Brian Toon – Atmospheric scientist
66 million years ago, a mountain-sized asteroid traveling 10 times faster than a bullet from an assault rifle slammed into the shallow seas covering what is now the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. The immense energy of that impact hurled rocks as far north as Canada. And it vaporized the asteroid, part of Mexico and part of the shallow sea.
Well, we had a fireball full of vaporized rock and water rose far above the Earth’s atmosphere and spread over the planet. As it cooled, molten drops of rock about the size of a grain of sand solidified into an immense swarm of shooting stars. The shooting stars entered the Earth’s atmosphere and heated the upper atmosphere to a thousand degrees Fahrenheit.
Standing on the ground, the dinosaurs saw the blue sky become a sheet of red-hot lava. The scientific artist David Hardy imagines the fate of the dinosaurs in this painting. They broiled to death under the glowing skies. The energy in the sky is like that in the globar in electric oven. If you’re dying to experience what the the dinosaurs did when they died, turn your oven on broiled and hop in.
The glowing skies started everything on fire. Great clouds of smoke rose into the upper atmosphere and blocked the sun and so that no sunlight reached the ground. It became cold and dark. Photosynthesis stopped and plants and animals in the ocean or on the land either starved or froze to death. The dinosaurs didn’t do anything wrong that caused their death. It was just fate that an asteroid hit the Earth and killed 70% of the species that we know were on the planet.
Unfortunately in our lifetimes we may experience the same fate as the dinosaurs. But I’m not talking about another asteroid collision. I’m talking about a nuclear war. A nuclear war would have many of the same phenomena that the dinosaurs experienced. But this time it absolutely would be our fault.
Fortunately there are things that we can do to prevent this from happening. If you live in a city that has a military base, there’s a missile that’s aimed at you right now. If you live in a city that has an important industry, a major university, a large airport, an oil refinery or oil storage facilities there’s a hydrogen bomb that’s aimed at you right now.
We live in a perilous era. There are 15 000 nuclear weapons on the planet. And the 9 nuclear weapon states are in conflict with each other. The United States and North Korea, NATO and Russia, India and Pakistan. We’re just one misunderstanding, one mistake, our one fanatic politician away from a nuclear conflict.
In World War II fleets of hundreds or even a thousand airplanes were used to bomb a single city. But with the invention of the atomic bomb only one airplane and one bomb was needed. Enola Gay carried one atomic bomb with the power of 15 000 tons of TNT. And when it dropped that bomb on Hiroshima, Japan a hundred thousand people died. Over time even more powerful bombs were built. Hydrogen bombs.
This 1960s airplane carried 5 hydrogen bombs, the red and white things there and had the power of 500 Hiroshima bombs. And of course, the United States and Russia don’t just use airplanes. They have intercontinental ballistic missiles with hydrogen bombs on them and they have nuclear submarines with missiles. A single Trident missile submarine can carry a hundred hydrogen bombs with the explosive power of a 1000 Hiroshima bombs. Knowing the power of the bombs and their targets we can understand the destructiveness and loss of life that might occur if these were ever used.
Let us imagine for example that the United States attacks Pyongyang, North Korea, the capital with the smallest bomb carried on a Trident missile submarine, 500 000 people, about the population of Sacramento or Baltimore would die.
Nuclear weapons kill people in four different ways. In this orange circle, there’s a shock-wave so powerful that it knocks down concrete buildings and kills everyone within that zone. In the red circle, there’s radiation that’s released from the atomic bomb as it fissions. The radiation would kill 50% to 90% of the North Koreans over the next few weeks.
In this green circle, the shock-wave continues out with enough power to knock down residential buildings. And in this yellow circle, 6 miles in diameter, there’s a blast of light so bright that if your skin was exposed you get third-degree burns which can be fatal and flammable things like leaves, newspapers and your clothes would burst into flames.
And of course, if we attack North Korea they’re likely to attack us back. If they use the same size weapon that we used and they’ve already tested one like this, they could kill a 150 000 people in this 6 mile diameter circle in Denver. And these terrifying scenarios I’m talking about are just if each side uses one nuclear weapon. But Russia and the United States each have 4000 strategic nuclear weapons. That’s enough to attack each city with more than a 100 000 people in each country with 10 atomic bombs. In a war like that 400 million people would probably die on the planet in China, in Russia, in Europe and in the United States.
But wait that’s not all. I’ve just been talking about the damage near Ground Zero. That’s all the military considers in their war plans. But there will be collateral effects. Remember that dinosaurs. There were burning forests that killed 3 quarters of the species we know about on the planet. And the same would happen after a nuclear war. Cities would catch on fire and burn. It’s this damage, the damage the military doesn’t even consider. The damage, this is thought of as an accident that might destroy human civilization.