By Charlie Brennan Staff Writer
POSTED: Friday, July 21, 2017 – 6:25 p.m.
CU Boulder researcher seeks to extend understanding of nuclear winter
President-elect Donald Trump in December grabbed the attention of nuclear weapons experts and others across the world by commenting in a television interview, “Let it be an arms race.”
Speaking to MSNBC “Morning Joe” co-host Mika Brzezinski — at a time before talk of Brzezinski’s supposed face-lift took over their dialogue — Trump said to her, “We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.”
White House spokesman Sean Spicer the next day tempered those remarks, saying, “There’s not going to be (an arms race) because he’s going to ensure that other countries get the message that he’s not going to sit back and allow that.”
The idea of an arms race conjures in some minds a heightened possibility that a nuclear power might actually unleash the most devastating weaponry known to humanity. Those fears have not been quieted by North Korea’s successful test earlier this month of an intercontinental ballistic missile that appeared capable of hitting Alaska and Hawaii. The test was framed by the United States as a “dangerous escalation” of serious tensions between the two countries.
Against that backdrop, researchers and students at the University of Colorado and Rutgers University are studying the human and environmental impacts of a potential nuclear war, using the most advanced scientific tools available
CU Professor Brian Toon and Rutgers Professor Alan Robock are hardly new to their subject matter, having been among those involved in the initial research that revealed the potential for nuclear winter, showing that the effects would last more than a decade, with smoke from nuclear conflagrations rising as high as 25 miles into the atmosphere.
Toon, at CU’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, said their new study is intended to calculate for the first time the impacts of nuclear war on agriculture, on the oceanic food chain and on humans, as well as migration activity and food availability.
Toon, 70, had taken note of Trump’s comments in December, but said they were not without precedent for the president.
“I think it’s a great concern. There’s no evidence that the administration knows about the consequences of nuclear conflict,” Toon said. Referencing an exchange reported in August 2016 by Brzezinski’s partner, Joe Scarborough, Toon added, “Trump has made a number of comments, (such as) why couldn’t he just bomb ISIS with nuclear weapons? What good are nuclear weapons if you can’t use them?”
Toon was a co-author — along with Carl Sagan and others — in 1983 on “Nuclear Winter: Global Consequences of Multiple Nuclear Explosions.”
Termed the TTAPS study — an acronym taken from the authors’ last names — it coined the term “nuclear winter,” advancing the theory that uncontrolled fires would send hundreds of millions of tons of smoke and soot into the atmosphere, ultimately blocking out the sun and plunging surface temperatures by 20 to 40 degrees Celsius for a prolonged period of time.
While noting that he doesn’t believe Trump has given the issue a lot of thought, Toon said, “To be fair, I don’t think Obama gave it very much thought, either. I think he was aware of the problems. But there is no indication that the Department of Defense wants the American public to think about this kind of thing.”
He is well into his fourth decade of doing just that.
“A full-scale war between Russia and the U.S. would cause basically ice age temperatures on the planet,” said Toon, a professor in CU’s Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences and a recognized contributor to the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize that went to former Vice President Al Gore and the International Panel on Climate Change.
“It would be below freezing at our latitude for several years — even in the middle of the summer. It would stop all agriculture at mid latitude. This would lead to starvation. … There would be nothing to eat, basically, and people would starve to death.”
“The reality is there is grain on hand for 60 days, and after 60 days, there is nothing left to eat,” he said. Citing one of three critical global flash points for potential nuclear war, he added, “Mass starvation is going to occur if India and Pakistan get into a war. …We’ve predicted a billion or two billion people could die of starvation in a war induced by India and Pakistan.”
The other two areas of global concern — in terms of potential nuclear conflict — that he discussed were North Korea and Russia’s possibly testing its influence beyond Ukraine in eastern Europe.
The role of scientists
The researchers are using supercomputers and sophisticated climate models developed by Boulder’s National Center for Atmospheric Research to calculate the amount of fuel fires in urban centers and how much smoke might be produced by nuclear blasts. They are also using world food trade and agricultural models to project the impact on crops and potential widespread famine from a nuclear war.
His years of work in this field leave him convinced he knows the bottom line.
“The surviving population on Earth would be hundreds of millions,” as opposed to the 7.5 billion who currently inhabit Earth. “The vast majority of the people would starve to death.”
And bringing the issue to Coloradans’ front door, Toon pointed out that about 450 of the United States’ deployed nuclear warheads are situated in silos ranging from Colorado’s northeastern plains through Wyoming, Montana and Nebraska.
“So, that’s a central target of a first strike, and those missiles are sitting there with launch-on-warning status, which is extremely dangerous because that means that if the president senses a launch by the Russians or someone else, then those missiles are meant to be launched within 10s of minutes,” he said.
“This is an invitation to error. There are many examples of us coming close to nuclear war because of mistaken indications of launch, or something else.”
Ball Aerospace, IBM, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, Lockheed Martin and even the University of Colorado, he said, all help make the Boulder-Denver area an inviting target, he said.
But the focus of the new project — funded by a three-year, $3 million grant from the Open Philanthropy Project headquartered in San Francisco and including numerous additional partners — is global, not local.
Asked about the political implications of his work, Toon pointed out that President Ronald Reagan acknowledged the research concerning nuclear winter in 1985 and that concern shared by Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev helped push the eventual reduction in a onetime global nuclear arsenal of 77,000 weapons down to its present-day inventory of about 15,000 held by nine countries.
“That is the role of scientists — if they find something of importance, to tell the United States, to tell the government about it. It’s the role of the government to do something,” Toon said.
“That’s why we keep pursuing this. This is an important problem. It could have a huge impact on human civilization, and it is the government’s job to understand it and to do something about it.”