Nuclear Winter and Survival Rates

Woman walks across a snowy field
This is what wheat fields might look like year-round during nuclear winter.

I read an article yesterday which suggested that if more people understood the effects of nuclear winter, they would pressure their governments not to use nuclear weapons. I doubt very much Putin and many other heads of state would listen to their citizens. There was a statistic near the end of the article, however, that got my attention:

“At the top end of the scale, all-out nuclear war, we’re looking at 400 million direct deaths and more than 5 billion people dying of starvation because of the consequences of nuclear war.”

The global population is 8 billion people, so this statistic implies that 2.6 billion would survive an all-out nuclear war.

That’s a large number of survivors, almost a third of the global population. That’s much higher than the 90 percent of people in the U.S. expected to die in the first year after an EMP attack. So where are these 2.6 billion people? Where is the safest location to ride out nuclear war?

Apparently, Australia and New Zealand are where they expect the best wheat harvests during a nuclear winter, so scientists give Australians the best likelihood of survival. Australia has a population of only 26 million, just 1 percent of the people expected to survive. So where do the other 99 percent live? They can’t all be preppers.

Much of the southern hemisphere is likely to be spared direct hits as those countries with most of the nukes are North America, Europe and Asia. I expect that the majority of the fallout with the highest levels of radiation will fall in the northern hemisphere, so the southern hemisphere won’t see as many radiation-related deaths. However, the wind currents in the stratosphere will eventually distribute fallout and the sun-blocking particulate over the entire planet, bringing nuclear winter and lower temperatures to all for five to ten years.

Who are the Survivors?

I’ll be the first to admit I don’t have a bunker or a 10-year supply of food. I doubt many preppers do, including the super-rich tech folks with their secret bunkers. (Have you ever wondered how they plan to get to their bunkers if the missiles are flying, air defense systems are on high alert, bombers are in the air, and the satellites are being shot down?) I also don’t own a sled, snowshoes, or cross-country skis, all of which would be useful during an extended period of nuclear winter.

It would not surprise me if the bulk of the expected 2.6 billion survivors are in third-world countries with far less electrification, automation, and modern day conveniences than we have in more developed nations. If you live a subsistence lifestyle as a goat herder in a hut, a small farmer tending five or ten acres, or a hunter-trapper in the Yukon, then living in a post-nuclear world might not be that big a change. If you already use animals for transportation and plowing, you won’t miss gasoline or diesel fuel as much as the average soccer mom. Sure, there will be some cold years and growing seasons will change for a while, but if these folks are in tune with the earth, they will figure out when to plant and when to harvest.

There’s also the possibility that people living near the equator won’t feel the effects of nuclear winter as much as the rest of us. When we hear about “the year without summer” caused by prior volcanic eruptions, it’s always about Europeans, not the Mayans or the Egyptians.

Starvation or Radiation Poisoning

The article addresses starvation as the chief side effect of nuclear war:

“The facts themselves are fairly clear. Besides the many millions who would be killed directly from the blasts, climate models predict the debris resulting from nuclear war would block out much of our sunlight for up to a decade. The consequences for survivors would be devastating: a decline in global temperature, followed by widespread crop failure, and then mass starvation.”

To me, starvation is a medium-term problem. While I don’t dismiss mass starvation, I think there are many threats following a global nuclear exchange that will kill you before you have time to starve. Some of these, coincidentally, I covered yesterday. They include problems associated with a collapse of the electrical grid and violence from other survivors. With a nuclear emergency, there is also the rather immediate problem of fallout, which will vary based on where the blasts are, where you are located, which way the prevailing winds are blowing, and how much fallout they drop on your head. I expect radiation poisoning will kill a good many people before they starve.

Even if you were to survive the first few months after a nuclear war in a bunker, you will have to avoid lingering hot spots after you emerge. The danger of hot spots will exist for years because of long-lived radioactive isotopes like strontium 90 or cesium 137, which have a half-life of 28 and 30 years. You will only be able to determine when you are entering a hotspot if you have a Geiger counter or other advanced equipment.

Nuclear Winter’s Impact

Let’s look at my location in the Appalachians as an example. If the average temperature were to drop 16°F, which is what they predict, the highest highs in the summer will be around 70°, with temperatures dropping into the low 40s at night. Most days, the highs won’t even reach 60°, and we could see frosts many nights. That’s going to play hell on all our plants. Any buds or flowers that form on trees, bushes, or flowers will get killed by freezing temperatures. Even if the plant survives, there will be no fruit or nuts to eat and no nectar for the bees. The garden won’t grow unless we plant indoors.

My first thought when considering this scenario is, I’m going to need more firewood to combat the cold temperatures.

My second is to wonder if the chickens can survive fallout and, if so, can we eat the eggs? Our best bet might be to collect eggs the day the bombs go off and put them in my incubator in my hastily assembled basement-corner fallout shelter. When the chicks are born 21 days later, I could keep them inside for a couple months. Figure they go out into the coop in 80 or 90 days after the attack. Alternatively, I might be able to just keep them in the garage until the food runs out, at which point I would have to let them free range.

Heading South

My third thought is to stay here as long as possible, consuming most of our food and outlasting the coldest parts of nuclear winter, and then take our seed canisters and bug out for lower elevation and points south where there may be warmer summers and greater possibilities for agriculture. By bugging out two or three years after the event, my hope would be that it would be a safer trip than one made just days or weeks after the bombs hit and chaos erupts. Of course, that plan not only assumes we survive, it may well be a fantasy. I’ve seen the movie The Road. I don’t look forward to a similar trip.

Rather than get depressed about the possibilities of nuclear winter and a decade of cold temperatures, I remind myself that not a single climate model has ever proven to be accurate. Ever wonder why no one talks about ozone depletion anymore? Or why we didn’t all burn to a crisp by Al Gore’s deadline? Bad climate models. The predictions about nuclear winter are just that: predictions. They could be wrong.

I am also reminded that there have been similar periods of no summer, both in recorded history and in prehistoric times. Whether these were caused by volcanoes spewing ash into the atmosphere or the impact of a space rock like the one that killed the dinosaurs, life persevered. The experts predict 2.6 billion people will survive. Maybe that will include me and mine; maybe not. But even if just a few hundred million people survive, I’m going to do my best to tilt the odds in my favor.