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The Dayside: From regional nuclear war to global food crisis

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The Dayside : From regional nuclear war to global food crisis

By: Charles Day
30 January 2015
In 2011 the American Geophysical Union formed a task force to explore concepts for new scientific
journals. Among the subject areas the task force identified was a large and important one: the future
of our planet.
The union's open-access journal Earth's Future duly made its debut on 5 December 2013. An
editorial by Guy Brasseur and Ben van der Pluijm in the first issue set out the new journal's scope
and ambitions:

Understanding and managing our new and future relation with the Earth requires research and
knowledge spanning diverse fields. Earth's Future will explore and foster interactions among the
Earth and environmental sciences, ecology, economics, the health and social sciences, and more.
Its mission is to focus on the Earth as an interactive, evolving system to help researchers, policy
makers, and the public navigate the science.

Earlier this month I was browsing the Earth's Future website when I noticed a recently accepted
paper with the arresting title "Decadal reduction of Chinese agriculture after a regional nuclear war."
For decades, scientists have worried that the blasts from nuclear weapons could start fires that
would produce soot, which would be carried high into the troposphere. Rain would flush out some of
the soot, but much of it, warmed by the Sun, would be lofted into the rainless stratosphere. There, it
could circulate for years and intercept so much sunlight that surface temperatures would plummet.

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02-02-2015 23:13

The Dayside: From regional nuclear war to global food crisis

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parts of the
Indian state of
Rajasthan and
parts of the
Pakistani state of
CREDIT: Alex Wellerstein

The original authors of that nuclear winter scenario had in mind an intercontinental war between the
US and the USSR. But a regional war between India and Pakistan that used much less than 1% of
the worlds nuclear arsenal could still inject about 5 teragrams of soot into the upper troposphere.
Now Lili Xia of Rutgers University and her collaborators have estimated the agricultural impact of
such a war on the worlds largest producer of grain, China.
The researchers used the results of three different models to track the Chinese climate for 10 years
after an initial injection of 5 Tg of soot. All three models yielded more or less the same result: The
soot significantly reduced temperature, rainfall, and sunlight throughout China for the entire decade.
Xia and her collaborators then fed those parameters into a crop model. One year after the war,
annual production of maize, rice, and wheat fell by an average of 35%. Even with increased use of
irrigation and fertilizer, grain production four years later was still 25% lower than it had been before
the hypothetical war. Given that the impact on US and European agriculture would likely be as
severe, the war could put a billion people at risk of famine.
Brasseur and Van der Pluijm did not explicitly mention war in their introductory editorial, but they did
highlight the need for international, interdisciplinary approaches to mitigating the environmental and
socioeconomic effects of "hazards such as earthquakes and extreme weather, air and water quality,
sea-level rise, reduction in biodiversity, and so on."
"And so on" surely includes a nuclear war, even a limited one.

02-02-2015 23:13