The Ecological Impact of a Nuclear Holocaust

A nuclear holocaust wouldn't just wipe out civilization, it would wipe out the ecological systems on which civilization depends.
By Anne and Paul Ehrlich
September/October 1981
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Anne and Paul Ehrlich warn most experts, political leaders, and commentators are vastly underestimating the effects and consequences of a nuclear holocaust.
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One truly dangerous notion floating around in human society today is that an all-out nuclear war, although possibly "unthinkable," is nonetheless "winnable." Worse yet, if the attitude of the Soviet military is accurately interpreted by our country's Russia-watchers, that nation's generals and admirals consider such a war not only possible, but likely. No less a personage than U.S. Vice President George Bush stated, shortly before his election, his belief that a thermonuclear war could be won.

As the human population continues to expand, as our nonrenewable resources dwindle, and as nuclear weapons proliferate, the chances that World War III may be triggered increase dramatically. It's imperative, then, that the potential consequences of such a disaster be assessed very carefully and that people in all nations be thoroughly informed about them.

Incompetent Studies

The first detailed study of the subject was done by futurologist Herman Kahn and reported in his "classic" book, On Thermonuclear War. At the time, he was brutally (and, to our way of thinking, unfairly) criticized simply for writing on the subject by people who apparently thought that a nuclear holocaust would not occur if no one thought about it. Kahn's book itself, however, set a standard of incompetence that has to one degree or another characterized most subsequent studies.

Such reports generally have two weaknesses in common. First, they all rely on such jargon as "credible first-strike forces," "ideal blast waves," "prompt effects," "whole body doses," and "megadeaths." Only a discerning reader can see through the language to the picture of indescribable horror the words and phrases are actually painting.

For example, something on the order of half a billion human beings could be killed, worldwide, in a full-blown exchange of nuclear weapons between the Soviet and American blocs! According to one Department of Defense study, as many as 165 million U.S. citizens (about three-fourths of our nation's population) could die within the first 30 days after an attack. Many more would subsequently perish as a result of injuries, riots, exposure, starvation, and the lingering effects of radiation.

The prognosis for the destruction of the physical facilities that support human life, and for the disruption of society throughout North America, Europe, and Soviet Asia, is equally ghastly. Food and water supplies would be contaminated, fuel sources would be destroyed, supply systems would be severely disrupted if not altogether halted, and even able-bodied survivors would be hard put to care for themselves ...let alone aid the great numbers of injured and sick. These considerations alone clearly demonstrate that a nuclear war could possibly be considered "winnable" only if both sides exercised extreme restraint both in their choice of targets and in their response to attacks.  

A Totally Ignored Factor

In spite of such dire forecasts, however, a second characteristic shared by the studies— astonishingly—is the underestimation of the magnitude of horror that such a war would cause. In part, this is due to inadequate analysis of the factors the reports explicitly take into account. But more important, the studies almost uniformly fail to consider many of the serious ecological impact from an all-out exchange of hydrogen bombs.

Suppose, as an example, the United States and the Soviet Union embarked upon a full-scale nuclear war in late September (a likely time for such an occurrence, since neither party would be anxious to start a war until after its crops were harvested). The destruction caused by hydrogen bombs would vary as a result of many factors, not the least of them being the weather. If, for instance, California were hit by a barrage of nuclear warheads during a clear, hot period—which would be typical fall weather for much of that state—the devastation would go far beyond the many millions of immediate deaths.

Thermonuclear warheads, you see, are capable of igniting everything that is flammable within a large area surrounding the actual blast site, so an extensive portion of the state's forest and chaparral lands would be set ablaze. As a result, wherever sufficient combustibles were present, firestorms of immense dimensions might be generated.

Anyone interested in what a comparatively small firestorm can be like should locate a copy of Martin Caidin's excellent (but out-of-print) book The Night Hamburg Died. On July 27, 1943, British Lancaster and Halifax heavy bombers dropped 2,200 tons of incendiary and high-explosive bombs on that German city. Soon, the many individual fires ignited in Hamburg coalesced into a firestorm covering about six square miles. Flames reached 15,000 feet into the sky, and smoke and gases went to 40,000 feet. Huge updrafts sucked in air from surrounding areas, creating 150-MPH winds and temperatures exceeding the melting point of aluminum. The heat in underground shelters became so intense that, when they were opened and oxygen was admitted, corpses often burst into flame. It was more than a week before such shelters cooled enough for rescuers to enter.

Thousands of Times Worse

Keep that picture in mind ...then consider that a single hydrogen missile can contain thousands of times more explosive and incendiary power than all the bombs dropped during the entire Hamburg raid. Therefore, it's not impossible that—in our hypothetical attack on California—resulting firestorms could cover many thousands of square miles. If so, much of the state would be burned bare and ungerminated seeds in the soil in many areas destroyed. Thus, not only would millions of people be killed immediately but livestock, already harvested food, and stores of seeds for the following year's crops would also vanish.

