In the case of a nuclear conflict between the world’s superpowers, millions of tons of soot aerosols could be released into the atmosphere, reducing the amount of sunlight reaching the Earth’s surface. This would lead to global surface cooling, a phenomenon called “nuclear winter.” In the case of such a catastrophic event, vast crop failure could follow, leading to widespread food scarcity. Unable to feed the world’s population using land-based farming, people would likely turn to the oceans, but how will marine life fare in such a scenario? This is the question Joshua Coupe of Rutgers University and colleagues set out to answer in their article published in Nature Communications Earth & Environment

The researchers modeled six different nuclear war scenarios of varying severity, including conflicts between the United States and Russia, and between Pakistan and India. They showed that in the aftermath of a nuclear conflict, tropical regions of the Pacific Ocean would experience a “Nuclear Niño,” a term coined due to the event’s similarity to an El Niño. The Pacific Ocean naturally warms up and cools down around every three to seven years, cycling between El Niño (warm) and La Niña (cool) periods. This oscillation in temperature is sensitive to atmospheric events and has tremendous impacts on seafood availability. Specifically, strong El Niño events lead to significant reductions in fisheries production due to reduced availability of nutrients in the marine ecosystem. 

The researchers argued that a Nuclear Niño would be stronger and longer-lasting than an El Niño, leading to anomalously high sea surface temperatures in the equatorial Pacific lasting seven years. This warming would result in a 40% reduction in algae biomass, which would in turn cause the population of fish dependent on algae for nutrients to decline. Thus, seafood production of the equatorial Pacific region, a major player in the global seafood trade, would plummet. This means that in a post-nuclear war world, humanity will suffer from world-wide food insecurity caused by catastrophic multi-year global climate change that will affect not only land, but also the world’s oceans. The most effective way to avoid such insurmountable challenges and protect the environment is to prevent nuclear conflict. 

Dr. Joshua Coupe, the lead and corresponding author of the publication, is a postdoctoral research associate at Rutgers University who utilizes climate models to study climate variability due to nuclear winter. The study was conducted in collaboration with eight other researchers in the U.S. and Australia.

Managing correspondent: Melis Tekant

Original article: Nuclear Niño response observed in simulations of nuclear war scenariosNature communications earth & environment

Image credit: United States Department of Energy, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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