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A nuclear holocaust, nuclear apocalypse or atomic holocaust is a theoretical scenario where the mass detonation of nuclear weapons causes globally widespread destruction and radioactive fallout. Under such a scenario, large parts of the Earth are made uninhabitable by nuclear warfare, potentially causing the collapse of civilization.

Besides the immediate destruction of cities by nuclear blasts, the potential aftermath of a nuclear war could involve firestorms, a nuclear winter, widespread radiation sickness from fallout, and/or the temporary loss of much modern technology due to electromagnetic pulses. Some scientists, such as Alan Robock, have speculated that a thermonuclear war could result in the end of modern civilization on Earth, in part due to a long-lasting nuclear winter. In one model, the average temperature of Earth following a full thermonuclear war falls for several years by 7 - 8 °C (13 to 15 degrees Fahrenheit) on average.[1]

Nonetheless, early Cold War-era studies suggested that billions of humans would survive the immediate effects of nuclear blasts and radiation following a global thermonuclear war.[2][3][4][5] Some scholars[who?] argue that nuclear war could indirectly contribute to human extinction via secondary effects, including environmental consequences, societal breakdown, and economic collapse. Additionally, it has been argued that even a relatively small-scale nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan involving 100 Hiroshima yield (15 kilotons) weapons, could cause a nuclear winter and kill more than a billion people.[6]

Since 1947, the Doomsday Clock of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has visualized how close the world is to a nuclear war.

The threat of a nuclear holocaust plays an important role in the popular perception of nuclear weapons. It features in the security concept of mutually assured destruction (MAD)[citation needed] and is a common scenario in survivalism. Nuclear holocaust is a common feature in literature and film, especially in speculative genres such as science fiction, dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction.

Etymology and usage

The English word "holocaust", derived from the Greek term "holokaustos" meaning "completely burnt", refers to great destruction and

Besides the immediate destruction of cities by nuclear blasts, the potential aftermath of a nuclear war could involve firestorms, a nuclear winter, widespread radiation sickness from fallout, and/or the temporary loss of much modern technology due to electromagnetic pulses. Some scientists, such as Alan Robock, have speculated that a thermonuclear war could result in the end of modern civilization on Earth, in part due to a long-lasting nuclear winter. In one model, the average temperature of Earth following a full thermonuclear war falls for several years by 7 - 8 °C (13 to 15 degrees Fahrenheit) on average.[1]

Nonetheless, early Cold War-era studies suggested that billions of humans would survive the immediate effects of nuclear blasts and radiation following a global thermonuclear war.[2][3][4][5] Some scholars[who?] argue that nuclear war could indirectly contribute to human extinction via secondary effects, including environmental consequences, societal breakdown, and economic collapse. Additionally, it has been argued that even a relatively small-scale nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan involving 100 Hiroshima yield (15 kilotons) weapons, could cause a nuclear winter and kill more than a billion people.[6]

Since 1947, the Doomsday Clock of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has visualized how close the world is to a nuclear war.

The threat of a nuclear holocaust plays an important role in the popular perception of nuclear weapons. It features in the security concept of mutually assured destruction (MAD)[citation needed] and is a common scenario in survivalism. Nuclear holocaust is a common feature in literature and film, especially in speculative genres such as science fiction, dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction.

The English word "holocaust", derived from the Greek term "holokaustos" meaning "completely burnt", refers to great destruction and loss of life, especially by fire.[7][8]

One early use of the word "holocaust" to describe an imagined nuclear destruction appears in Reginald Glossop's 1926 novel The Orphan of Space: "Moscow ... beneath them ... a crash like a crack of Doom! The echoes of this Holocaust rumbled and rolled ... a distinct smell of sulphur ... atomic destruction."[9] In the novel, an atomic weapon is planted in the office of the Soviet dictator, who, with German help and Chinese mercenaries, is preparing the takeover of Western Europe.

