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Nuclear winter is a severe and prolonged global climatic cooling effect that is hypothesized to occur after widespread firestorms following a large-scale nuclear war. The hypothesis is based on the fact that such fires can inject soot into the stratosphere, where it can block some direct sunlight from reaching the surface of the Earth. It is speculated that the resulting cooling would lead to widespread crop failure and famine. When developing computer models of nuclear-winter scenarios, researchers use the conventional bombing of Hamburg, and the Hiroshima firestorm in World War II as example cases where soot might have been injected into the stratosphere, alongside modern observations of natural, large-area wildfire-firestorms.
"Nuclear winter", or as it was initially termed, "nuclear twilight", began to be considered as a scientific concept in the 1980s after it became clear that an earlier hypothesis predicting that fireball generated NOx emissions would devastate the ozone layer was losing credibility. It was within this context that the climatic effects of soot from fires became the new focus of the climatic effects of nuclear war. In these model scenarios, various soot clouds containing uncertain quantities of soot were assumed to form over cities, oil refineries, and more rural missile silos. Once the quantity of soot is decided upon by the researchers, the climate effects of these soot clouds are then modeled. The term "nuclear winter" was a neologism coined in 1983 by Richard P. Turco in reference to a one-dimensional computer model created to examine the "nuclear twilight" idea. This model projected that massive quantities of soot and smoke would remain aloft in the air for on the order of years, causing a severe planet-wide drop in temperature.
After the failure of the predictions on the effects of the 1991 Kuwait oil fires that were made by the primary team of climatologists that advocate the hypothesis, over a decade passed without new published papers on the topic. More recently, the same team of prominent modellers from the 1980s have begun again to publish the outputs of computer models. These newer models produce the same general findings as their old ones, namely that the ignition of 100 firestorms, each comparable in intensity to that observed in Hiroshima in 1945, could produce a "small" nuclear winter. These firestorms would result in the injection of soot (specifically black carbon) into the Earth's stratosphere, producing an anti-greenhouse effect that would lower the Earth's surface temperature. The severity of this cooling in Alan Robock's model suggests that the cumulative products of 100 of these firestorms could cool the global climate by approximately 1 °C (1.8 °F), largely eliminating the magnitude of anthropogenic global warming for the next roughly two or three years. Robock and his collaborators have modeled the effect on global food production, and project that the injection of more than 5 Tg of soot into the stratosphere would lead to mass food shortages persisting for several years. According to their model, livestock and aquatic food production would be unable to compensate for reduced crop output in almost all countries, and adaptation measures such as food waste reduction would have limited impact on increasing available calories.
As nuclear devices need not be detonated to ignite a firestorm, the term "nuclear winter" is something of a misnomer. The majority of papers published on the subject state that without qualitative justification, nuclear explosions are the cause of the modeled firestorm effects. The only phenomenon that is modeled by computer in the nuclear winter papers is the climate forcing agent of firestorm-soot, a product which can be ignited and formed by a myriad of means. Although rarely discussed, the proponents of the hypothesis state that the same "nuclear winter" effect would occur if 100 large scale conventional firestorms were ignited.
A much larger number of firestorms, in the thousands,[failed verification] was the initial assumption of the computer modelers who coined the term in the 1980s. These were speculated to be a possible result of any large scale employment of counter-value airbursting nuclear weapon use during an American-Soviet total war. This larger number of firestorms, which are not in themselves modeled, are presented as causing nuclear winter conditions as a result of the smoke inputted into various climate models, with the depths of severe cooling lasting for as long as a decade. During this period, summer drops in average temperature could be up to 20 °C (36 °F) in core agricultural regions of the US, Europe, and China, and as much as 35 °C (63 °F) in Russia. This cooling would be produced due to a 99% reduction in the natural solar radiation reaching the surface of the planet in the first few years, gradually clearing over the course of several decades.
On the fundamental level, since the advent of photographic evidence of tall clouds were captured, it was known that firestorms could inject soot smoke/aerosols into the stratosphere, but the longevity of this slew of aerosols was a major unknown. Independent of the team that continue to publish theoretical models on nuclear winter, in 2006, Mike Fromm of the Naval Research Laboratory, experimentally found that each natural occurrence of a massive wildfire firestorm, much larger than that observed at Hiroshima, can produce minor "nuclear winter" effects, with short-lived, approximately one month of a nearly immeasurable drop in surface temperatures, confined to the hemisphere that they burned in. This is somewhat analogous to the frequent volcanic eruptions that inject sulfates into the stratosphere and thereby produce minor, even negligible, volcanic winter effects.
