An India-Pakistan nuclear war could kill millions, threaten global starvation

An India-Pakistan nuclear war could kill millions, threaten global starvation
Global biological productivity is lowered significantly by nuclear war between India and Pakistan. Credit: Cheryl S. Harrison, Lili Xi and Nicole Lovenduski

A nuclear war between India and Pakistan could, over the span of less than a week, kill 50-125 million people—more than the death toll during all six years of World War II, according to new research.

A new study conducted by researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder and Rutgers University examines how such a hypothetical future conflict would have consequences that could ripple across the globe. Today, India and Pakistan each have about 150 nuclear warheads at their disposal, and that number is expected to climb to more than 200 by 2025.

The picture is grim. That level of warfare wouldn't just kill millions of people locally, said CU Boulder's Brian Toon, who led the research published today in the journal Science Advances. It might also plunge the entire planet into a severe cold spell, possibly with temperatures not seen since the last Ice Age.

His team's findings come as tensions are again simmering between India and Pakistan. In August, India made a change to its constitution that stripped rights from people living in the long-contested region of Kashmir. Soon after, the nation sent troops to Kashmir, moves that Pakistan criticized sharply.

"An India-Pakistan war could double the normal death rate in the world," said Toon, a professor in the Laboratory of Atmospheric and Space Physics. "This is a war that would have no precedent in human experience."

It's a subject that Toon, also of the Department of Atmospheric and Ocean Sciences, has had on his mind for decades.

Smoke spreads globally and to high altitude in a few weeks after a nuclear war between India and Pakistan Credit: Charles Bardeen, National Center for Atmospheric Research,

He came of age during the height of the Cold War when schoolchildren still practiced ducking-and-covering under their desks. As a young atmospheric scientist in the early 1980s, he was part of a group of researchers who first coined the term "nuclear winter"—a period of extreme cold that would likely follow a large-scale nuclear barrage between the U.S. and Russia.

Toon believes that such weapons are still very much a threat—one that's underscored by current hostilities between India and Pakistan.

"They're rapidly building up their arsenals," Toon said. "They have huge populations, so lots of people are threatened by these arsenals, and then there's the unresolved conflict over Kashmir."

In his latest study, Toon and his colleagues wanted to find out just how bad such a conflict could get. To do that, the team drew on a wide range of evidence, from computer simulations of Earth's atmosphere to accounts of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan in 1945.

Based on their analysis, the devastation would come in several stages. In the first week of the conflict, the group reports that India and Pakistan combined could successfully detonate about 250 nuclear warheads over each other's cities.

There's no way to know how powerful these weapons would be—neither nation has conducted nuclear tests in decades—but the researchers estimated that each one could kill as many as 700,000 people.

Temperatures drop rapidly as smoke from cities set on fire by a nuclear conflict between India and Pakistan blocks sunlight from reaching the surface. Credit: Charles Bardeen, National Center for Atmospheric Research

Most of those people wouldn't die from the blasts themselves, however, but from the out-of-control fires that would follow.

"If you look at Hiroshima after the bomb fell, you can see a huge field of rubble about a mile wide," Toon said. "It wasn't the result of the bomb. It was the result of the fire."

For the rest of the globe, the fires would just be the beginning.

The researchers calculated that an India-Pakistan war could inject as much as 80 billion pounds of thick, black smoke into Earth's atmosphere. That smoke would block sunlight from reaching the ground, driving temperatures around the world down by an average of between 3.5-9 degrees Fahrenheit for several years. Worldwide food shortages would likely come soon after.

"Our experiment, conducted with a state-of-the-art Earth system model, reveals large-scale reductions in the productivity of plants on land and of algae in the ocean, with dangerous consequences for organisms higher on the food chain, including humans," said study coauthor Nicole Lovenduski, an associate professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences and a fellow of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR).

Toon recognizes that the scope of such a war may be hard for people to wrap their heads around. But he hopes that the study will show people around the world that the end of the Cold War didn't eliminate the risk of global nuclear war.

"Hopefully, Pakistan and India will take note of this paper," he said. "But mostly, I'm concerned that Americans aren't informed about the consequences of ."


