Podcast: Avoiding a Nuclear Winter

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If you are looking for a heavy story, just listen into this week’s StarTalk podcast, “Nuclear Winter with Ann Druyan and Brian Toon.” You can hear all about the Future of Life award given to Carl Sagan and others for “reducing the risk of nuclear war by developing and popularizing the science of nuclear winter.” Yes, a great award for a bleak topic.

Ann Druyan (co-writer of the original Cosmos TV series, producer of the remade Cosmos, and Carl Sagan’s wife) and Brian Toon (Atmospheric Science Professor and one of the awardees) discuss the science that went into the nuclear winter idea back in the 1970s, as well as later briefings of the Vatican and Soviet government. Sadly, it appears the Russian’s were more open to the science than the Americans. Dr. Sagan and others battled with many leaders in the U.S. Government. Some things don’t change (or don’t change fast enough), so this battle within the U.S. Government continues. Of course, Putin is no Gorbachev, so who knows that he is thinking.

In fact, a 2017 paper by the Federation of American Scientists noted how Russia felt about the chance of nuclear war before today’s current events in Ukraine:

In other words, the United States has built and is building launch sites for nuclear missiles on the Russian border. This fact has been widely reported on Russian TV and has infuriated the Russian public. In June, Russian President Putin specifically warned that Russia would be forced to retaliate against this threat.

While Russian officials maintain that its actions are normal and routine, Russia now appears to be preparing for war. On October 5, 2016, Russia conducted a nation-wide civil defense drill that included 40 million of its people being directed to fallout shelters. Reuters reported two days later that Russia had moved its Iskander nuclear-capable missiles to Kaliningrad, which borders Poland.

Of course, our ability to survive as a civilization is a big part of the Drake Equation, which tells us the number of planets in the galaxy hosting intelligent life. So far, we are the only planet with intelligent life that we know about, and we cannot even agree whether launching a nuclear war will end our civilization. It is not a hopeful start to the quest for intelligent life.

Extra: Check out Mr. Toon’s TED Talk, I’ve Studied Nuclear War for 35 years – You Should Be Worried, for more on his concerns about nuclear proliferation. And if you are not scared enough, check out this article, “Even a Limited India-Pakistan Nuclear War Would Bring Global Famine, Says Study,” from the Columbia Climate School.