A suite of satellite and aircraft-based firestorm-soot-monitoring instruments are at the forefront of attempts to accurately determine the lifespan, quantity, injection height, and optical properties of this smoke. Information regarding all of these properties is necessary to truly ascertain the length and severity of the cooling effect of firestorms, independent of the nuclear winter computer model projections.
Currently, from satellite tracking data, it appears that stratospheric smoke aerosols dissipate in a time span under approximately two months. The existence of a tipping point into a new stratospheric condition where the aerosols would not be removed within this time frame remains to be determined.
The nuclear winter scenario assumes that 100 or more city firestorms are ignited by nuclear explosions, and that the firestorms lift large amounts of sooty smoke into the upper troposphere and lower stratosphere by the movement offered by the pyrocumulonimbus clouds that form during a firestorm. At 10–15 kilometres (6–9 miles) above the Earth's surface, the absorption of sunlight could further heat the soot in the smoke, lifting some or all of it into the stratosphere, where the smoke could persist for years if there is no rain to wash it out. This aerosol of particles could heat the stratosphere and prevent a portion of the sun's light from reaching the surface, causing surface temperatures to drop drastically. In this scenario it is predicted[by whom?] that surface air temperatures would be the same as, or colder than, a given region's winter for months to years on end.
The modeled stable inversion layer of hot soot between the troposphere and high stratosphere that produces the anti-greenhouse effect was dubbed the "Smokeosphere" by Stephen Schneider et al. in their 1988 paper.
Although it is common in the climate models to consider city firestorms, these need not be ignited by nuclear devices; more conventional ignition sources can instead be the spark of the firestorms. Prior to the previously mentioned solar heating effect, the soot's injection height is controlled by the rate of energy release from the firestorm's fuel, not the size of an initial nuclear explosion. For example, the mushroom cloud from the bomb dropped on Hiroshima reached a height of six kilometers (middle troposphere) within a few minutes and then dissipated due to winds, while the individual fires within the city took almost three hours to form into a firestorm and produce a pyrocumulus cloud, a cloud that is assumed to have reached upper tropospheric heights, as over its multiple hours of burning, the firestorm released an estimated 1000 times the energy of the bomb.
As the incendiary effects of a nuclear explosion do not present any especially characteristic features, it is estimated by those with strategic bombing experience that as the city was a firestorm hazard, the same fire ferocity and building damage produced at Hiroshima by one 16-kiloton nuclear bomb from a single B-29 bomber could have been produced instead by the conventional use of about 1.2 kilotons of incendiary bombs from 220 B-29s distributed over the city.
While the firestorms of Dresden and Hiroshima and the mass fires of Tokyo and Nagasaki occurred within mere months in 1945, the more intense and conventionally lit Hamburg firestorm occurred in 1943. Despite the separation in time, ferocity and area burned, leading modelers of the hypothesis state that these five fires potentially placed five percent as much smoke into the stratosphere as the hypothetical 100 nuclear-ignited fires discussed in modern models. While it is believed that the modeled climate-cooling-effects from the mass of soot injected into the stratosphere by 100 firestorms (one to five million metric tons) would have been detectable with technical instruments in WWII, five percent of that would not have been possible to observe at that time.
Aerosol removal timescale
The exact timescale for how long this smoke remains, and thus how severely this smoke affects the climate once it reaches the stratosphere, is dependent on both chemical and physical removal processes.
The most important physical removal mechanism is "rainout", both during the "fire-driven convective column" phase, which produces "black rain" near the fire site, and rainout after the convective plume's dispersal, where the smoke is no longer concentrated and thus "wet removal" is believed to be very efficient. However, these efficient removal mechanisms in the troposphere are avoided in the Robock 2007 study, where solar heating is modeled to quickly loft the soot into the stratosphere, "detraining" or separating the darker soot particles from the fire clouds' whiter water condensation.
Once in the stratosphere, the physical removal mechanisms affecting the timescale of the soot particles' residence are how quickly the aerosol of soot collides and coagulates with other particles via Brownian motion, and falls out of the atmosphere via gravity-driven dry deposition, and the time it takes for the "phoretic effect" to move coagulated particles to a lower level in the atmosphere. Whether by coagulation or the phoretic effect, once the aerosol of smoke particles are at this lower atmospheric level, cloud seeding can begin, permitting precipitation to wash the smoke aerosol out of the atmosphere by the wet deposition mechanism.
