Is Nuclear Winter Coming?

Six scientists, including Carl Sagan, who proved nuclear war would produce “nuclear winter” were at first dismissed by the establishment. On Saturday they will receive an award as the world is the closest to nuclear war since 1962.

Previous winners of the Future of Life Award. 

This Saturday, on the 77th anniversary of the first use of a nuclear weapon in Hiroshima, on Aug. 6, 1945, six scientists who were scoffed at in 1983 for determining the earth would suffer from a “nuclear winter” in the event of nuclear war, will be presented with the Future of Life Award. 

The Future of Life Institute will celebrate the scientists who discovered and spread the word about the shocking scientific prediction of nuclear winter: that firestorms set off by a major nuclear war would envelop the earth in soot and smoke blocking sunlight for years, sending global temperature plunging, ruining ecosystems and agriculture and killing billions of people through famine.

The awards will be presented at an event beginning at 7 p.m. Saturday at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn, N.Y. (Information about attending free here). Consortium News will be covering the event. 

From the Future of Life Institute: One panel will discuss the most up-to-date findings about nuclear winter; the other will explore the challenges involved in communicating this risk to politicians and the public, from the 1980s to today. The specter of nuclear war still hangs over us, and current geopolitics has made it as threatening as ever.

Panel 1 – The Science

The first conversation, moderated by physician-scientist and Future of Life Institute Director Dr. Emilia Javorsky, features nuclear winter pioneers Alan RobockBrian Toon and Richard Turco. What have new cutting-edge climate models revealed about the climate impact in the aftermath of a nuclear war? What do new agricultural models predict about survival rates in various countries? And what about the impact of a nuclear war confined to one country or one continent?

Panel 2 – The Communication

The second discussion, chaired by MIT professor and Future of Life Institute president Max Tegmark, will feature nuclear winter pioneers John Birks and Georgiy Stenchikov as well as Ann Druyan, the Award-winning American documentary producer and director who co-wrote Cosmos with her late husband Carl Sagan. This panel focuses on the fascinating story of how nuclear winter was initially discovered and communicated to the public, and how the science helped persuade Reagan and Gorbachev to back down from the nuclear brink, despite attempts to silence the discovery.

Nuclear weapon test Dakota, June 26, 1956. (U.S. Dept. of Energy/Wikimedia Commons)

About the Speakers

John W. Birks is the co-founder and former president of 2B Technologies, where he now works as Chief Scientist, directing research and development into new miniaturized air pollution monitors. Birks is Professor Emeritus and Department Chair of Chemistry and Biochemistry, and Fellow Emeritus of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES), at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He is best known for quantifying the rates of several chemical reactions key to understanding ozone depletion in the Antarctic ozone hole, and his seminal work in 1981-82 with Paul Crutzen (Nobel Laureate, 1995) in developing the theory of nuclear winter.

Ann Druyan is an Emmy and Peabody Award-winning writer, producer and director specializing in science communication. She was the Creative Director of NASA’ s Voyager Record and co-wrote the 1980 television series Cosmos, with Carl Sagan, whom she married in 1981.

Alan Robock is a Distinguished Professor of climate science in the Department of Environmental Sciences at Rutgers University. Robock has made significant contributions to our understanding of the environmental and humanitarian consequences of regional and global nuclear war. His areas of expertise include climate intervention (also called geoengineering), and the climatic effects of nuclear war and volcanic eruptions. Robock was a lead author of the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He is now Associate Editor of Reviews of Geophysics, the most highly-cited journal in the Earth Sciences, a fellow of the American Geophysical Union, the American Meteorological Society (AMS), and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and a recipient of the AMS Jule Charney Medal.

Georgiy Stenchikov completed his Ph.D. in the Numerical and Analytical Study of Weak Plasma Turbulence at Moscow Physical Technical Institute in 1977. Afterwards, he headed a department at the Russian Academy of Sciences, which used computational analysis to carry out crucial early research into the impact of humans on Earth’s climate and environmental systems. In 1983, Stenchikov, along with his colleague Vladimir Alexandrov, used global climatic models to calculate the consequences of nuclear war. These efforts helped to support findings in the United States and influence political leadership in the Soviet Union to work on arms control. Since the end of the Cold War, Stenchikov has continued using climatic models to understand the consequences of nuclear war.

Owen Brian Toon is a professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences, and a fellow at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado, Boulder. In 1969 he received an A.B. in physics at the University of California, Berkeley  and, in 1975, a Ph.D. in physics at Cornell University under Carl Sagan. Toon focuses his research on cloud physics, atmospheric chemistry, radiative transfer, and comparing Earth with other planets. His work on the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs was pivotal to the discovery of nuclear winter; his contribution to the TTAPS paper involved applying his previous findings about the impact of volcanic dust clouds on the Martian climate. Toon is a fellow of the American Meteorological Society and the American Geophysical Union, from whom he received the Roger Revelle Medal in 2011.

