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Risk of nuclear winter underestimated by most people

A new study led by the University of Cambridge has found that there is a significant lack of awareness among both U.S. and UK populations regarding the possibility and effects of a “nuclear winter” – the potential for long-term environmental and public health consequences from any exchange of nuclear weapons.

According to the experts, detonations from nuclear exchanges would throw vast amounts of debris into the stratosphere, blocking out much of the sun for over a decade, and thus causing global drops in temperature, mass crop failure, and widespread famine. Combined with radiation fall-out, such consequences would lead to the death of millions of people in the wake of a nuclear war, including many far outside of any blast zone.

To assess their awareness of such a scenario, the researchers asked 3,000 participants in an online survey (half from the U.S. and half from the UK) to self-report on a sliding scale how much they felt they knew about a nuclear winter, and if they heard about such a possibility from contemporary media/culture, recent academic studies, or Cold War era beliefs and memories. 

The analysis revealed that only 3.2 and 7.5 percent of the participants (from UK and US, respectively) were familiar with such a phenomenon from media or culture, 1.6 percent (UK) and 5.2 percent (U.S.) from academic studies, and 5.4 percent (UK) and 9 percent (U.S.) from Cold War memories. In the event of a hypothetical Russian nuclear attack on Ukraine, fewer than one in five participants from both countries supported in-kind retaliation, with men more likely than women to back nuclear reprisal – 20.7 percent (U.S.) and 24.4 percent (UK) of men compared to 14.1 percent (US) and 16.1 percent (UK) of women.

“In 2023 we find ourselves facing a risk of nuclear conflict greater than we’ve seen since the early eighties. Yet there is little in the way of public knowledge or debate of the unimaginably dire long-term consequences of nuclear war for the planet and global populations,” said study lead author Paul Ingram, a senior research associate at University of Cambridge’s Center for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER).

“Ideas of nuclear winter are predominantly a lingering cultural memory, as if it is the stuff of history, rather than a horribly contemporary risk. Of course, it is distressing to consider large-scale catastrophes, but decisions need to account for all potential consequences, to minimize the risk. Any stability within nuclear deterrence is undermined if it is based on decisions that are ignorant of the worst consequences of using nuclear weapons.” 

“There is an urgent need for public education within all nuclear-armed states that is informed by the latest research. We need to collectively reduce the temptation that leaders of nuclear-armed states might have to threaten or even use such weapons in support of military operations,” he concluded.

The findings are published in a report on CSER’s website.


By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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