What the science says: Could humans survive a nuclear war between NATO and Russia? - Alliance for Science (2023)

Russian leader Vladimir Putin has suggested that he would consider using nuclear weapons if confronted with a NATO military response in Ukraine, or if faced with a direct threat to his person or regime. If the war spreads to a NATO country like Estonia or Poland a direct US-Russia confrontation would take place, with a clear danger of runaway nuclear escalation.

The world is therefore arguably now closer to nuclear conflict than at any time since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. So what would a full-scale nuclear exchange look like in reality? Is it truly global Armageddon, or would it be survivable for some people and places?

Many scientists have investigated this question already. Their work is surprisingly little known, likely because in peacetime no one wants to think the unthinkable. But we are no longer in peacetime and the shadows of multiple mushroom clouds are looming once again over our planet.

Current nuclear weapons inventories

The latest assessment of Russian nuclear military capability estimates that as of early 2022 Russia has a stockpile of approximately 4,477 nuclear warheads — nearly 6,000 if “retired” warheads are included. The US maintains a similar inventory of 5,500 warheads, with 3,800 of those rapidly deployable.

The explosive power of these weapons is difficult to comprehend. It has been estimated that about 3 million tons (megatons or Mt) of TNT equivalent were detonated in World War II. For comparison, each of the UK’s Trident submarines carries 4 megatons of TNT equivalent on 40 nuclear warheads, meaning each submarine can cause more explosive destruction than took place during the entirety of World War II.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki

In 1945 the US attacked the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with atomic bombs, giving us two real-world examples of the effects of nuclear weapons on human populations.

A total of 140,000 people in Hiroshima and 73,000 in Nagasaki died instantaneously or within five months due to the nuclear blast, intense radiant heat from the fireball and ionizing radiation.

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Many people caught within 1km of ground zero were carbonized by heat rays, and those up to 1.5km away suffered flash burning with large areas of skin later peeling off. Some, especially those inside buildings, were reduced to white bones as all flesh was vaporized by the intense heat.

What the science says: Could humans survive a nuclear war between NATO and Russia? - Alliance for Science (1)

Many survivors, later to become known as hibakusha in Japanese, suffered acute radiation sickness (ARS) from neutron and gamma rays released by nuclear fission in the blasts. Symptoms included bloody diarrhea, hair loss, fever and intense thirst. Many later died. As well as direct radiation from the fireballs they were also exposed to radioactive fallout from the bomb.

The longer-term effects of radiation experienced by the hibakusha have been intensively studied, and include increased levels of leukemia and solid cancers. However, experiencing an atomic bombing was not an automatic death sentence: among the 100,000 or so survivors the excess rates of cancer over the subsequent years were about 850, and leukemia less than 100.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki show that — apart from short-term ARS — long-term radiation from fallout will be the least of our problems following a nuclear war. Much more serious will be social collapse, famine and the breakdown of much of the planetary biosphere.

‘Limited’ nuclear conflict – 100 warheads between India and Pakistan

Prior to the Ukraine war it seemed very unlikely that the superpowers would confront each other again, so many researchers turned to studying the impacts of more limited nuclear conflicts.

One study published two years ago looked at the likely impacts of a nuclear exchange of about 100 Hiroshima-sized detonations (15 kt yield each) on the most-populated urban areas of India and Pakistan. Each detonation was estimated to incinerate an area of 13 square km, with this scenario generating about 5 Tg (teragrams) of soot as smoke from wildfires and burning buildings entered the atmosphere.

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Direct human deaths in this “limited” nuclear war scenario are not quantified in the study, but would presumably number in the tens to hundreds of millions. The planetary impacts are also severe: as the soot reaches the stratosphere it circulates globally, blocking incoming solar radiation and dropping the Earth’s surface temperature by 1.8C in the first five years.

This would be a greater cooling than caused by any recent volcanic eruption, and more than any climate perturbation for at least the last 1,000 years. Rainfall patterns are drastically altered, and total precipitation declines by about 8 percent. (These results come from widely-used climate models of the same types used to project long-term impacts of greenhouse gas emissions.)

Food exports collapse as stocks are depleted within a single year, and by year four a total of 1.3 billion people face a loss of about a fifth of their current food supply. The researchers conclude that “a regional conflict using <1 percent of the worldwide nuclear arsenal could have adverse consequences for global food security unmatched in modern history.”

A2014 study of the same scenario (of a 100-weapon nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan) found that the soot penetrating the stratosphere would cause severe damage to the Earth’s ozone layer, increasing UV penetration by 30-80 percent over the mid-latitudes. This would cause “widespread damage to human health, agriculture, and terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems,” the researchers wrote. “The combined cooling and enhanced UV would put significant pressures on global food supplies and could trigger a global nuclear famine.”

