Climate and smoke: an appraisal of nuclear winter

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Science  12 Jan 1990:
Vol. 247, Issue 4939, pp. 166-176
DOI: 10.1126/science.11538069


The latest understanding of nuclear winter is reviewed. Considerable progress has been made in quantifying the production and injection of soot by large-scale fires, the regional and global atmospheric dispersion of the soot, and the resulting physical, environmental, and climatic perturbations. New information has been obtained from laboratory studies, field experiments, and numerical modeling on a variety of scales (plume, mesoscale, and global). For the most likely soot injections from a full-scale nuclear exchange, three-dimensional climate simulations yield midsummer land temperature decreases that average 10 degrees to 20 degrees C in northern mid-latitudes, with local cooling as large as 35 degrees C, and subfreezing summer temperatures in some regions. Anomalous atmospheric circulations caused by solar heating of soot is found to stabilize the upper atmosphere against overturning, thus increasing the soot lifetime, and to accelerate interhemispheric transport, leading to persistent effects in the Southern Hemisphere. Serious new environmental problems associated with soot injection have been identified, including disruption of monsoon precipitation and severe depletion of the stratospheric ozone layer in the Northern Hemisphere. The basic physics of nuclear winter has been reaffirmed through several authoritative international technical assessments and numerous individual scientific investigations. Remaining areas of uncertainty and research priorities are discussed in view of the latest findings.