The chemical processes that affect the removal are dependent on the ability of atmospheric chemistry to oxidize the carbonaceous component of the smoke, via reactions with oxidative species such as ozone and nitrogen oxides, both of which are found at all levels of the atmosphere, and which also occur at greater concentrations when air is heated to high temperatures.
Historical data on residence times of aerosols, albeit a different mixture of aerosols, in this case stratospheric sulfur aerosols and volcanic ash from megavolcano eruptions, appear to be in the one-to-two-year time scale, however aerosol–atmosphere interactions are still poorly understood.
Sooty aerosols can have a wide range of properties, as well as complex shapes, making it difficult to determine their evolving atmospheric optical depth value. The conditions present during the creation of the soot are believed to be considerably important as to their final properties, with soot generated on the more efficient spectrum of burning efficiency considered almost "elemental carbon black," while on the more inefficient end of the burning spectrum, greater quantities of partially burnt/oxidized fuel are present. These partially burnt "organics" as they are known, often form tar balls and brown carbon during common lower-intensity wildfires, and can also coat the purer black carbon particles. However, as the soot of greatest importance is that which is injected to the highest altitudes by the pyroconvection of the firestorm – a fire being fed with storm-force winds of air – it is estimated that the majority of the soot under these conditions is the more oxidized black carbon.
A study presented at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in December 2006 found that even a small-scale, regional nuclear war could disrupt the global climate for a decade or more. In a regional nuclear conflict scenario where two opposing nations in the subtropics would each use 50 Hiroshima-sized nuclear weapons (about 15 kilotons each) on major population centers, the researchers estimated as much as five million tons of soot would be released, which would produce a cooling of several degrees over large areas of North America and Eurasia, including most of the grain-growing regions. The cooling would last for years, and, according to the research, could be "catastrophic", disrupting agricultural production and food gathering in particular in higher latitude countries.
Nuclear detonations produce large amounts of nitrogen oxides by breaking down the air around them. These are then lifted upwards by thermal convection. As they reach the stratosphere, these nitrogen oxides are capable of catalytically breaking down the ozone present in this part of the atmosphere. Ozone depletion would allow a much greater intensity of harmful ultraviolet radiation from the sun to reach the ground.
A 2008 study by Michael J. Mills et al., published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that a nuclear weapons exchange between Pakistan and India using their current arsenals could create a near-global ozone hole, triggering human health problems and causing environmental damage for at least a decade. The computer-modeled study looked at a nuclear war between the two countries involving 50 Hiroshima-sized nuclear devices on each side, producing massive urban fires and lofting as much as five million metric tons of soot about 50 miles (80 km) into the stratosphere. The soot would absorb enough solar radiation to heat surrounding gases, increasing the breakdown of the stratospheric ozone layer protecting Earth from harmful ultraviolet radiation, with up to 70% ozone loss at northern high latitudes.
A "nuclear summer" is a hypothesized scenario in which, after a nuclear winter caused by aerosols inserted into the atmosphere that would prevent sunlight from reaching lower levels or the surface, has abated, a greenhouse effect then occurs due to carbon dioxide released by combustion and methane released from the decay of the organic matter such as corpses that froze during the nuclear winter.
Another more sequential hypothetical scenario, following the settling out of most of the aerosols in 1–3 years, the cooling effect would be overcome by a heating effect from greenhouse warming, which would raise surface temperatures rapidly by many degrees, enough to cause the death of much if not most of the life that had survived the cooling, much of which is more vulnerable to higher-than-normal temperatures than to lower-than-normal temperatures. The nuclear detonations would release CO2 and other greenhouse gases from burning, followed by more released from the decay of dead organic matter. The detonations would also insert nitrogen oxides into the stratosphere that would then deplete the ozone layer around the Earth.
Other more straightforward hypothetical versions exist of the hypothesis that nuclear winter might give way to a nuclear summer. The high temperatures of the nuclear fireballs could destroy the ozone gas of the middle stratosphere.
In 1952, a few weeks prior to the Ivy Mike (10.4 megaton) bomb test on Elugelab Island, there were concerns that the aerosols lifted by the explosion might cool the Earth. Major Norair Lulejian, USAF, and astronomer Natarajan Visvanathan studied this possibility, reporting their findings in Effects of Superweapons Upon the Climate of the World, the distribution of which was tightly controlled. This report is described in a 2013 report by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency as the initial study of the "nuclear winter" concept. It indicated no appreciable chance of explosion-induced climate change.