Richard Turco is an atmospheric scientist, and professor at the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, and the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, University of California, Los Angeles. He was lead author of the ‘TTAPS’ paper published in 1983 in Science magazine which coined the term ‘nuclear winter’ and popularized the idea. The paper reported computer simulations of strong climatic anomalies — namely deep cooling of Earth’s surface — associated with the absorption of solar radiation by smoke generated in a putative large-scale nuclear exchange. Turco was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 1986.

About the Hosts

Emilia Javorsky is a physician-scientist, entrepreneur, and advocate for the safe and beneficial use of emerging technologies. Dr. Javorsky is a director at the Future of Life Institute, a visiting scholar and mentor at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard Medical School, a Global Shaper of the World Economic Forum and a Forbes 30 Under 30 in Healthcare. She has authored a multitude of peer-reviewed publications and is an inventor on multiple patents.

Max Tegmark is a professor doing AI and physics research at MIT as part of the Institute for Artificial Intelligence & Fundamental Interactions and the Center for Brains, Minds and Machines. He advocates for positive use of technology as president of the Future of Life Institute. He is the author of over 250 publications as well as the New York Times bestsellers Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence and Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality. His most recent AI research focuses on intelligible intelligence as well as news bias detection with machine-learning.

This event is supported by and presented with Future of Life Institute, an independent nonprofit that works to reduce extreme risks from transformative technologies, as well as steer the development and use of these technologies to benefit life.

It is supported by Science Sandbox, a Simons Foundation initiative dedicated to engaging everyone with the process of science.

10 comments for “Is Nuclear Winter Coming?

  1. WillD
    August 5, 2022 at 22:59

    Unfortunately, I think a nuclear war and subsequent winter is inevitable. As many others have said, we’ve been lucky up until now. That, and the brave intervention of a handful of individuals, has saved us. But our luck cannot hold forever.

    At the moment, in the US and Europe particular, we have more and more so-called leaders that cannot or will not consider the implications of their actions when confronting other countries. I have next to zero confidence in the US’ ability to manage the risk and de-escalate whenever possible. As a declining empire, it is displaying all of the characteristic signs of desperately trying to prevent and reverse its global hegemony – which means, in my opinion, that it is far more likely to launch a first nuclear strike than any other country.

    The US can be compared to a cornered animal, when it feels it is under threat and therefore is more likely to make that first strike. The risk of this happening is more likely to increase as it targets both Russia and China simultaneously and they push back. In recent years, the US think tanks have been re-examining the possible outcomes of a nuclear war and have postulated, quite extraordinarily, that it may be ‘survivable’ under certain circumstances! This is what most normal rational people consider to be extremely dangerous thinking, particularly if it influences the policies and behaviour of the political and military classes.

    The Washington hawks with no ‘reverse gear’ only have one response – more aggression, more hostility….. It is not hard to imagine where this might lead.

  2. BB
    August 5, 2022 at 17:01

    The US ruling class is doing everything to bring us into a nuclear catastrophe.

    People of good will must also do everything to stop the insane actions of the US government, which are based on the arrogant attitude towards the legitimate interests of sovereign countries around the world.

    I am grateful to the journalists of Consortium News for telling the truth, for bravely fighting against the silliness and propaganda that pervades American journalism.

  3. August 5, 2022 at 13:57

    I don’t understand how we never had a nuclear winter
    when the US, Russia, France, UK, and Australia have totally detonated over 4,000 Nuclear Bombs since 1942. Can someone please explain this to me.

    • Dennis Nilsson
      August 5, 2022 at 22:14

      The 4,000 Nuclear Bombs wasn’t, luckily for us, living today, detonated over our worlds major cities.

      When 4.000 major cities are burming, with the people living there, are burning to, you get enormous firestorms, producing great quantities of ash in the atmosphere.

  4. Vera Gottlieb
    August 5, 2022 at 12:04

    I don’t quite share the enthusiasm over these heroes – although credit where credit due. For me there are two very poisonous facts around: corruption and greed – in time rendering nil what previous hopes brought about.

  5. August 5, 2022 at 11:44

    Nuclear Winter????
    The US with other countries has detonated over 4,000
    Nuclear Bombs since 1942.
    Where is this Nuclear Winter???

    • gbc
      August 5, 2022 at 13:33

      Most–if not all those detonations–were far smaller than many of today’s weapons. And many/most were detonated underground as well.

  6. Rudy Haugeneder
    August 5, 2022 at 00:23

    We have been lucky so far. Unfortunately, luck is running out. Little is known about what happens to the survivors after the dust settles. It is a good time to be elderly, very elderly.

    • Vera Gottlieb
      August 5, 2022 at 12:01

      Yes, very elderly. What mess we are leaving behind for the generations following ours.

    • GBC
      August 5, 2022 at 13:29

      Krushchev said it very pointedly, after a nuclear war, “the living would envy the dead.” It’s something our gerontologic mis-leadership class appears to have forgotten, in their continuing drive for nuclear superiority over all rivals.

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