Explore further

Researchers to study environmental, human impacts of nuclear war

More information: O.B. Toon el al., "Rapidly Expanding Nuclear Arsenals in Pakistan and India Portend Regional and Global Catastrophe," Science Advances (2019). DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aay5478 , https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/5/10/eaay5478
Journal information: Science Advances

Citation: An India-Pakistan nuclear war could kill millions, threaten global starvation (2019, October 2) retrieved 15 October 2019 from https://phys.org/news/2019-10-india-pakistan-nuclear-war-millions-threaten.html
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Oct 02, 2019
It's past-due time for a comprehensive nuclear weapons ban. We're facing two of mankind's greatest spectres together: the same people who believe nuclear war is thinkable probably are the sort with enough hubris to believe nuclear winter is an acceptable solution to anthropogenic climate change induced global warming. We need a global authority to act as a stopping force against deep-state, capitalistic, and corporate psychosis in order to save ourselves, posterity, higher life on the planet, and certainly human liberal democratic civilization.

Oct 02, 2019
sounds good just the cure for GW

Oct 02, 2019
Might as well go out with a bang. The human race is doomed, anyway, nuclear holocaust or not.

Oct 02, 2019
This comment has been removed by a moderator.

Oct 02, 2019
This comment has been removed by a moderator.

Oct 02, 2019
This comment has been removed by a moderator.

Oct 02, 2019
An article by Captain Obvious.

Oct 02, 2019
In August, India made a change to its constitution that stripped rights from people living in the long-contested region of Kashmir.


Shame on Phys.org for misleading public! The fundamental human rights were given to the people living in Kashmir by scrapping Article 370 and 35A, NOT STRIPPED!

If your team does not have proper knowledge, please do not publish false news. or get it peer-reviewed first before publishing.

Oct 02, 2019
fight religion, or forever hold your peace.

Oct 03, 2019
Muslim against Hindu. Even Mahatma Gandhi was sick of it.

And in China, the Muslim Uighers are persecuted for their religion by the godless Communist government in Beijing.
And at least one protester in Hong Kong has been shot by the Communists.
If a nuclear war happens between India and Pakistan, every nation will be affected in some way, as the radiation drifts around the world.
Perhaps this is how the human extinction will begin, with a whimper. The annihilation of those who are clearly demonically-possessed might be the salvation of all others who are innocents.

Oct 03, 2019
@guptm, support this conjecture with data. There are many reports of human rights violations following this move by India. I'll be happy to post them. The search wasn't hard, and I got 2.6 million hits.

Oct 03, 2019
Perhaps this is just what theghostofotto1923 has been hoping for, to end OVERPOPULATION. Otto has complained over and over almost continuously that it is overpopulation that is the world's problem, even with all of the millions of abortions and after-birth live baby-killings, it's not enough.
Isn't that right, Otto?

Oct 03, 2019
No nuclear winter, it's nonsense. Almost all bursts will be air-bursts producing no major fall-out or displacement of earth. This is because ground bursts are not effective. Air bursts produce the most damage and death, both sides will know this.


Oct 03, 2019
No nuclear winter, it's nonsense. Almost all bursts will be air-bursts producing no major fall-out or displacement of earth. This is because ground bursts are not effective. Air bursts produce the most damage and death, both sides will know this.
says ThoriumBoy

Such a war has never happened before in human history, so it effectively is a great unknown. All the simulations, projections, and predictions mean nothing until the actual event happens.
The hot-heads in India and Pakistan have been at each others' throats, even while Gandhi was alive. Hindu against Muslim. They are moralising according to their own religion. They're not thinking straight, and in such a scenario, it's best to prepare for the worst.

Oct 03, 2019
Why do these two countries even have nuclear weapons? I mean why do they need such weapons. As a matter of fact, nations with such devastating weapons and a history of consecutive conflicts should not possess weapons of mass destruction. It's a failure of international community. The world's fate rests in the hand of a few monkeys with a gun trigger. Seriously, WTF is wrong with this world. The old generation was filled with fools and psychopaths, the scientist that developed these weapons should be ashamed of themselves.