The implications for civil defense of numerous surface bursts of high yield hydrogen bomb explosions on Pacific Proving Ground islands such as those of Ivy Mike in 1952 and Castle Bravo (15 Mt) in 1954 were described in a 1957 report on The Effects of Nuclear Weapons, edited by Samuel Glasstone. A section in that book entitled "Nuclear Bombs and the Weather" states: "The dust raised in severe volcanic eruptions, such as that at Krakatoa in 1883, is known to cause a noticeable reduction in the sunlight reaching the earth ... The amount of [soil or other surface] debris remaining in the atmosphere after the explosion of even the largest nuclear weapons is probably not more than about one percent or so of that raised by the Krakatoa eruption. Further, solar radiation records reveal that none of the nuclear explosions to date has resulted in any detectable change in the direct sunlight recorded on the ground." The US Weather Bureau in 1956 regarded it as conceivable that a large enough nuclear war with megaton-range surface detonations could lift enough soil to cause a new ice age.
The 1966 RAND corporation memorandum The Effects of Nuclear War on the Weather and Climate by E. S. Batten, while primarily analysing potential dust effects from surface bursts, notes that "in addition to the effects of the debris, extensive fires ignited by nuclear detonations might change the surface characteristics of the area and modify local weather patterns ... however, a more thorough knowledge of the atmosphere is necessary to determine their exact nature, extent, and magnitude."
In the United States National Research Council (NRC) book Long-Term Worldwide Effects of Multiple Nuclear-Weapons Detonations published in 1975, it states that a nuclear war involving 4,000 Mt from present arsenals would probably deposit much less dust in the stratosphere than the Krakatoa eruption, judging that the effect of dust and oxides of nitrogen would probably be slight climatic cooling which "would probably lie within normal global climatic variability, but the possibility of climatic changes of a more dramatic nature cannot be ruled out".
In the 1985 report, The Effects on the Atmosphere of a Major Nuclear Exchange, the Committee on the Atmospheric Effects of Nuclear Explosions argues that a "plausible" estimate on the amount of stratospheric dust injected following a surface burst of 1 Mt is 0.3 teragrams, of which 8 percent would be in the micrometer range. The potential cooling from soil dust was again looked at in 1992, in a US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report on geoengineering, which estimated that about 1010 kg (10 teragrams) of stratospheric injected soil dust with particulate grain dimensions of 0.1 to 1 micrometer would be required to mitigate the warming from a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide, that is, to produce ~2 °C of cooling.
In 1969, Paul Crutzen discovered that oxides of nitrogen (NOx) could be an efficient catalyst for the destruction of the ozone layer/stratospheric ozone. Following studies on the potential effects of NOx generated by engine heat in stratosphere flying Supersonic Transport (SST) airplanes in the 1970s, in 1974, John Hampson suggested in the journal Nature that due to the creation of atmospheric NOx by nuclear fireballs, a full-scale nuclear exchange could result in depletion of the ozone shield, possibly subjecting the earth to ultraviolet radiation for a year or more. In 1975, Hampson's hypothesis "led directly" to the United States National Research Council (NRC) reporting on the models of ozone depletion following nuclear war in the book Long-Term Worldwide Effects of Multiple Nuclear-Weapons Detonations.
In the section of this 1975 NRC book pertaining to the issue of fireball generated NOx and ozone layer loss therefrom, the NRC presented model calculations from the early-to-mid 1970s on the effects of a nuclear war with the use of large numbers of multi-megaton yield detonations, which returned conclusions that this could reduce ozone levels by 50 percent or more in the northern hemisphere.
However, independent of the computer models presented in the 1975 NRC works, a paper in 1973 in the journal Nature depicts the stratospheric ozone levels worldwide overlaid upon the number of nuclear detonations during the era of atmospheric testing. The authors conclude that neither the data nor their models show any correlation between the approximate 500 Mt in historical atmospheric testing and an increase or decrease of ozone concentration. In 1976, a study on the experimental measurements of an earlier atmospheric nuclear test as it affected the ozone layer also found that nuclear detonations are exonerated of depleting ozone, after the at first alarming model calculations of the time. Similarly, a 1981 paper found that the models on ozone destruction from one test and the physical measurements taken were in disagreement, as no destruction was observed.
In total, about 500 Mt were atmospherically detonated between 1945 and 1971, peaking in 1961–1962, when 340 Mt were detonated in the atmosphere by the United States and Soviet Union. During this peak, with the multi-megaton range detonations of the two nations nuclear test series, in exclusive examination, a total yield estimated at 300 Mt of energy was released. Due to this, 3 × 1034 additional molecules of nitric oxide (about 5,000 tons per Mt, 5 × 109 grams per megaton) are believed to have entered the stratosphere, and while ozone depletion of 2.2 percent was noted in 1963, the decline had started prior to 1961 and is believed to have been caused by other meteorological effects.
