Can Humans Survive Nuclear Holocaust?

  • Science
Nuclear Holocaust

This is a very true-to-life simulation which was developed by Princeton University’s Program on Science & Global Security (SGS) of the events that would occur in a nuclear war between the US and Russia that starts in Europe.

April 27th, 2024
Tensions between the US and Russia rose after the two forces abandoned long-standing nuclear treaties and began developing new nuclear weapons. The matter rapidly escalated as Russia, in an effort to discourage US and NATO forces, launched a warning nuclear missile. Retaliation followed and NATO forces conducted a tactical nuclear strike. Russia responded by aiming at 300 NATO’s war bases in Europe and NATO soon fired 180 more nuclear missiles at Russia. With Europe destroyed, NATO and the US attacked from naval bases and US soil, as Russia retaliated by striking the US. In the final blow, both sides hit and destroyed the most densely populated cities. Brought to you live from a thick overcrowded underground bunker. It’s all over in less than 5 hours and around 90 million people are dead.

Such a war, as can be seen from this simulation, would undoubtedly result in a nuclear holocaust.

What is Nuclear Holocaust?

Nuclear holocaust is a theoretical term used to represent the scenario in which, as a result of multiple nuclear bombings worldwide, large areas of Earth become uninhabitable and casualties caused by the blasts and the nuclear fallout are immense or even complete.

The possible effects of nuclear holocaust have been hotly debated over the last few decades and predictions of its aftermath have ranged from locally contained consequences on the affected area to total extinction. Survivalists have certainly opted for the more somber version of events, but what would it actually look like? Would only the cockroaches survive?

History can provide some insight. Although full-on nuclear war has never happened, The World War II Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings and several nuclear accidents, such as the Chernobyl Accident in 1986, can begin to paint the picture and give us a glimpse into the possible post-apocalyptic world.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki Atomic Bombing
Two aerial photos of atomic bomb mushroom clouds, over two Japanese cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
Source: Wikipedia

Bearing in mind that the nuclear bombs used in Japan were rather small compared to today’s standards, the immediate and injuries-related death toll in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was somewhere between 129,000 and 226,000 people. Multiply that with the possible number of bombs which could be dropped in a nuclear war and the numbers will make your head spin. But, nuclear holocaust isn’t frightening merely due to direct bombing victims. The long-term implications are far more severe and far less easy to predict.

Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant
Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.
Source: USA Today

Surviving the blast doesn’t necessarily mean surviving, because in a nuclear war, the actual blast isn’t the only thing that can kill. As it happens, in the Chernobyl Accident in 1986, nobody actually died from the explosion, but 50 people lost their lives due to direct radiation exposure and nuclear fallout.

Nuclear fallout is the radioactive dust that continues to fall from the sky even after the blast has passed. Other than being potentially fatal depending on the exposure, nuclear fallout will contaminate plants and animals, as well as water sources within the fallout zone.

The environmental effects of a nuclear holocaust are the actually terrifying part. You see, within the blast zone everything would be vaporized. In a several miles radius water, soil, plants and animals would all be highly contaminated which would render them unusable for food or water production or consumption. What that basically means is that, even if you are lucky enough to survive the bombs, not be affected by the radiation and manage to steer clear of the radioactive dust, hunger and thirst might just be your downfall.

And then, winter will come. It is speculated that as a result of severe firestorms caused by the nuclear explosions and large amounts of dust and soot expelled into the Earth’s atmosphere, a thick layer would form in the troposphere blocking sunlight and causing a fall in global temperatures.

Nuclear Winter Concept Art
Nuclear winter concept art by SamTheConceptArtist on DeviantArt

All of this would result in a long and cold nuclear winter which would further decrease the chances of getting by some food in the following several years. Earth would become a cold, contaminated, hostile environment. As a result, more people would die and some animal and plant species unable to adapt to the new circumstances would cease to exist. But, not all.

What species would survive a Nuclear Holocaust?

Certain animal species, such as the renowned cockroaches, scorpions, wasps, some types of fish, are known to be less susceptible to the harmful effects of radiation. In the Chernobyl accident all but the most exposed and vulnerable plant life survived, and wolves, boars and bears relatively quickly returned to the surrounding forests.

And what about humans? Well, although it is a lesser known fact, humans are actually among the animals which are not so susceptible to smaller amounts of radiation. So, if protected, careful and resourceful enough, some of us might be able to survive.

Underground shelters would have to substitute city blocks or even cities, at least in the first few months or years, and food, water and space would be sparse. Initial panic would quickly be replaced with boredom and the likely unhygienic conditions could lead to diseases spreading. Granted, the people who go through this ordeal are likely to be left with some mental consequences from spending years in confined overcrowded metal bunkers with scarce food and water supplies, but the general consensus among scientists is that there will be those who will survive and go on to rebuild the devastated cities. When the clouds clear, the winter ends and the radiation evaporates, Earth would become inhabitable again.

A sweet little story of the triumph of life against all odds, but all of the above are nothing more than scientific models and speculations based on Physics, Maths, Climatology and previous nuclear events. Although the sayings are that life always finds a way and can thrive even in the harshest of conditions, for the time being, let’s not put any of the nuclear holocaust theories to the test, shall we?

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