What the science says: Could humans survive a nuclear war between NATO and Russia? - Alliance for Science (2)

Full-scale nuclear exchange

If global nuclear famine could result from just 100 nuclear detonations, what might be the result of a fuller exchange of the several thousand warheads held in current inventories by the US and Russia?

One 2008 study looked at a Russia-US nuclear war scenario, where Russia would target 2,200 weapons on Western countries and the US would target 1,100 weapons each on China and Russia. In total, therefore, 4,400 warheads detonate, equivalent to roughly half the current inventories held each by Russia and the US.

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Nuclear weapons held by other states were not used in this scenario, which has a 440-Mt explosive yield, equivalent to about 150 times all the bombs detonated in World War II. This full-scale nuclear war was estimated to cause 770 million direct deaths and generate 180 Tg of soot from burning cities and forests. In the US, about half the population would be within 5km of a ground zero, and a fifth of the country’s citizens would be killed outright.

A subsequent study, published in 2019, looked at a comparable but slightly lower 150 Tg atmospheric soot injection following an equivalent scale nuclear war. The devastation causes so much smoke that only 30-40 percent of sunlight reaches the Earth’s surface for the subsequent six months.

A massive drop in temperature follows, with the weather staying below freezing throughout the subsequent Northern Hemisphere summer. In Iowa, for example, the model shows temperatures staying below 0°C for 730 days straight. There is no growing season. This is a true nuclear winter.

Nor is it just a short blip. Temperatures still drop below freezing in summer for several years thereafter, and global precipitation falls by half by years three and four. It takes over a decade for anything like climatic normality to return to the planet.

By this time, most of Earth’s human population will be long dead. The world’s food production would crash by more than 90 percent, causing global famine that would kill billions by starvation. In most countries less than a quarter of the population survives by the end of year two in this scenario. Global fish stocks are decimated and the ozone layer collapses.

The models are eerily specific. In the 4,400 warhead/150 Tg soot nuclear war scenario, averaged over the subsequent five years, China sees a reduction in food calories of 97.2 percent, France by 97.5 percent, Russia by 99.7 percent, the UK by 99.5 percent and the US by 98.9 percent. In all these countries, virtually everyone who survived the initial blasts would subsequently starve.

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Human extinction?

Even the 150 Tg soot nuclear war scenario is orders of magnitude less than the amount of smoke and other particulates put into the atmosphere by the asteroid that hit the Earth at the end of the Cretaceous, 65 million years ago, killing the dinosaurs and about two-thirds of species alive at the time.

This implies that some humans would survive, eventually to repopulate the planet, and that a species-level extinction of Homo sapiens is unlikely even after a full-scale nuclear war. But the vast majority of the human population would suffer extremely unpleasant deaths from burns, radiation and starvation, and human civilization would likely collapse entirely. Survivors would eke out a living on a devastated, barren planet.

It was this shared understanding of the consequences of nuclear Armageddon that led to the 1985 statement by then US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” This statement was reaffirmed by Presidents Biden and Putin as recently as January 2022. Even as war rages in Ukraine it remains as true now as it was then.

With children’s hospitals bombed and refugees shelled as they flee, emotions run high. But cool heads must ultimately prevail, so that we can collectively step back from the brink of Russia-NATO confrontation before it is too late. The price of nuclear escalation is planetary suicide, with no winners at all. That won’t save lives in Ukraine — it will simply take the death toll of the current war from the thousands to the billions.

Image: Nuclear bomb test in the ocean. Photo: Shutterstock/Romolo Tavani

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FAQs

Would humanity survive a nuclear war? ›

But the vast majority of the human population would suffer extremely unpleasant deaths from burns, radiation and starvation, and human civilization would likely collapse entirely. Survivors would eke out a living on a devastated, barren planet.

What parts of the world would survive a nuclear war? ›

New research indicates that Australia and New Zealand are the two best places on Earth to survive a nuclear war.

How long would it take for the Earth to be habitable after a nuclear war? ›

Recovery would probably take about 3-10 years, but the Academy's study notes that long term global changes cannot be completely ruled out. The reduced ozone concentrations would have a number of consequences outside the areas in which the detonations occurred.

How can we prepare for nuclear war? ›

Make sure you have an Emergency Supply Kit for places you frequent and might have to stay for 24 hours. It should include bottled water, packaged foods, emergency medicines, a hand-crank or battery- powered radio to get information in case power is out, a flashlight, and extra batteries for essential items.

What would happen if US and Russia went to nuclear war? ›

A full-scale nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia would see global food systems obliterated and over 5 billion people die of hunger. A global study led by Rutgers climate scientists estimates post-conflict crop production.

How long would it take for radiation to clear after a nuclear war? ›

For the survivors of a nuclear war, this lingering radiation hazard could represent a grave threat for as long as 1 to 5 years after the attack. Predictions of the amount and levels of the radioactive fallout are difficult because of several factors.