Oct 03, 2019
Shame on Phys.org for misleading public! The fundamental human rights were given to the people living in Kashmir by scrapping Article 370 and 35A, NOT STRIPPED!

This is similar kind of argument that China could use in Hongkong. "No, we are not taking the independence of the area. We are just forcing human rights and doing good!"

Oct 03, 2019
Whatever's left the Chinese will take over.

Oct 03, 2019
They'll make all the Indians and Pakistanis who survive slaves and make them live in the radioactive remnants of their cities. Enjoy yourselves. Been watching what went down in Xinhua? Prepare for "re-education."

Oct 03, 2019
@guptm, support this conjecture with data. There are many reports of human rights violations following this move by India. I'll be happy to post them. The search wasn't hard, and I got 2.6 million hits.


DS, I want you to read the scrapped Article 370 and 35A, and then compare the rights of people of Kashmir before and after the abrogation of these articles, you will find plenty of evidence that those people were deprived of basic human rights since 1947.

Interesting thing is that agitation among people of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, i.e. Gilgit, has increased. They have urged Indian government to assimilate them in India, and are tired of Pak atrocities and killings.

Balochistan, Sindh, and Pakhtun provinces want independence from Pakistan because their people are tired of beatings, rapes, and killings by Pak army on everyday basis. Pakistan has STRIPPED people of these provinces of their basic human rights. Pak is putting all their money in growing/protecting terrorists.

Oct 03, 2019
Shame on Phys.org for misleading public! The fundamental human rights were given to the people living in Kashmir by scrapping Article 370 and 35A, NOT STRIPPED!

This is similar kind of argument that China could use in Hongkong. "No, we are not taking the independence of the area. We are just forcing human rights and doing good!"


Cortezz, the nature and political origin of Hongkong and Kashmir issues are completely different, therefore, any comparison of similarities will be very naive.

Oct 03, 2019
I don't care about the politics of either Pakistan or India, particularly not in opposition to each other.

But I do care about stuff like this: https://www.vice....gilantes

Now, if you were Pakistani I'd have some other articles you wouldn't like much. But you smell like one of those Hindu rightwingnuts that keep voting for Modi. When you have the nuclear war with Pakistan and then China comes and eats you both, remember you heard this if you live.

The war will be over water, not over Kashmir (unless both countries are a lot dumber than I think). And it won't be for about 10 years yet.

Oct 03, 2019
You can downvote it all you like. That's what I think and I think you're playing right into the hands of the Chinese. Their army keeps getting bigger. You might have noticed that if you were paying attention.

Your army isn't.

Game over.

Oct 03, 2019
You can downvote it all you like. That's what I think and I think you're playing right into the hands of the Chinese. Their army keeps getting bigger. You might have noticed that if you were paying attention.

Your army isn't.

Game over.

I would like to see a working modern example of occupying a territory and holding it. It could be that we never see this again.

Oct 03, 2019
Crimea. Next?

Oct 03, 2019
Crimea. Next?

A working example. Everything going downwards there and Russia is under heavy sanctions.

Ofc, if that's your example of a modern working country, sure why not...

Oct 03, 2019
It would certainly make the left Wing environmental ''Green New Deal'' happy now wouldn't it? Let's see:
Earth is overpopulated that's why all these wingnuts are rabid abortion supporters
150 to 200 Million people killed by Nuclear Winter. Global warming arrested.
Massive crop failures; more starving people. Lower population...........
Now ALL THEY have to do is figure out how THEY can survive while the rest of us die.

Oct 03, 2019
IMHO, as many 'Chinese' rivers rise in that region, they'll want to minimise mayhem lest fall-out washes & blows into their watersheds...

Oct 03, 2019
Might as well go out with a bang. The human race is doomed, anyway, nuclear holocaust or not.


Things are better than ever before in human history, you ignoramus loser.

Oct 03, 2019
There will not be a nuclear war between India and Pakistan, unless the West intentionally provokes one, with ignorant tripe, such as this article, whose only purpose is to alarm the ignorant and so stoke the decades old embers.

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