

Pennsylvania’s 3-Mile Island nuclear plant breakdown (1979) released radioactive iodine, half-life 8 days, and radioactive Iodine is known to be a strong cause of thyroid cancers. Ukraine’s Chernobyl (1986) reactor meltdown caused uncontrollable fire and updrafts, and reduced life expectancy for (it has been estimated [ref.2]) – as many as 200,000 from induced cancers. The fire and updrafts lasted for about 9 days, with the radioactive fission products raining down on parts of the USSR and Europe.

When Japan’s Fukushima power plant suffered a meltdown in 2011 no-one was immediately killed, because of the concrete and steel containment structures, but 40-50 suffered severe radiation burns. The number of induced cancers is so far unknown.

So, will atomic bombs be used again? Well, global nuclear war will yield an earth cut off from the sun for years, with death everywhere. The survivors might just be insects and underground animals, like groundhogs and voles. But Mr. Trump, can’t you see we have already done more than enough damage to our planet – from radioactive fallout to atmospheric pollution, plastic in the oceans, soot in the stratosphere?

So, please, no more school-yard-bully threats about ‘obliteration’; turn instead towards the husbanding of our planet.


1. “Nuclear Winter Revisited”, Journal of Geophysical Research, Vol.112, D 13107 (2007);   also,

“Study on Impacts of Nuclear War”, by Alan Robock, Jan 8, 2018, Rutgers Institute of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences.

2.  In “Clinical Oncology”, 23 (4), pp 251-260; article by E. Cardis and M.Hatch, May 2011;    also,


David Nightinglale is an emeritus professor of physics at SUNY New Paltz where he taught for 31 years. His first novel, The Centauri Settlement, is produced by TheBookPatch.com .

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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