In 1982 journalist Jonathan Schell in his popular and influential book The Fate of the Earth, introduced the public to the belief that fireball generated NOx would destroy the ozone layer to such an extent that crops would fail from solar UV radiation and then similarly painted the fate of the Earth, as plant and aquatic life going extinct. In the same year, 1982, Australian physicist Brian Martin, who frequently corresponded with John Hampson who had been greatly responsible for much of the examination of NOx generation, penned a short historical synopsis on the history of interest in the effects of the direct NOx generated by nuclear fireballs, and in doing so, also outlined Hampson's other non-mainstream viewpoints, particularly those relating to greater ozone destruction from upper-atmospheric detonations as a result of any widely used anti-ballistic missile (ABM-1 Galosh) system. However, Martin ultimately concludes that it is "unlikely that in the context of a major nuclear war" ozone degradation would be of serious concern. Martin describes views about potential ozone loss and therefore increases in ultraviolet light leading to the widespread destruction of crops, as advocated by Jonathan Schell in The Fate of the Earth, as highly unlikely.
More recent accounts on the specific ozone layer destruction potential of NOx species are much less than earlier assumed from simplistic calculations, as "about 1.2 million tons" of natural and anthropogenic generated stratospheric NOx is believed to be formed each year according to Robert P. Parson in the 1990s.
The first published suggestion that cooling of the climate could be an effect of a nuclear war, appears to have been originally put forth by Poul Anderson and F. N. Waldrop in their story "Tomorrow's Children", in the March 1947 issue of the Astounding Science Fiction magazine. The story, primarily about a team of scientists hunting down mutants, warns of a "Fimbulwinter" caused by dust that blocked sunlight after a recent nuclear war and speculated that it may even trigger a new Ice Age. Anderson went on to publish a novel based partly on this story in 1961, titling it Twilight World. Similarly in 1985 it was noted by T. G. Parsons that the story "Torch" by C. Anvil, which also appeared in Astounding Science Fiction magazine, but in the April 1957 edition, contains the essence of the "Twilight at Noon"/"nuclear winter" hypothesis. In the story, a nuclear warhead ignites an oil field, and the soot produced "screens out part of the sun's radiation", resulting in Arctic temperatures for much of the population of North America and the Soviet Union.
The 1988 Air Force Geophysics Laboratory publication, An assessment of global atmospheric effects of a major nuclear war by H. S. Muench, et al., contains a chronology and review of the major reports on the nuclear winter hypothesis from 1983 to 1986. In general, these reports arrive at similar conclusions as they are based on "the same assumptions, the same basic data", with only minor model-code differences. They skip the modeling steps of assessing the possibility of fire and the initial fire plumes and instead start the modeling process with a "spatially uniform soot cloud" which has found its way into the atmosphere.
Although never openly acknowledged by the multi-disciplinary team who authored the most popular 1980s TTAPS model, in 2011 the American Institute of Physics states that the TTAPS team (named for its participants, who had all previously worked on the phenomenon of dust storms on Mars, or in the area of asteroid impact events: Richard P. Turco, Owen Toon, Thomas P. Ackerman, James B. Pollack and Carl Sagan) announcement of their results in 1983 "was with the explicit aim of promoting international arms control". However, "the computer models were so simplified, and the data on smoke and other aerosols were still so poor, that the scientists could say nothing for certain".
In 1981, William J. Moran began discussions and research in the National Research Council (NRC) on the airborne soil/dust effects of a large exchange of nuclear warheads, having seen a possible parallel in the dust effects of a war with that of the asteroid-created K-T boundary and its popular analysis a year earlier by Luis Alvarez in 1980. An NRC study panel on the topic met in December 1981 and April 1982 in preparation for the release of the NRC's The Effects on the Atmosphere of a Major Nuclear Exchange, published in 1985.
As part of a study on the creation of oxidizing species such as NOx and ozone in the troposphere after a nuclear war, launched in 1980 by Ambio, a journal of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Paul J. Crutzen and John W. Birks began preparing for the 1982 publication of a calculation on the effects of nuclear war on stratospheric ozone, using the latest models of the time. However, they found that as a result of the trend towards more numerous but less energetic, sub-megaton range nuclear warheads (made possible by the march to increase ICBM warhead accuracy), the ozone layer danger was "not very significant".
