Global crop modelers and IIASA scientists joined forces to explore the potential impacts of nuclear winter resulting from hypothetical nuclear detonations on food systems and food security.

Nuclear winter is a severe global weather disturbance following a hypothetical nuclear conflict, expected to last for approximately 10-15 years. It is caused by black carbon from urban fires — ignited by warhead detonations — rising into the atmosphere, shading, cooling, and drying it. Although the possibility of nuclear war is an improbable worst case scenario, researchers seek to explore the potential consequences it could have and spread awareness about its devastating cascading effects.

Past climate-crop modeling studies show that these climatic changes could put large portions of the human population at risk of starvation due to crop losses. This past research, however, does not fully account for the wide range of uncertainties in crop model responses under different intensities of climate disruption, nor does it consider compounding disruptions of agricultural inputs, such as fertilizer, seed, labor, or the potential and limitations of short-term adaptation strategies (e.g., changing growing seasons or crop types).

The Advanced Ensemble Projections for Indirect Impacts of Nuclear Conflict in Global Food Systems (ANFOS) project is part of a new initiative, reflecting a collaborative effort among global crop modelers to develop new projections of the potential impacts nuclear winter could have on global food production. This collaborative effort aims to provide a comprehensive picture of how nuclear winter, combined with supply chain disruptions, could affect global food security.

Led by Christian Folberth, a Senior Researcher in the IIASA Agriculture, Forestry and Ecosystem Services Research Group, the project seeks to fill the gaps in past research on this topic, working in close collaboration with the Global Gridded Crop Model Intercomparison (GGCMI) initiative and climate modeling groups.

“This community effort will simulate the climatic effects of nuclear conflict on global crop production under different nuclear winter intensity scenarios considering compounding impacts on food security and potentials for mitigation to provide critical insights into the consequences such a catastrophic event could have,” explains Folberth.

This analysis will provide by far the most comprehensive assessment of potential impacts nuclear winter could have on crop production and the available option space for adaptation under the working hypotheses that adaptation potential is limited, and supply chain disruptions may substantially exacerbate impacts already at lower intensities.

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