Nuclear weapons and a natural disaster

As a change from the recent blogs about the ‘psi earth’ story idea, I thought it would be good to talk about another topic that’s been in the papers this week. In the U.K., our Parliament recently conducted a debate in whether or not to renew our Trident nuclear missile programme. Britain currently has a small fleet of submarines carry many nuclear warheads which will cost around £200 billion over the next twenty years to upgrade and maintain. The arguments for and against the continuing of this trident missile fleet are roughly:

Against: They cost a lot. We’re more likely to be attacked if we have nuclear weapons. It’s wrong to use nuclear weapons. One could go off accidentally with disastrous effects (start a war, kill people, fill a large area with radioactivity). They’re actually an outdated weapon system and modern developments in drone technology means that nuclear subs can be watched by underwater schools of drones all the time and sunk immediately in a war situation before they could launch anything.

For: They’re a deterrent. We feel safer. We continue to be a major power in the world. We’ve got a big stick.

The British government voted clearly in favour of keeping Trident going. Many people in Britain agree with keeping Trident as they do agree with all the items in the ‘For’ section listed above. It also seems to be the case, in the eyes of many people, that there won’t be a nuclear war because the nuclear powers of the world won’t fire off their weapons unless they’re invaded. Logically, since no one in their right mind would to invade a nuclear powered country, nuclear war will never happen. This view seems solid but it misses an important scenario, which is the subject of this article.

After the first successful atomic bomb test in the United States, the leading scientist in the project, Robert Oppenheimer, was interviewed. He said that after he saw the first successful atomic bomb test, he quoted from the Bhagavad-Gita:

"Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

When asked if this was the first ever detonation of a nuclear bomb, Oppenheimer allegedly said; ‘Yes, in modern times’. If Oppenheimer did make such a cryptic comment, his reasoning is understandable, for in the ancient Hindu text the Mahabharata, an epic tale of ancient India, the following event occurs:

“Gurkha, flying a swift and powerful vimana, hurled a single projectile charged with the power of the Universe. An incandescent column of smoke and flame, as bright as ten thousand suns,rose with all its splendour. It was an unknown weapon, an iron thunderbolt, a gigantic messenger of death, which reduced to ashes the entire race of the Vrishnis and the Andhakas. The corpses were so burned as to be unrecognizable. Hair and nails fell out; pottery broke without apparent cause, and the birds turned white. [..] After a few hours all foodstuffs were infected. [..] to escape from this fire the soldiers threw themselves in streams to wash themselves and their equipment.”

In my new, non-fiction book; ‘How science shows that almost everything important we’ve been told is wrong’, I explain that there is evidence that an advanced civilisation did exist during the last ice-age. There is also evidence that the advanced civilisations of that time were decimated by the bombardment of Earth by a large number of meteorites, an event now known as the Younger Dryas Impact Event. According to some ancient records, including Plato’s Critias and the Vedas, among others, that ancient asteroid bombardment triggered a period of warfare on Earth that was only finally ended when the last ice age came to a catastrophic end and sea levels rose by one hundred metres. If the cryptic passage in the Mahabharata, the one that Oppenheimer seemed to know about, was really about an atomic strike, then it may be that an antediluvian civilisation possessed atomic weaponry and that such devices were used after a natural disaster.

Although such theories are mostly speculative, they do trigger an important question:

What would happen on an Earth if a major natural disaster occurred in the near future, in particular in a nuclear-powered country containing several hundred million people?

The nature of such a disaster could take various forms. It could be a large volcanic eruption or a sea-mount collapse causing a massive tsunami or a large asteroid strike but it is the first two we need to focus on because of a key current problem; climate change. The likelihood of an asteroid impact is probably the same as it was thirteen-thousand years ago but the likelihood of a sea-mount collapse, such as the one that may occur soon off the Canary Islands, or a volcanic eruption of the scale of Krakatoa or larger, is not the same as it was even two hundred years ago. Climate change is creating a warmer planet, higher sea-levels and shrinking glaciers. These changes seem minor but are huge in scale and there is a lot of scientific evidence now that indicates that they significantly increase the likelihood of volcanic eruptions and sea-mount collapses. For more information on that topic, I'd recommend Bill McGuire's 'Waking the Giant'.

The chances of a major natural disaster in the next century are therefore significant and greater than they were in previous centuries. The next question is; what would be its effect?

The consequences of such an event are relatively straightforward. Such an event would very rapidly cause a serious shortage of food for months or years in the country in which it occurred. If a volcanic eruption blanketed, for example, the America corn and wheat belt or the Chinese rice belt in a metre of ash, then several hundred million people would soon have no food. If we keep in mind that our current population is extremely large and our people are fed by an agricultural system that is now using virtually all land on Earth suitable for growing crops, what happens next?

After the disaster occurs, the citizens of the blighted country would soon be living in a world of ash and desolation. Their current food supplies would rapidly run out and they would have no way of growing enough new food to feed themselves. Their government would therefore ask for food from other countries. Due to the size of the natural disaster, any generous supplies of food from their neighbours would be wholly inadequate, as food aid is designed to help a maximum of a million people, not two hundred million people. Facing massive starvation, the government of the blighted country would demand food from the other countries, food that is actually needed to feed the people of those other countries. The other countries, not surprisingly, would refuse.

The stage is then set for an invasion, both by refugees and military forces. The people of the blighted country would grow hungry and begin to migrate out of the disaster area. They would board ships and cross land borders. The neighbouring countries would become scared of these starving millions approaching their borders and open fire. The refugees would be killed or return fire. Small-scale warfare would break out. At the same time, organised raids for food by military forces of the blighted country would create more battles and warfare.

This is the point where nuclear weapons change everything. In a stable Earth, nuclear weapons are never used because the governments concerned understand the consequences and there’s no desperate need to use them but on an Earth suffering the scenario described above, the governments concerned are in a very different situation. In the case of the government of a country blighted by a natural disaster, they are desperate to grab another country’s resources and stop their starving citizens being mown down on that country’s border. They therefore press the nuclear button and obliterate the military forces of the county whose resources they need. The government of the neighbouring countries, by comparison, are facing an enemy that will take their food and shoot them in the process, so they also press the nuclear button, obliterating the invaders to save themselves.

The terrible tragedy of this situation is that it creates a chain reaction. The nuclear bombs only make the situation worse as they create more refugees, more governments scared of being overrun, more governments of blighted nuclear states watching their own fleeing, starving citizens being mown down. As a result, more nuclear buttons are pressed. Soon, nearly all the inhabited regions of the northern hemisphere are under metres of ash, a radioactive wasteland or filled with starving, fighting bands.

On an Earth without nuclear weapons, a future large-scale natural disaster would create suffering and problems for several years but that period of problems would eventually end. After that, the civilisations of Earth would recover. On an Earth with nuclear weapons, one large-scale natural disaster in a populated, nuclear-powered country would inevitably trigger a near-global nuclear war. In such a scenario, only a small fraction of the world’s population would survive and all the aspects of our nations that we hold dear would be gone.

Unfortunately, I could see no sign of any of this in the Parliamentary debate but it is there all the same. Here's hoping it never comes to pass.