New study: nuclear war would result in global famine, starvation, and death

by Jacob Fuller

Bethany Roberts, FISM News


Researchers at Princeton‘s Science and Global Security program built a simulation that predicts that if a nuclear war began between the United States and Russia, 34.1 million people could die just within the first few hours and over half the world’s population could die due to the long term consequences.

This new simulation, published in the Nature Food journal, shows that one low-yield nuclear weapon could trigger a years-long famine with over 5 billion people dying as a result. The researchers wrote that a few years after a nuclear war between the U.S., its allies, and Russia, the global average calories produced would drop by around 90%.

Two researchers, Alan Robock and Brian Toon, built a cross-disciplinary team of scientists to find more concrete answers to questions of nuclear war. They used the same climate models that support global warming studies but applied them to models to simulate global cooling.

The team has “attempted to quantify the potential impact of nuclear war on the global food supply by coupling the climate models with simulations of global food production,” according to Science magazine.

The simulation, named “Plan A”, includes six nuclear war scenarios and shows models of fisheries and farming to find a broader understanding of the impact. The study shows that any nuclear weapon detonation that produces more than 5 trillion grams of soot will likely lead to mass food shortages in almost every country.

The team also did their best to simulate the impact of food-saving emergency strategies – measures such as converting livestock feed and household waste to food – but in the larger war scenarios, these efforts did not accomplish much.

A previous analysis, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America in 2020, showed that even a small regional nuclear war could result in global crop shortages.

Seth Baum, executive director of the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute, expressed the need to exercise caution in interpreting findings. While the climate models are “excellent” he said, the death toll cannot be predicted accurately when humanity’s reactions are factored in, because humanity may react much differently than predicted in the face of a global catastrophe. However, the study “makes a very worthy contribution” to picturing and understanding these scenarios, he added.

The lead author of the paper and climate scientist at Rutgers University, Lili Xia, agreed there is room for improvement.

“Rather than aiming to forecast exactly how the food catastrophe might play out, she [Xia] says her group wanted to understand the level of risk humanity faces,” Science reported.

The study comes as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has put the world in “one of the top three most worrisome time periods” for the threat of nuclear war, said Baum. This time period trails behind the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and the 1983 Able Archer incident, when the Soviet Union mistook a NATO military exercise for a real attack, according to Science.

The possibility of a third atomic bombing is causing public fears to rise, especially amid Russia’s threats of a nuclear attack since its war on Ukraine began in February.

“I think that nobody, nobody can accept the idea that a new nuclear war would happen. This will be the destruction of the planet,” United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said. “What is clear is if nobody uses for the first time then there will be no nuclear war.”

On Thursday, Russia shelled the Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia, which holds Europe’s largest nuclear plant. This attack is feeding the fears of a possible nuclear war.

In 2021, the U.S. and Russia agreed to extend the New START treaty for another five years, extending it through February 4, 2026. This keeps “verifiable limits on their arsenals of long-range nuclear weapons,” according to the Council on Foreign Relations. However, the deep division between the countries is beginning to rise again.

Russia recently announced that it would no longer allow U.S. inspections of its nuclear arsenal because, it said, recent sanctions by the U.S. prevent Russia from inspecting the U.S. arsenal, making the treaty unilateral.

“The risk of nuclear war has increased dramatically in the past two years as the United States and Russia have abandoned long-standing nuclear arms control treaties, started to develop new kinds of nuclear weapons, and expanded the circumstances in which they might use nuclear weapons,” wrote the Princeton researchers on the project’s website.

The New START treaty, or the Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms, enhances national security via these verifiable limits. Under this treaty, “the United States and the Russian Federation had seven years to meet the treaty’s central limits on strategic offensive arms (by February 5, 2018) and are then obligated to maintain those limits for as long as the treaty remains in force,” according to the U.S. Department of State.

The unrest between the two countries is what sparked the ‘Plan A’ simulation, and the results show the depths of the negative impacts that can come from nuclear war.

“‘Plan A’ shows that there is no sane plan once a nuclear weapon is launched,” said Alicia Sanders-Zakre, Policy and Research Coordinator at the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.

Although the reasons for the study are less than desirable, the results are causing a chain reaction of studies that will help the U.S. in an emergency. David Denkenberger, the co-founder of the nonprofit Alliance to Feed the Earth in Disasters, is looking into ways to scale up “resilient foods”, repurpose paper factories to produce sugar, convert natural gas into protein with bacteria, and relocate crops to prepare for a change in the climate.

In the opinion of Denkenberger and his research partner, Morgan Rivers, these new ideas could dramatically increase the amount of food available to people.

“Even if [a substitute] doesn’t taste as good as sweet corn, it’s better than starving,” he told Science.

All in all, the findings of the simulation lead to one notion: “We must prevent a nuclear war from ever happening,” Robock said.