It was after being confronted with these results that they "chanced" upon the notion, as "an afterthought" of nuclear detonations igniting massive fires everywhere and, crucially, the smoke from these conventional fires then going on to absorb sunlight, causing surface temperatures to plummet. In early 1982, the two circulated a draft paper with the first suggestions of alterations in short-term climate from fires presumed to occur following a nuclear war. Later in the same year, the special issue of Ambio devoted to the possible environmental consequences of nuclear war by Crutzen and Birks was titled "The Atmosphere after a Nuclear War: Twilight at Noon", and largely anticipated the nuclear winter hypothesis. The paper looked into fires and their climatic effect and discussed particulate matter from large fires, nitrogen oxide, ozone depletion and the effect of nuclear twilight on agriculture. Crutzen and Birks' calculations suggested that smoke particulates injected into the atmosphere by fires in cities, forests and petroleum reserves could prevent up to 99 percent of sunlight from reaching the Earth's surface. This darkness, they said, could exist "for as long as the fires burned", which was assumed to be many weeks, with effects such as: "The normal dynamic and temperature structure of the atmosphere would...change considerably over a large fraction of the Northern Hemisphere, which will probably lead to important changes in land surface temperatures and wind systems." An implication of their work was that a successful nuclear decapitation strike could have severe climatic consequences for the perpetrator.
After reading a paper by N. P. Bochkov and E. I. Chazov, published in the same edition of Ambio that carried Crutzen and Birks's paper "Twilight at Noon", Soviet atmospheric scientist Georgy Golitsyn applied his research on Mars dust storms to soot in the Earth's atmosphere. The use of these influential Martian dust storm models in nuclear winter research began in 1971, when the Soviet spacecraft Mars 2 arrived at the red planet and observed a global dust cloud. The orbiting instruments together with the 1971 Mars 3 lander determined that temperatures on the surface of the red planet were considerably colder than temperatures at the top of the dust cloud. Following these observations, Golitsyn received two telegrams from astronomer Carl Sagan, in which Sagan asked Golitsyn to "explore the understanding and assessment of this phenomenon". Golitsyn recounts that it was around this time that he had "proposed a theory[which?] to explain how Martian dust may be formed and how it may reach global proportions."
In the same year Alexander Ginzburg, an employee in Golitsyn's institute, developed a model of dust storms to describe the cooling phenomenon on Mars. Golitsyn felt that his model would be applicable to soot after he read a 1982 Swedish magazine dedicated to the effects of a hypothetical nuclear war between the USSR and the US. Golitsyn would use Ginzburg's largely unmodified dust-cloud model with soot assumed as the aerosol in the model instead of soil dust and in an identical fashion to the results returned, when computing dust-cloud cooling in the Martian atmosphere, the cloud high above the planet would be heated while the planet below would cool drastically. Golitsyn presented his intent to publish this Martian-derived Earth-analog model to the Andropov instigated Committee of Soviet Scientists in Defence of Peace Against the Nuclear Threat in May 1983, an organization that Golitsyn would later be appointed vice-chairman. The establishment of this committee was done with the expressed approval of the Soviet leadership with the intent "to expand controlled contacts with Western "nuclear freeze" activists". Having gained this committees approval, in September 1983, Golitsyn published the first computer model on the nascent "nuclear winter" effect in the widely read Herald of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
On 31 October 1982, Golitsyn and Ginsburg's model and results were presented at the conference on "The World after Nuclear War", hosted in Washington, D.C.
Both Golitsyn and Sagan had been interested in the cooling on the dust storms on the planet Mars in the years preceding their focus on "nuclear winter". Sagan had also worked on Project A119 in the 1950s–1960s, in which he attempted to model the movement and longevity of a plume of lunar soil.
After the publication of "Twilight at Noon" in 1982, the TTAPS team have said that they began the process of doing a 1-dimensional computational modeling study of the atmospheric consequences of nuclear war/soot in the stratosphere, though they would not publish a paper in Science magazine until late-December 1983. The phrase "nuclear winter" had been coined by Turco just prior to publication. In this early paper, TTAPS used assumption-based estimates on the total smoke and dust emissions that would result from a major nuclear exchange, and with that, began analyzing the subsequent effects on the atmospheric radiation balance and temperature structure as a result of this quantity of assumed smoke. To compute dust and smoke effects, they employed a one-dimensional microphysics/radiative-transfer model of the Earth's lower atmosphere (up to the mesopause), which defined only the vertical characteristics of the global climate perturbation.
