India and Pakistan are the two growing superpowers with the possession of around 150 nuclear warheads in each of their arsenals. So what would happen if the border skirmishes between these two rivals of South Asia were to be escalated to a nuclear proportion?
To get an accurate picture of the aftermath, a team of researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder and Rutgers University took a deep dive into the countries historical data, relations, population growth and distribution and a wide range of other empirical evidence.
With the number of nuclear warheads expected to climb to more than 250 in each country by 2025, the study estimates the immediate fatalities to be around 125 million – more deaths than all six years of World War II – followed by global mass starvation as the planet enters a new spell of cooling, possibly with temperatures much worse than the last Ice Age.
The findings published in the journal Science Advances came as tensions exacerbated between the two nations following revocation of special status granted to Jammu and Kashmir under Article 370 of India’s constitution.
Article 370 of the Indian constitution guaranteed special provisions to Jammu and Kashmir, a state of India, to have constitution of its own, a separate state flag and autonomy to make laws on all matters with the exception of defense, communications and foreign affairs.
On August 5, 2019, the Government of India stripped this special status through a Presidential Order. In the wake of the move, India mobilized thousands of paramilitary security troops into the long-contested region of Kashmir, announced curfew and a total communication blackout, shutting down the Internet, landline and cellphone services, and detaining several political leaders under under the Public Safety Act (PSA).
Pakistan expressed sharp disapproval of the move that aggravated the already-heightened tensions between the nations, threatening their diplomatic ties.
“An India-Pakistan war could double the normal death rate in the world,” said Brian Toon, a professor in the Laboratory of Atmospheric and Space Physics, who led the study in a news release. “This is a war that would have no precedent in human experience.”
“They’re rapidly building up their arsenals. They have huge populations, so lots of people are threatened by these arsenals, and then there’s the unresolved conflict over Kashmir.”
Toon, who grew up in the midst of the Cold War, specializes in potential aftermath of a nuclear war. Surprisingly, he was also part of the team that coined the term Nuclear Winter – a period of extreme cold and darkness predicted to follow a large-scale nuclear war. He finds that nuclear weapons are still very much a threat, especially the one that is fueled by unremitting hostilities between India and Pakistan.
To gauge the severity of the conflict between the two nations, Toon and his colleagues ran multiple simulations of Earth’s atmosphere and took account of the extent of damage caused by the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan in 1945.
The simulations also included the global effects of climate change, the development of new nuclear weapons, and a number of other factors to ensure the sensitivity of the simulation results.
Their assessment suggested that in just the first week of the conflict, India and Pakistan combined could deploy about 250 nuclear warheads against each other cities. With yields from tested 12- to 45-kt values to a few hundred kilotons, the team estimated each warhead could kill roughly 1 million people and cause an additional million nonfatal casualties. Most fatalities wouldn’t result from the blast them, but from the mass fires conflagrated from the blast.
“If you look at Hiroshima after the bomb fell, you can see a huge field of rubble about a mile wide,” Toon said. “It wasn’t the result of the bomb. It was the result of the fire.”
The calculations showed firestorms and conflagrations ignited from the explosions in urban areas could spew out as much as 80 billion pounds (36 billion kilograms) of smoke and black carbon (soot) into Earth’s atmosphere. As a result, sunlight reaching the Earth’s surface would drop by 20 to 35 percent, plummeting global surface temperature by 3.6 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit (2 to 5 degree Celsius).
Precipitation is also predicted to decrease by 15 to 30 percent, and it alone could severely threaten the world’s agricultural productivity and food security.
The effects could persist for as long as a decade.
“Our experiment, conducted with a state-of-the-art Earth system model, reveals large-scale reductions in the productivity of plants on land and of algae in the ocean, with dangerous consequences for organisms higher on the food chain, including humans,” explained study coauthor Nicole Lovenduski, an associate professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences and a fellow of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR).
The scenarios as indicated by the simulations were, in an aggregate, extremely grim. But, an actual picture could be far more gruesome than what the study implied. Also, while such an event seems quite improbable, given the current situations, one can never be too certain.
The study team also acknowledges that the extent of such a war would be elusive to people, but they hope their paper shows the world that “the end of the Cold War didn’t eliminate the risk of global nuclear war.”
“Hopefully, Pakistan and India will take note of this paper,” Toon added. “But mostly, I’m concerned that Americans aren’t informed about the consequences of nuclear war.”
- World War II casualties
- India–Pakistan border skirmishes (2019)
- India’s Nuclear Force Structure in 2025
- Pakistan’s Nuclear Force Structure in 2025
- Status of World Nuclear Forces