How to kill a planet
Few weeks ago, we got so close to starting a nuclear war when US President Donald Trump sent what he called a “powerful armada” that includes an aircraft carrier to the Korean Peninsula.
This was just days after he ordered the US Navy to rain down Tomahawk cruise missiles on Syria.
Of course, North Korean President Kim Jong-Un took the move as prelude for an American-led invasion on his country, which is still technically at war with next-door twin South Korea. He vowed to retaliate with all his small nation’s might, including nuclear weapons.
And right after making such threats, Kim Jong-Un invited the foreign press to attend the 105th birthday celebrations of his late father, North Korean leader Kim Il Sung, which was highlighted by a military parade that showcased an array of nuclear missiles, including the latest intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) that, although untested, may soon be able to reach the American cities like San Francisco or New York.
What is known so far is that North Korea has developed missiles that could only reach Guam, which is a US territory, and Japan, which hosts American military bases. Some of these missiles, which are believed to have nuclear warheads, are either mounted on mobile launchers or carried by submarines that could launch them underwater.
Unlike in previous rockets which were kept in silos deep in hardened bunkers, these mobile platforms make them hard to find or target for a possible preemptive strike.
This makes the Americans worried as it destroys any illusion of a “winnable” war scenario with North Korea, which depends largely on this ability to strike enemy missile before they are launched. In his 1982 book “The Fate of the Earth,” Jonathan Schell already dismisses such notions of a winnable war as obsolete. There can be no winners in such a war. All players will lose. In fact, the whole world will lose in any war that involves nuclear weapons.
We do not know exactly what will happen in a nuclear war, Schell said. What we only know so far is what the Japanese experienced in Hiroshima and Nagasaki when the Americans dropped atomic bombs on them at the close of World War II. But the uranium and plutonium bombs dropped from B-29 bombers in 1945 were still very crude or primitive compared to today’s nuclear weapons.
A single warhead, for example, can be several times more destructive than the atomic bomb dropped in Japan during the Second World War. And a single ICBM can carry up to 15 warheads each of which is many times more powerful than the 1945 atomic bomb.
In the first place, the atomic bombs dropped on Japan did not have fallout, which is ground material thrown up in the air as radioactive dust during a nuclear explosion. Radioactive fallout was seen only in later testings of more improved atomic bombs during the postwar period.
The absence of fallout enabled survivors to live through the aftermath of atomic bomb attacks in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and accounted for these cities to recover relatively fast.
But the rise and fall of radioactive debris is estimated to cause long-term catastrophe never before seen as we have not really experienced its effects other than the nuclear tests, which were conducted in controlled environments, like deserts, deep in the oceans or underground.
Still, scientists like Schell predict that even a single nuclear explosion could be catastrophic. After the blast obliterates entire cities, radioactive material spewed into the air will form into clouds covering the sun and result into a “nuclear winter” that could last for several weeks or months depending on the degree of explosion.
Those very few people who might be lucky to survive will crawl out of their shelters and see a very dark and gloomy world with everything leveled to the ground.
As the nuclear cloud dissipates, radioactive dust falls like rain on the ground, contaminating whatever is left of the natural habitat. Survivors will be deprived of food and water sources as the surface of the earth will be covered with deadly radiation.
This means that all living organisms will either die or suffer from long-term diseases including mutations that will continue for generations.
What follows the nuclear winter is the blistering heat coming from the sun whose deadly ultraviolet rays are no longer filtered by the ozone layer, which will have been completely destroyed by the blast.
Without the greenhouse effect, the destruction of life on earth will be hastened.
And all it takes to make that happen, according to Schell, is a single nuclear explosion. The world cannot, therefore, afford a nuclear war, not even a single blast.
Unfortunately, it seems that at the rate nations are racing to amass nuclear weapons, and as previous protocols regulating them no longer hold, the unthinkable is also becoming inevitable.
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