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What is a nuclear winter?

Find out what nuclear winter is and who coined this phrase.

Nuclear fallout would reduce the amount of sunlight that reaches the Earth's surface. [©Jupiter Images, 2010]
©Jupiter Images, 2010
Nuclear fallout would reduce the amount of sunlight that reaches the Earth's surface.

The term nuclear winter was coined by American physicist Richard P. Turco in a 1983 article in the journal Science, in which he describes a hypothetical post-nuclear war scenario having severe worldwide climatic changes such as prolonged periods of darkness, below-freezing temperatures, violent windstorms and persistent radioactive fallout. This would be caused by billions of tons of dust, soot and ash being tossed into the atmosphere, accompanied by smoke and poisonous fumes from firestorms.

In the case of a severe nuclear war, within a few days, the entire northern hemisphere would be under a blanket so thick that as little as 1/10 of 1 percent of available sunlight would reach the Earth. Without sunlight, temperatures would drop well below freezing for a year or longer, causing dire consequences for all plant and animal life on Earth.

Reaction to this doomsday prediction lead critics to coin the term nuclear autumn, which downplayed such climatic effects and casualties. In January 1990, the release of the paper Climate and smoke: An appraisal of nuclear winter, based on five years of laboratory studies and field experiments, reinforced the original 1983 conclusions.

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