Interest in the environmental effects of nuclear war, however, had continued in the Soviet Union after Golitsyn's September paper, with Vladimir Alexandrov and G. I. Stenchikov also publishing a paper in December 1983 on the climatic consequences, although in contrast to the contemporary TTAPS paper, this paper was based on simulations with a three-dimensional global circulation model. (Two years later Alexandrov disappeared under mysterious circumstances). Richard Turco and Starley L. Thompson were both critical of the Soviet research. Turco called it "primitive" and Thompson said it used obsolete US computer models. Later they were to rescind these criticisms and instead applauded Alexandrov's pioneering work, saying that the Soviet model shared the weaknesses of all the others.
In 1984, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) commissioned Golitsyn and N. A. Phillips to review the state of the science. They found that studies generally assumed a scenario where half of the world's nuclear weapons would be used, ~5000 Mt, destroying approximately 1,000 cities, and creating large quantities of carbonaceous smoke – 1–2×1014 g being most likely, with a range of 0.2–6.4×1014 g (NAS; TTAPS assumed 2.25×1014). The smoke resulting would be largely opaque to solar radiation but transparent to infrared, thus cooling the Earth by blocking sunlight, but not creating warming by enhancing the greenhouse effect. The optical depth of the smoke can be much greater than unity. Forest fires resulting from non-urban targets could increase aerosol production further. Dust from near-surface explosions against hardened targets also contributes; each megaton-equivalent explosion could release up to five million tons of dust, but most would quickly fall out; high altitude dust is estimated at 0.1–1 million tons per megaton-equivalent of explosion. Burning of crude oil could also contribute substantially.
The 1-D radiative-convective models used in these[which?] studies produced a range of results, with cooling up to 15–42 °C between 14 and 35 days after the war, with a "baseline" of about 20 °C. Somewhat more sophisticated calculations using 3-D GCMs produced similar results: temperature drops of about 20 °C, though with regional variations.
All[which?] calculations show large heating (up to 80 °C) at the top of the smoke layer at about 10 km (6.2 mi); this implies a substantial modification of the circulation there and the possibility of advection of the cloud into low latitudes and the southern hemisphere.
In a 1990 paper entitled "Climate and Smoke: An Appraisal of Nuclear Winter", TTAPS gave a more detailed description of the short- and long-term atmospheric effects of a nuclear war using a three-dimensional model:
First one to three months:
- 10–25% of soot injected is immediately removed by precipitation, while the rest is transported over the globe in one to two weeks
- SCOPE figures for July smoke injection:
- 22 °C drop in mid-latitudes
- 10 °C drop in humid climates
- 75% decrease in rainfall in mid-latitudes
- Light level reduction of 0% in low latitudes to 90% in high smoke injection areas
- SCOPE figures for winter smoke injection:
- Temperature drops between 3 and 4 °C
Following one to three years:
- 25–40% of injected smoke is stabilised in atmosphere (NCAR). Smoke stabilised for approximately one year.
- Land temperatures of several degrees below normal
- Ocean surface temperature between 2 and 6 °C
- Ozone depletion of 50% leading to 200% increase in UV radiation incident on surface.
Kuwait wells in the first Gulf War
One of the major results of TTAPS' 1990 paper was the re-iteration of the team's 1983 model that 100 oil refinery fires would be sufficient to bring about a small scale, but still globally deleterious nuclear winter.
Following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and Iraqi threats of igniting the country's approximately 800 oil wells, speculation on the cumulative climatic effect of this, presented at the World Climate Conference in Geneva that November in 1990, ranged from a nuclear winter type scenario, to heavy acid rain and even short term immediate global warming.
In articles printed in the Wilmington Morning Star and the Baltimore Sun newspapers in January 1991, prominent authors of nuclear winter papers – Richard P. Turco, John W. Birks, Carl Sagan, Alan Robock and Paul Crutzen – collectively stated that they expected catastrophic nuclear winter like effects with continental-sized effects of sub-freezing temperatures as a result of the Iraqis going through with their threats of igniting 300 to 500 pressurized oil wells that could subsequently burn for several months.
As threatened, the wells were set on fire by the retreating Iraqis in March 1991, and the 600 or so burning oil wells were not fully extinguished until November 6, 1991, eight months after the end of the war, and they consumed an estimated six million barrels of oil per day at their peak intensity.
When Operation Desert Storm began in January 1991, coinciding with the first few oil fires being lit, Dr. S. Fred Singer and Carl Sagan discussed the possible environmental effects of the Kuwaiti petroleum fires on the ABC News program Nightline. Sagan again argued that some of the effects of the smoke could be similar to the effects of a nuclear winter, with smoke lofting into the stratosphere, beginning around 48,000 feet (15,000 m) above sea level in Kuwait, resulting in global effects. He also argued that he believed the net effects would be very similar to the explosion of the Indonesian volcano Tambora in 1815, which resulted in the year 1816 being known as the "Year Without a Summer".
