Editor’s Note: In an open letter to President-elect Trump about nuclear weapons and nuclear winter published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Dr. Alan Robock, of the Department of Environmental Sciences at Rutgers University, explained the current state of scientific knowledge regarding the self-destructive effects of nuclear weapons detonations. Science informs much of the drive for a nuclear weapons treaty ban that would prohibit their production, possession, sale and use. Dr. Robock wrote in part:
“In the 1980s, American and Russian scientists, working together, discovered that smoke from fires ignited by nuclear explosions would be so dense that it would block out the sun, turning Earth cold, dark, and dry, killing plants, and preventing agriculture for at least a year. In the last decade, working with some of the same scientists, particularly Richard Turco, Brian Toon, and Georgiy Stenchikov, and using modern climate models, I found that this nuclear winter theory was correct, that the effects would persist for more than a decade, and that the New START-reduced nuclear arsenals will still be able to produce this nuclear winter.
“It is an unfortunate fact that cities burn. San Francisco burned for three days and nights after the earthquake in 1906. Tokyo, Hamburg, Dresden, Darmstadt, and multiple Japanese cities burned after bombing in World War II. Some modern buildings burn even more easily, as can be seen in the skyscraper fires started with discarded cigarettes in Dubai. Modern megacities would produce a lot more smoke than the assumptions made in previous studies.
“We also found that if either the United States or Russia attacked the other with their current arsenal, it would produce so much climate change that it would kill everyone in the country that did the attacking, even if there was no retaliation. This means we live in a world of Self-Assured Destruction (SAD) in addition to Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). Thus any nation threatening a first strike attack would be acting as a suicide bomber.
“In addition, we found that a very small nuclear war between any two nuclear nations, using only 100 or so small, Hiroshima-size atomic bombs, with a total explosive power of much less than one percent of the current global arsenal, could produce enough smoke to cause climate change unprecedented in recorded human history. It would not be full nuclear winter, but it could sentence 1 to 2 billion people to death by starvation.
“To prevent the possibility of a nuclear winter, the United States and Russia need to immediately reduce their arsenals to the same levels as all the other nuclear states, a couple hundred. After all, how many do you need to use as a deterrent? A couple? To prevent the nuclear famine that would result from even a very small number of weapons targeted on cities and industrial areas, arsenals need drastic reductions.”