Growing Concerns

President Donald Trump's recent comments directed at North Korea have us all wondering if we're slowly building up to nuclear war. While politics occupies most of that discussion, it's worth knowing exactly what nuclear warfare would do to our planet, from the horrific impact to the prolonged fallout and famine the aftermath brings.

As it stands, there are nearly 15,000 nukes spread across nine nations. They are: The United States, Russia, The United Kingdom, North Korea, France, China, Pakistan, India, and Israel. According to tables and graphs from Business Insider and the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), Russia and the U.S. own a majority of the nukes available, and have also deployed the most throughout their respective histories—over 1,900 by Russia, and nearly 1,700 by the U.S. As for North Korea, it's largely unknown how many nukes the country has, though The Washington Post reports the country may have around 60 nukes, and has managed to produce a miniaturized warhead capable of fitting inside of a missile.

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Tactically speaking, U.S. nuclear warheads are designed less for maximum yield than for incisive accuracy. This includes bombs like the B61-12, with a yield of 50 kilotons. That is equivalent to 50,000 tons of TNT. The most destructive American bomb in service since October 2011 is the B83, with a maximum yield of 1.2 megatons (1,200 kilotons). By contrast, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima was 15 kilotons.

The FAS notes that, while numbers for the U.S. are based on "real" numbers, the statistics for the rest of the world are not as accurate. Most information related to a nuclear weapons are a widely held secret, and as such, it becomes difficult to know specifics about a nation's military power.

One Small Exchange

The very idea of nuclear warfare is worrying enough on its own, but it becomes more terrifying when you realize how little it takes to affect the entire world. A 2014 study published in an American Geophysical Union (AGU) journal reveals that it would only take a small conflict between India and Pakistan to cause near-irreparable levels global devastation.

"A limited, regional nuclear war between India and Pakistan in which each side detonates 50 15 kilotons (kt) weapons could produce about 5 teragrams (Tg) of black carbon (BC)," reads the journal. "This would self-loft to the stratosphere, where it would spread globally, producing a sudden drop in surface temperatures and intense heating of the stratosphere."

Change in surface temperature (in Celsius) following the model nuclear war between India and Pakistan. Image Credit: Michael J. Mills

The Aftermath

In less than 10 years, our ozone layer would degrade by 20-50 percent, leaving us more vulnerable than ever to the Sun's radiation; surface temperatures would drop to the coldest they've been in the last thousand years. The combined loss of the ozone and reduced temperatures would lead to a global nuclear famine.

It's a horrific scenario to imagine, but there are a few things to keep in mind: The bombs used in the journal's example are smaller than the nukes of today, and much less powerful. It's also unlikely that any conflict involving nuclear weapons would employ maximum-yield warheads. Furthermore, the strength of North Korea's arsenal is unknown to us, though The Washington Post story linked above says the country's last recorded test was for a 20-30 kiloton nuke, which is less powerful that those stored by the U.S. and Russia. Regardless, the point of the AGU journal wasn't to compare past powers to the present, but to shed some light on the damage such weapons can cause, no matter now many are used at once.

Of course, steps are being taken to prevent such conflict and their ramifications. Last month, the United Nations came together to announce a nuclear weapons ban, following discussions that included the possibility of global nuclear disarmament. 122 member states voted in favor of the negotiations, and of the nine nuclear powers, only North Korea passed on voting. The U.S., alongside Britain and France, however, took a stance to not sign the finalized treaty, arguing that security-of-state concerns necessitate a minimal stockpile for nuclear deterrence, an objection unaddressed by the ban.

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Although the objection is understandable, many could argue that embracing the ban would lead to the lion's share of nuclear countries eventually supporting the cause. It hasn't been that long since the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and if the last adjustment of the Doomsday Clock is a valid signifier, we need to take effective action soon, lest we go gentle into that good (mid)night.

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