What is the safest place during a nuclear war? ›

The Smart Survivalist named the Nordic country as the safest place in the event of a nuclear war. “Because Iceland is isolated from the rest of the world by the North Atlantic Ocean, it would be very difficult for a nuclear missile to reach Iceland without being detected first,” it said.

Where would you go if nuclear war? ›

Move to a shelter, basement, or other underground area, preferably located away from the direction that the wind is blowing. Remove clothing since it may be contaminated; if possible, take a shower, wash your hair, and change clothes before you enter the shelter.

Can a nuclear bomb be shot down? ›

Short answer: It's very unlikely. As you read above, causing a nuclear bomb to detonate requires a precise orchestration of events, without which the chain reaction does not initiate and the bomb doesn't detonate.

What is the likelihood of nuclear war? ›

A 1% chance of nuclear war in the next 40 years becomes 99% after 8,000 years. Sooner or later, the odds will turn against us. Even if we cut the risks by half every year, we can never get to zero.

What would happen to the Earth during a nuclear war? ›

An estimated 1 to 2 billion people could face starvation. Ocean temperatures would drop quickly and would not return to their pre-war state even after the smoke clears. As the planet gets colder, sea ice expands blocking major ports in the Northern Hemisphere, including Beijing, Copenhagen and St. Petersburg.

What would you do in a nuclear war? ›

Seeking shelter is vital to avoid harmful radioactive material, or fallout, drifting back to Earth after a nuclear blast, and while any building is safer than being outside, the best shelters are multi-story brick or concrete buildings with few windows or basements.

How far is a safe distance from a nuclear explosion? ›

At a distance of 40-45 miles, a person would have at most 3 hours after the fallout began to find shelter. Considerably smaller radiation doses will make people seriously ill. Thus, the survival prospects of persons immediately downwind of the burst point would be slim unless they could be sheltered or evacuated.

How can you protect yourself from nuclear radiation? ›

Shielding

If possible, go inside a building or go home immediately. An underground area such as a home or office building basement offers more protection than the first floor of a building. If there is no basement, seek shelter under a roof near interior walls.

How do you prepare for war at home? ›

Tips For Preparing For War As A Civilian
  1. Know Where To Find Shelter. ...
  2. Know What The Warning Signs Are. ...
  3. Stay informed on the situation. ...
  4. Have Your Emergency Kits Ready. ...
  5. Learn First Aid Basics. ...
  6. Have a Cash Reserve At Home. ...
  7. Stock Up On Essentials Now.

How many nukes would it take to destroy the United States? ›

So only Russia can destroy the United States because they have 4200 nuclear bombs compared to 4000 for the United States.

Who is stronger Russia or USA? ›

In short, Russia is ranked 2nd out of 140 in military strength while the US is ranked 1st. As per the army population, Russia has 142,320,790 soldiers while The US has 334,998,398 soldiers. The available manpower is 69,737,187 with Russia and 147,399,295 with the United States.

How do you survive nuclear fallout? ›

If there is no reinforced room, you can lie under a sturdy table or next to (not under) a bed or sofa. You may be crushed under a bed or sofa if a concrete slab crashes down. Keep away from doors, tall furniture and windows, as they will probably shatter.

Does aluminum foil block nuclear radiation? ›

All types of radiation from nuclear decay can be stopped by aluminium if it is thick enough. Personal experience; at least 30 cm from Sr 90 isotope (beta source). Alpha particles can be absorbed by a thin sheet of paper or by a few centimetres of air.

Can a basement protect you from a nuclear bomb? ›

The safest place in your home during an radiation emergency is a centrally located room or basement. This area should have as few windows as possible.

How far does radiation from a nuclear bomb travel? ›

First responders must exercise special precautions as they approach the fallout zone in order to limit their own radiation exposure. The dangerous fallout zone can easily stretch 10 to 20 miles (15 to 30 kilometers) from the detonation depending on explosive yield and weather conditions.

Can a nuclear missile Be Stopped? ›

Halting an atomic weapon is theoretically possible, say experts, but in reality is an enormous challenge. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has raised the fear of nuclear weapons to a level not seen since the Cold War.

Can Russian missiles reach the US? ›

New START limits all Russian deployed intercontinental-range nuclear weapons, including every Russian nuclear warhead that is loaded onto an intercontinental-range ballistic missile that can reach the United States in approximately 30 minutes.

Which cities would be nuked first? ›

Redlener identified six cities that have the greatest likelihood of being attacked: New York, Chicago, Washington D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Houston. Only New York, Washington D.C., and Los Angeles' emergency management websites give ways to respond to a radioactive disaster.

Which country has the best Defence system in the world? ›

1. America. The United States of America is without a doubt one of the world's most powerful countries, and its defence system is no exception. With friends such as the United Kingdom and France, the country possesses a formidable military.

