Nuclear Warfare Might Begin The Nice El Niño And Lower The Seafood Depend – Watts Up With That?

Unprecedented warming in the equatorial Pacific could take up to seven years


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PICTURE: A “NUCLEAR NIÑO” in the equatorial Pacific Ocean is shown in simulated temperature changes (CELSIUS) just four months after a major nuclear war between the United States and Russia. Show more CREDIT: JOSHUA COUPE

Nuclear war could spark unprecedented El Niño-like warming in the equatorial Pacific, lowering algae populations by 40 percent and likely reducing fishing catches, according to a study conducted by Rutgers.

The study, published in the journal Communications Earth & Environment, shows that turning to the oceans for food is unlikely to be a successful strategy if land-based agriculture fails after nuclear war – at least in the equatorial Pacific.

“In our computer simulations, we see a 40 percent reduction in phytoplankton (algae) biomass in the equatorial Pacific, which would likely have downstream effects on larger marine organisms that humans eat,” said senior author Joshua Coupe, a post-graduate research fellow in the Department of Environmental Sciences at the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences at Rutgers University-New Brunswick. “Previous research has shown that the global cooling after a nuclear war can lead to crop failures on land. Our study shows that we probably cannot rely on seafood to feed people, at least in this part of the world.”

Scientists studied climate change in six nuclear war scenarios with a focus on the equatorial Pacific. The scenarios include one major conflict between the United States and Russia and five minor wars between India and Pakistan. Such wars could ignite enormous fires, injecting millions of tons of soot (black carbon) into the upper atmosphere, blocking sunlight and disrupting the Earth’s climate.

Using an Earth system model to simulate the six scenarios, the scientists showed that a large-scale nuclear war can trigger an unprecedented El Niño-like event that lasts up to seven years. The El Niño-South Oscillation is the largest naturally occurring phenomenon that affects the circulation of the Pacific Ocean, alternating between warm El Niño events and cold La Niña events, and having a major impact on the productivity and fisheries of the seas.

During a “nuclear nino”, scientists found that rainfall over the sea continent (the area between the Indian and Pacific Oceans and the surrounding seas) and equatorial Africa would be cut off, largely due to a cooler climate.

More importantly, a nuclear niño would stop deeper, colder waters along the Pacific equator from swelling and reduce the upward movement of the nutrients that phytoplankton – the basis of the marine food web – need to survive. In addition, the diminished sunlight after a nuclear war would drastically reduce photosynthesis and pollute and possibly kill many phytoplanktons.

“Going out to sea to eat after a nuclear war that dramatically reduces plant production on land seems like a good idea,” said co-author Alan Robock, a distinguished professor in the Rutgers-New Brunswick Department of Environmental Sciences. “But that would not be a reliable source of the protein we need, and we have to prevent nuclear conflict if we are to protect our food and the planet’s environment.”


Scientist at the University of California at Santa Barbara; University of Colorado, Boulder; Australian Antarctic Partnership Program; University of Texas, Rio Grande Valley; and the National Center for Atmospheric Research contributed to the study.

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