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ApocalypseA single nuke's impact should be measured by more than megatons

Published 14 July 2017

As the notion of nuclear hostilities leaps from its old, Cold War perch into modern debate, new calculations by researchers show that even a limited nuclear strike could have disastrous global consequences. The researchers have determined that a single nuclear warhead could cause devastating climate change resulting in widespread drought and famine that could cost a billion lives.

As the notion of nuclear hostilities leaps from its old, Cold War perch into modern debate, new calculations by University of Nebraska-Lincoln researchers show that even a limited nuclear strike could have disastrous global consequences.

In a new report, a group of experts led by Adam Liska, a biological systems engineer at Nebraska, has determined that a single nuclear warhead could cause devastating climate change resulting in widespread drought and famine that could cost a billion lives.

During the five decades of the Cold War, the doctrine of mutual assured destruction kept the Soviet Union and the United States in counterbalance, each nation recognizing that both would be annihilated if either attacked.

But the old rules may no longer apply as more nations, including North Korea, have gained nuclear weapons.

“We’re losing our memory of the Cold War and we’re losing our memory of how important it is to get this right,” said co-author Tyler White, a political scientist who specializes in international security and nuclear policy. “Even a conflict that doesn’t involve the United States can impact us and people around the world.”

Even though North Korea does not yet have a warhead capable of delivering the damage described in the article, the nuclear stakes were raised this week when it successfully launched an intercontinental ballistic missile with the capability to deliver a nuclear payload to Alaska as well as cities in Asia and the Middle East.

Additionally, policy analysts say some nuclear powers have adopted doctrines that allow for limited strikes and for first use of nuclear weapons. Russian defense strategy, for example, contemplates limited nuclear strikes to deter or end conventional wars. Military strategists in the United States might consider limited use of nuclear weapons if the nation or an ally is in serious military jeopardy; in retaliation for a chemical or biological weapons attack; or to bring rogue nuclear states under control.

Along with White, Liska enlisted experts in climate modeling and climate change to assemble the report, which appears in Environment Magazine. Robert Oglesby, a professor of Earth and atmospheric sciences, specializes in climate modeling and climate change; and Eric Holley, a doctoral student in natural resources, has studied how insurance and financial incentives might be used to adapt to climate change.