BOOOM! - We Survived The War... But What's all that Smoke?

Lucky you. You survived a nuclear war! Well, don't be too glad. What happens after it is so gruesome, you'll wish you had died on the spot.

Today, it all goes out of hand. The East-West conflict revived. China waged war on Japan. The Muslim nations joined forces against the USA. Or someone simply made a mistake -- whatever, it doesn't really matter. The only thing that does matter right now is that the inconceivable has happened. There's nuclear war. And now, the SBM's, ICBM's and SLBM's cross the sky, like oddly shaped, featherless birds of destruction.

All hell breaks loose. There's eye-popping flashes of light everywhere and ear-ripping bangs as the bombs go off. Cities evaporate. Infrastructures crumble. Everywhere, huge mushroom-shaped clouds tower up into the sky. All electricity goes out because of electro-magnetic effects. And of course, many die: according to even the mildest scenario's, hundreds of millions die instantaneously as the nukes go boom.

But you -- you survive all that. Better take shelter: for the next days, it will rain highly radioactive fall-out particles only. For almost three days and three nights in a row, it will rain radioactivity in a region several hundreds of kilometers around each impact site. And to be honest: it's best you stayed indoors for a whole year, patiently waiting until radioactivity levels finally begin to drop.

But wait, there's more trouble. As the mushroom clouds begin to fade, the REAL consequences of nuclear war become apparent. From the explosion sites, huge amounts of evaporated stuff, smoke and soot rise up into the sky. It's quite different from the usual smoke columns that come from fires. The intense heat from the nuclear impact sites pushes the debris straight into the highest parts of the atmosphere, the so-called stratosphere. There, it slowly starts to disperse, covering ever bigger portions of the world. But what's worse -- the soot blocks the Sun.

Within days, a weird and unprecedented climate shift sets in. Total darkness covers everything. Temperatures drop rapidly. And chances are the soot blanket that prevents the Sun from shining spreads across the globe, transforming even the Latin Americas, Asia and Africa into chilly shadow worlds. There you have it: the infamous, dreaded Nuclear Winter.

Within weeks, it's minus 23 to 30 degrees Celsius everywhere. Do you live near the shore? Consider yourself lucky: since oceans cool so slowly, temperatures near the sea will drop `only' some five to ten degrees. But there is a downside: because of the big temperature differences between the sea and the inland, unimaginable storms and hurricanes will harass the coastal areas.

The Big Winter: dust and soot throw a blanket over the Earth

Big Winter: After a nuclear war, dust and soot may blanket the Earth

Oh, and that's just the beginning of your Winter out of Hell. Slowly, particle-by-particle, the soot will begin to fall back to the Earth. The results are not what you call pleasant. When it rains, the rain consists of burning sulphuric acid. And when it doesn't rain, the wind blows huge amounts of tiny particles of radioactive dust into your face. There's not enough radioactivity there to kill you. But it won't do you much good either.

Meanwhile, you're not the only one having a hard time. Plants, living on sunlight and warmth, will die within weeks. Animals, relying on both plants and warmth, die too. Other animals perish because all water is frozen. After a couple of months, there won't be any birds anymore. And what's worse, the animals with the biggest chance to survive are not exactly what you call good company in the pitch-black darkness: insects, rats, flies and cockroaches. They have a great time, having all those dead bodies to feast on and no birds to hunt them down.

Oh, and talking of dead bodies: there will be outbreaks of all kinds of diseases. The radioactivity will speed up the mutation rate of viruses and bacteria tremendously. There will be outbreaks of all kinds of diseases, while it is more than likely all kinds of new diseases will pop up too. By the way, the radioactivity boosts the mutation rate of your own DNA as well -- which in effect means you'll develop all kinds of cancers and give birth to gruesomely malformed babies.

By now, you may start to wish those mean, black clouds that block the sun would bugger off. And eventually, they will. Depending on how many bombs exploded during the nuclear war, it will roughly take several months to a year before the sky starts clearing up again. But when it does, the end of all endurance is still not in sight.

One particularly nasty problem is that the soot from the impact sites has wiped out most of the ozone layer by chemical reactions. And without the ozone layer, we're exposed to the malignant ultraviolet radiation from the Sun. The UV-radiation kills the plants that may still be there, and causes more cancers and even sores and burns among humans. For years and years to come, you'll have to take shelter when the Sun shines.

And for the long term? The prospects are grim. With society disrupted, the food chain torn apart and humanity diminished, we'll be lucky if we're `only' thrown back into the Stone Age. A lot of species will become extinct. We may very well be one of them.

But wait a minute. Nuclear war, is that still possible? The answer is a plain and clear `yes'. Sure, the Russians and the West more or less like each other now. But the world is still armed to the bone with some 50,000 nuclear warheads. Although there's no finger on the trigger right now, the trigger is still within reach -- and the gun is fully loaded. And of course it doesn't really help more and more countries got nukes. India and Pakistan have at their disposal about a hundred nukes; thousands of nuclear weapons are spread over the many unstable countries that once made up the Soviet Union.

There's one reassurance, however. In principle, since its discovery in the 1980s, everybody knows what a Nuclear Winter is. You'd expect the world leaders to keep that in mind. The biggest nuclear weapons threat facing us right now is a small-scale nuclear war -- or a nuclear bomb attack by terrorists. But although that's awful enough, a small-scale nuclear war isn't enough to trigger a full-scale Nuclear Winter.

But then again, as history demonstrates, things can get out of hand really fast. One moment there's peace, and the next moment, there's war. So better go find those good old `Ban the bomb'-buttons of yours again!