In partnership with Pulitzer Center
Could We Geoengineer Ourselves Out of Climate Change?
In 1983, scientists gave the world a new reason to fear nuclear war. It had long been assumed that the immediate, direct effects of a nuclear blast would cause a devastating loss of life, and that radioactive fallout would linger. But these scientists stressed that smoke from nuclear-ignited cities might affect something far more remote — the climate around the globe.
What they found was harrowing. Their models showed that smoke from burning cities and forests could loft high into the atmosphere, shrouding the world in a twilight at noon. Freezing temperatures would kill crops, causing mass starvation and social unrest, and possibly lead to the extinction of mankind.
Called Nuclear Winter, this theory became a heated scientific topic, a pawn in Cold War brinksmanship and a lesson in how scientific understanding changes over time. But decades after detente finally ended the Cold War, it is clear that Nuclear Winter continues to raise new questions — not only about the devastation that would follow nuclear war, but also more fundamental ones about man’s ability to alter the earth’s climate, for both good and ill.
View full episodes at PBS.org/RetroReport.
“Nuclear Winter: Global Consequences of Multiple Nuclear Explosions” by Carl Sagan, et al., 1983
“Long-term Biological Consequences of Nuclear War” by Paul R. Ehrlich, et al., 1983
“The Soviet Approach to Nuclear Winter” CIA Interagency Intelligence Assessment, 1984
“The Effects on the Atmosphere of a Major Nuclear Exchange” Committee on the Atmospheric Effects of Nuclear Explosions, National Research Council, 1985
“Global Atmospheric Effects of Nuclear War,” Energy and Technology Review, 1985
“Nuclear Winter Reappraised” by Starley L. Thompson and Stephen H. Schneider, 1986
“Atmospheric and Climatic Consequences of a Major Nuclear War: Results of Recent Research” by G. S. Golitsyn, and M. C. MacCracken, 1987
“Nuclear Winter: Science and Politics” by Brian Martin, 1988
“Nuclear Winter Theorists Pull Back” by Malcolm W. Browne, 1990
“Climate and Smoke: An Appraisal of Nuclear Winter” by Carl Sagan et al., 1990
“Nuclear Winter in the Post-Cold War Era” by Carl Sagan and Richard P. Turco, 1993
“Nuclear Winter Revisited with a Modern Climate Model and Current Nuclear Arsenals: Still Catastrophic Consequences” by Alan Robock, Luke Oman, and Georgiy L. Stenchikov, 2007
“Environmental Consequences of Nuclear War” by Owen B. Toon, Alan Robock, and Richard P. Turco, 2008
“Nuclear winter was and is debatable” by Russell Seitz, July 2011
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