What is the best air Defence system in the world? ›

Overview – Undoubtedly, the best air defence system in the world is S – 400. Countries like Turkey and India opted to buy this air defence system even after threats of sanctions by the United States.

Which is the best anti missile system in the world? ›

RAFAEL's IRON DOME™ is the world's most deployed missile defense system, with more than 2,000 interceptions and a success rate greater than 90%.

What is the likelihood of nuclear war? ›

A 1% chance of nuclear war in the next 40 years becomes 99% after 8,000 years. Sooner or later, the odds will turn against us. Even if we cut the risks by half every year, we can never get to zero.

Can Russian nukes reach the US? ›

New START limits all Russian deployed intercontinental-range nuclear weapons, including every Russian nuclear warhead that is loaded onto an intercontinental-range ballistic missile that can reach the United States in approximately 30 minutes.

What would you do in a nuclear war? ›

Seeking shelter is vital to avoid harmful radioactive material, or fallout, drifting back to Earth after a nuclear blast, and while any building is safer than being outside, the best shelters are multi-story brick or concrete buildings with few windows or basements.

How far does a nuclear bomb effect in miles? ›

The dangerous fallout zone can easily stretch 10 to 20 miles (15 to 30 kilometers) from the detonation depending on explosive yield and weather conditions.

Where would be safe in a nuclear war? ›

Iceland is one of the safest countries in case of nuclear war due to its isolation, lack of military, and geothermal energy. Because Iceland is isolated from the rest of the world by the North Atlantic Ocean, it would be very difficult for a nuclear missile to reach Iceland without being detected first.

What would happen if nuclear war breaks out? ›

Besides the immediate destruction of cities by nuclear blasts, the potential aftermath of a nuclear war could involve firestorms, a nuclear winter, widespread radiation sickness from fallout, and/or the temporary (if not permanent) loss of much modern technology due to electromagnetic pulses.

How do you survive nuclear fallout? ›

If there is no reinforced room, you can lie under a sturdy table or next to (not under) a bed or sofa. You may be crushed under a bed or sofa if a concrete slab crashes down. Keep away from doors, tall furniture and windows, as they will probably shatter.

Can US shoot down nukes? ›

The US only has a limited ability to destroy an incoming nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile, a study released last month by the American Physical Society concluded.

How long would it take for a nuclear missile to reach the US from Russia? ›

It would take a land- based missile about 30 minutes to fly between Russia and the United States; a submarine-based missile could strike in as little as 10 to 15 minutes after launch.

Can US stop nukes? ›

Halting an atomic weapon is theoretically possible, say experts, but in reality is an enormous challenge. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has raised the fear of nuclear weapons to a level not seen since the Cold War.

How to protect yourself from a nuclear war? ›

Cover your mouth and nose with a face mask or other material (such as a scarf or handkerchief) until the fallout cloud has passed. Shut off ventilation systems and seal doors or windows until the fallout cloud has passed.

How far do you need to be from a nuclear bomb? ›

A.

At a distance of 20-25 miles downwind, a lethal radiation dose (600 rads) would be accumulated by a person who did not find shelter within 25 minutes after the time the fallout began. At a distance of 40-45 miles, a person would have at most 3 hours after the fallout began to find shelter.

How far is a safe distance from a nuclear explosion? ›

What US and Russia nuclear war would look like, according to scientists. Heat is the prime concern for those closer to a nuclear blast, with people up to 6.8 miles away suffering first-degree burns and third-degree burns hitting anyone up to 5 miles away.

Where would a nuclear bomb hit in the US? ›

Dr. Redlener identified six cities that have the greatest likelihood of being attacked: New York, Chicago, Washington D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Houston. Only New York, Washington D.C., and Los Angeles' emergency management websites give ways to respond to a radioactive disaster.

Can a nuclear bomb destroy a whole country? ›

Depending on its impact radius, even a Tsar bomb cannot destroy a whole country. Only a small country such as Vatican City or Monaco with land areas of 44 ha and 202 ha respectively can be completely destroyed using a nuclear weapon.

Videos

1. Nuclear weapons expert: The likelihood of nuclear war is rising | DW News
(DW News)
2. What If There Was A Nuclear War Between the US and Russia?
(The Infographics Show)
3. Putin says Ukraine joining NATO would make nuclear war more likely.
(Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists)
4. How Russia’s Nuclear Arsenal, the World’s Largest, Compares With Others | WSJ
(Wall Street Journal)
5. War in Ukraine: Did NATO Provoke Russia? | The Agenda
(The Agenda with Steve Paikin)
6. Ukraine Kills 111 Russian Troops, Hits 6 Arms Depots l “Nuke England” Call l NATO Drills In Germany
(CRUX)
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