The effects of a nuclear attack on natural vegetation and wildlife would also be devastating. Countless populations, and many entire plant species, certainly would become instantly extinct. Repopulation, by individuals from whatever areas remained relatively undamaged, would be extremely slow ...much too slow to help protect the earth from the erosion that would result from winter storms.

And when those rains came, the soil—essential to the reestablishment of both plants and animals—would begin to wash into the sea. Huge floods would be generated over the denuded watershed areas, and the silt they carried would exert tremendous stress on surviving shallow-ocean and estuarine communities of plants and animals ...communities already assaulted by runoff from all the ruptured tanks of various industrial liquids that had not been consumed in fires and by outpourings from offshore oil wells that had not automatically been capped. People who went to the seashore hoping to subsist on a diet of fish and mollusks would be sadly disappointed, since the natural ecosystems would no longer be able to provide an abundance of free food.

Similar damage could, of course, take place over much of the Northern Hemisphere, depending on the scale of the war. Furthermore, if the attacks were both large and widespread, colossal amounts of smoke and dust would be lofted into the atmosphere, and Earth's crucial ozone shield would be thinned. As a result, both local and global climatic changes would certainly be added to the stresses on surviving populations of human beings and other organisms. Even the possibility that polar ice caps would melt and inundate coastal areas in a few decades cannot be excluded.

But the key point is that, beyond the dangers of radiation and social breakdown, the problems of surviving after a war would be greatly magnified by the ecological changes brought on by the holocaust.

No Place to Run

Impacts of a large-scale war would spill over significantly into the Southern Hemisphere as well, even if no weapons were exploded there. It's possible that the climate in that area would change, threatening the already fragile agricultural base of poor nations. Local pressures to exploit resources would be vastly increased, and endangered populations and species would be put in much greater jeopardy than they are now.

It's difficult to imagine, for instance, how African game parks could exist, unplundered, for even six months after the tourist trade stopped ...and with them would go most of the large African mammals. All hope of saving the tropical rain forests would almost certainly vanish. The overall effects upon the Southern Hemisphere of a war confined to the northern superpowers would thus be less extreme than in the North, but severe, nonetheless. Indeed, the loss of biological diversity in that region could be catastrophic in the long term for surviving humanity.

Furthermore, if the war itself spread to the Southern Hemisphere, the future of our species would be grim indeed. It's virtually certain that not everyone would be killed outright (unless "doomsday weapons" were purposely used), but humanity could easily be reduced to small, scattered groups of survivors. Whether such men and women, possibly genetically impoverished and certainly facing a hostile environment, could persist is problematical ...but we suspect—since humans are such very tenacious and adaptable critters—that the race would endure.

The outlook for civilization, however, would be bleak. It's possible that technological society simply wouldn't survive: Too many of the repositories of human knowledge, technical skills, and critical capital goods would be destroyed.

Now it's extremely unlikely that technological society, once lost, could ever be reestablished. Homo sapiens started on the road to its present dominant position when the world was rich in concentrated resources. The forests and soils were still largely intact, deposits of high-grade copper and iron ores were readily available, and petroleum could be obtained from extremely shallow wells. Today, on the other hand, most metals must be extracted from low-grade ores, and oil wells must be drilled thousands of feet deep.

And, although the soils and the forest would gradually regenerate after a thermonuclear war, the minerals would not be reconcentrated, nor would new petroleum be produced on a time scale of interest to our species. History, therefore, might come full circle. We would, by necessity, return to being a species of hunters, gatherers, and simple farmers.

The Spaceship Sails On

Perhaps that wouldn't be such a horrible long-term fate after all. People hunted and gathered (often with considerable joy and leisure) for millions of years. And humankind's return to that way of life would be a welcome change from the point of view of our living companions aboard Spaceship Earth. We would then no longer be the great exterminators, and—perhaps—the planet's biological diversity could gradually be regenerated.


Paul Ehrlich (Bing Professor of Population Studies and Professor of Biological Sciences, Stanford University) and Anne Ehrlich (Senior Research Associate, Department of Biological Sciences, Stanford) are familiar names to ecologists and environmentalists everywhere. As well they should be. Because it was Paul and Anne who—through their writing and research—gave special meaning to the words "population," "resources," and "environment" in the late 1960's. (They also coined the term coevolution, and did a lot to make ecology the household word it is today.) But while most folks are aware of the Ehrlichs' popular writing in the areas of ecology and overpopulation (most of us—for instance—have read Paul's book The Population Bomb), far too few people have any idea of how deeply the Ehrlichs are involved in ecological research (research of the type that tends to be published only in technical journals and college textbooks). That's why it pleases us to be able to present these semi-technical columns by authors/ecologists/educators Anne and Paul Ehrlich.  

For references to the various studies of nuclear war, see Extinction: The Causes and Consequences of the Disappearance of Species by Paul and Anne Ehrlich (Random House, 1981, $15.95) on which this column is based.  


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