The Nuclear Apocalypse aka the Nuclear Holocaust is an end of days scenario that, unless you have been living under rock for the entirety of your life, you will be familiar with. It only became a possibility relatively recently in human history. The first nuclear device was tested in New Mexico in 16 July 1945 by the USA during WWII.

This apocalyptic scenario is endlessly depicted in popular culture. Movies, video games, art, comedy, comics, songs and much more. Some of the more popular examples you have probably encountered include Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, Iron Maiden’s Brighter than a Thousand Suns and the 90s PC game Command and Conquer: Red Alert and its numerous offshoot alternatives.

Who, What, Where, When and Why?

So, since the USA tested its first nuclear device in 1945, nine more countries achieved the somber accolade of nuclear weapon possession. The estimated current number of warheads stands at staggering 15,350. The numbers can be broken down by nation as follows.

The United States (6,970), Russia  (7,300), the United Kingdom (215), France (300), China (260), India (100–120), Pakistan (110–130), Israel (80), North Korea  (<10) and South Africa (0) which voluntarily dismantled all of its nuclear weapons in the 90s. The nuclear race with successive countries looking to possess these terrible weapons spanned the second half of the 20th century. It is a highly complex dance of geo-political history and is brilliantly visualized in the YouTube video below.

So, given this shockingly large collection of nuclear weapons how exactly could this Nuclear Apocalypse begin? Well, worryingly scientists, philosophers and statisticians have laid out at least 5 ways for it to happen.

1. Mechanical Accident – Anyone who has seen the classic 80s movie War Games knows the dangers of leaving computers in charge of the management of these weapons. Many automated systems could misbehave and lead to the unintended firing of a warhead.
2. Human Error – The attempted launch of a Norwegian weather satellite, a flock of migrating geese, or a random computer glitch have all been misinterpreted as an incoming nuclear attack by humans.
3. Aggressive Attack – One or more of the above nations above may use nuclear weapons in a similar context to conventional weapons to advance some geopolitical aims.
4. Preemptive Attack – A country convinced that they are about to be attacked with nukes may preemptively launch their own nuclear weapons to defend themselves.
5. Retaliatory Attack – In response to either a conventional, biological, chemical or nuclear attack a country may decide to use their nuclear weapons in retaliation.

The 5 scenarios detailed above could very easily come to pass. There are a number of flash points around the world that could very well be ground zero for an escalation of a conflict to the level of nuclear weaponry being used. The Pakistani Indian tension over the Kashmiri border, an aggressive unilateral action by North Korea in response to a perceived slight, a terrorist event in any major city or possibly an act of aggression in the Taiwanese strait.

To date the knowledge of mutually assured destruction has kept all the major players in a state of inaction. But with an uncertain future a situation with spiraling geopolitical conditions may arise altering this delicate balance of power.

In the event of a regional nuclear conflict between say Pakistan and India in which both sides detonate fifty 15 kiloton nuclear weapons. Scientist have stated that global temperatures after a year would cool by 1°c and after 5 years by 1.5°c. This would be combined with a loss in ozone levels.

A depressing scenario indeed but many orders of magnitude better than a conflict involving the USA and Russia. This truly apocalyptic scenario would see, scientists say, a cooling in global average temperature by 7°c to 8°c. Even a decade later the temperatures are still 4°c less than current levels. This along with a reduction in global rainfall by about 45% is situation devoid of all hope. And no reset button in sight.

The Panel of Experts

Professor of Physics – If the initial nuclear explosions don’t get you, then the 10 year nuclear winter that follows probably will.

State Governor – The major governmental centers will be destroyed in the first few hours. An unruly state of anarchy will soon follow.

CIA Field Operative – Your best bet is an underground bunker somewhere stocked with food and water for at least 10 years. I know where mine is.

What Would Karl do?

Karl – a 30 something millennial living in the San Francisco bay area

Karl woke up that morning without a worry in the world. He showered, had a cup of his favorite Pu-Erh tea, picked up his briefcase, and left his apartment to begin his commute to work.

Strangely, the streets were empty this morning. There were no cars passing or people in the street. That is, all except for a solitary hobo standing outside the local t.v. store. He was intently watching the news. Karl wandered over and began watching.

A flustered news presenter was reporting on an incident involving the sinking of a Chinese military vessel in the Taiwanese Strait. The reporter went on to say that it was unknown how the Chinese would respond. The suddenly transmission was cut short and the presenter hurriedly left the frame.

Karl took a few seconds to process this information. “That was strange” he thought to himself, “I wonder what happened”. The hobo next to him started mumbling some about the end of the world. But Karl was more level headed than that. He thought about heading over to his cabin out near Lake Tahoe. But instead, being ever the optimist, began walking to the bus stop to head to work.

Then suddenly, there was bright flash! And Karl, along with the hobo and the city of San Francisco, was obliterated by the blast of nuclear warhead. The 31st of over 200 warheads dropped on the USA by China and Russia that day.

References

A. Robock, L. Oman, G. Stenchikov, (2007). Nuclear winter revisited with a modern climate model and current nuclear arsenals: Still catastrophic consequences, Journal of Geophysical Research –Atmospheres, Vol. Retrieved from http://climate.envsci.rutgers.edu/pdf/RobockNW2006JD008235.pdf

Michael J. Mills, Owen B. Toon, Julia Lee-Taylor, and Alan Robock (2014). Multi-decadal global cooling and unprecedented ozone loss following a regional nuclear conflict. Retrieved from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/2013EF000205/abstract