Sagan listed modeling outcomes that forecast effects extending to South Asia, and perhaps to the Northern Hemisphere as well. Sagan stressed this outcome was so likely that "It should affect the war plans." Singer, on the other hand, anticipated that the smoke would go to an altitude of about 3,000 feet (910 m) and then be rained out after about three to five days, thus limiting the lifetime of the smoke. Both height estimates made by Singer and Sagan turned out to be wrong, albeit with Singer's narrative being closer to what transpired, with the comparatively minimal atmospheric effects remaining limited to the Persian Gulf region, with smoke plumes, in general, lofting to about 10,000 feet (3,000 m) and a few as high as 20,000 feet (6,100 m).
Sagan and his colleagues expected that a "self-lofting" of the sooty smoke would occur when it absorbed the sun's heat radiation, with little to no scavenging occurring, whereby the black particles of soot would be heated by the sun and lifted/lofted higher and higher into the air, thereby injecting the soot into the stratosphere, a position where they argued it would take years for the sun-blocking effect of this aerosol of soot to fall out of the air, and with that, catastrophic ground level cooling and agricultural effects in Asia and possibly the Northern Hemisphere as a whole. In a 1992 follow-up, Peter Hobbs and others had observed no appreciable evidence for the nuclear winter team's predicted massive "self-lofting" effect and the oil-fire smoke clouds contained less soot than the nuclear winter modelling team had assumed.
The atmospheric scientist tasked with studying the atmospheric effect of the Kuwaiti fires by the National Science Foundation, Peter Hobbs, stated that the fires' modest impact suggested that "some numbers [used to support the Nuclear Winter hypothesis]... were probably a little overblown."
Hobbs found that at the peak of the fires, the smoke absorbed 75 to 80% of the sun's radiation. The particles rose to a maximum of 20,000 feet (6,100 m), and when combined with scavenging by clouds the smoke had a short residency time of a maximum of a few days in the atmosphere.
Pre-war claims of wide scale, long-lasting, and significant global environmental effects were thus not borne out, and found to be significantly exaggerated by the media and speculators, with climate models by those not supporting the nuclear winter hypothesis at the time of the fires predicting only more localized effects such as a daytime temperature drop of ~10 °C within 200 km of the source.
Sagan later conceded in his book The Demon-Haunted World that his predictions obviously did not turn out to be correct: "it was pitch black at noon and temperatures dropped 4–6 °C over the Persian Gulf, but not much smoke reached stratospheric altitudes and Asia was spared."
The idea of oil well and oil reserve smoke pluming into the stratosphere serving as a main contributor to the soot of a nuclear winter was a central idea of the early climatology papers on the hypothesis; they were considered more of a possible contributor than smoke from cities, as the smoke from oil has a higher ratio of black soot, thus absorbing more sunlight. Hobbs compared the papers' assumed "emission factor" or soot generating efficiency from ignited oil pools and found, upon comparing to measured values from oil pools at Kuwait, which were the greatest soot producers, the emissions of soot assumed in the nuclear winter calculations were still "too high". Following the results of the Kuwaiti oil fires being in disagreement with the core nuclear winter promoting scientists, 1990s nuclear winter papers generally attempted to distance themselves from suggesting oil well and reserve smoke will reach the stratosphere.
In 2007, a nuclear winter study noted that modern computer models have been applied to the Kuwait oil fires, finding that individual smoke plumes are not able to loft smoke into the stratosphere, but that smoke from fires covering a large area[quantify] like some forest fires can lift smoke[quantify] into the stratosphere, and recent evidence suggests that this occurs far more often than previously thought. The study also suggested that the burning of the comparably smaller cities, which would be expected to follow a nuclear strike, would also loft significant amounts of smoke into the stratosphere:
Stenchikov et al. [2006b] conducted detailed, high-resolution smoke plume simulations with the RAMS regional climate model [e.g., Miguez-Macho, et al., 2005] and showed that individual plumes, such as those from the Kuwait oil fires in 1991, would not be expected to loft into the upper atmosphere or stratosphere, because they become diluted. However, much larger plumes, such as would be generated by city fires, produce large, undiluted mass motion that results in smoke lofting. New large eddy simulation model results at much higher resolution also give similar lofting to our results, and no small scale response that would inhibit the lofting [Jensen, 2006].