References to nuclear destruction often speak of "atomic holocaust" or "nuclear holocaust.” For instance, U.S. President Bush stated in August 2007: "Iran's active pursuit of technology that could lead to nuclear weapons threatens to put a region already known for instability and violence under the shadow of a nuclear holocaust".[10]

Likelihood of nuclear war

As of 2020, humanity has about 13,410 nuclear weapons, thousands of which are on hair-trigger alert.[11][12] While stockpiles have been on the decline following the end of the Cold War, every nuclear country is currently undergoing modernization of its nuclear arsenal.[13][14][15] The Bulletin advanced their symbolic Doomsday Clock in 2015, citing among other factors "a nuclear arms race resulting from modernization of huge arsenals".[16]

John F. Kennedy estimated the probability of the Cuban Missile Crisis escalating to nuclear conflict as between 33% and 50%.[17]

One early use of the word "holocaust" to describe an imagined nuclear destruction appears in Reginald Glossop's 1926 novel The Orphan of Space: "Moscow ... beneath them ... a crash like a crack of Doom! The echoes of this Holocaust rumbled and rolled ... a distinct smell of sulphur ... atomic destruction."[9] In the novel, an atomic weapon is planted in the office of the Soviet dictator, who, with German help and Chinese mercenaries, is preparing the takeover of Western Europe.

References to nuclear destruction often speak of "atomic holocaust" or "nuclear holocaust.” For instance, U.S. President Bush stated in August 2007: "Iran's active pursuit of technology that could lead to nuclear weapons threatens to put a region already known for instability and violence under the shadow of a nuclear holocaust".[10]

As of 2020, humanity has about 13,410 nuclear weapons, thousands of which are on hair-trigger alert.[11][12] While stockpiles have been on the decline following the end of the Cold War, every nuclear country is currently undergoing modernization of its nuclear arsenal.[13][14][15] The Bulletin advanced their symbolic Doomsday Clock in 2015, citing among other factors "a nuclear arms race resulting from modernization of huge arsenals".[16]

John F. Kennedy estimated the probability of the Cuban Missile Crisis escalating to nuclear conflict as between 33% and 50%.[17][18]

In a poll of experts at the Global Catastrophic Risk Conference in Oxford (17‐20 July 2008), the

John F. Kennedy estimated the probability of the Cuban Missile Crisis escalating to nuclear conflict as between 33% and 50%.[17][18]

In a poll of experts at the Global Catastrophic Risk Conference in Oxford (17‐20 July 2008), the Future of Humanity Institute estimated the probability of complete human extinction by nuclear weapons at 1% within the century, the probability of 1 billion dead at 10% and the probability of 1 million dead at 30%.[19] These results reflect the median opinions of a group of experts, rather than a probabilistic model; the actual values may be much lower or higher.

Scientists have argued that even a small-scale nuclear war between two countries could have devastating global consequences and such local conflicts are more likely than full-scale nuclear war.[6][20][21][22]

In his book Reasons and Persons, philosopher Derek Parfit posed the following question:[23]

Compare three outcomes:

  1. Peace.
  2. A nuclear war that kills 99% of the world’s existing population.
  3. A nuclear war that kills 100%.

(2) would be worse than (1), and (3) would be worse than (2). Which is the greater of these two differences?

He continues that "Most people believe that the greater difference is between (1) and (2). I believe that the difference between (2) and (3) is very much greater." Thus, he argues, even if it would be bad if massive numbers of humans died, human extinction would itself be much worse because it prevents the existence of al

Compare three outcomes:

  1. Peace

    (2) would be worse than (1), and (3) would be worse than (2). Which is the greater of these two differences?

He continues that "Most people believe that the greater difference is between (1) and (2). I believe that the difference be

He continues that "Most people believe that the greater difference is between (1) and (2). I believe that the difference between (2) and (3) is very much greater." Thus, he argues, even if it would be bad if massive numbers of humans died, human extinction would itself be much worse because it prevents the existence of all future generations. And given the magnitude of the calamity were the human race to become extinct, Nick Bostrom argues that there is an overwhelming moral imperative to reduce even small risks of human extinction.[24]

Many scholars have posited that a global thermonuclear war with Cold War-era stockpiles, or even with the current smaller stockpiles, may lead to human extinction. This position was bolstered when nuclear winter was first conceptualized and modelled in 1983. However, models from the past decade consider total extinction very unlikely, and suggest parts of the world would remain habitable.[25] Technically the risk may not be zero, as the climatic effects of nuclear war are uncertain and could theoretically be larger than current models suggest, just as they could theoretically be smaller than current models suggest. There could also be indirect risks, such as a societal collapse following nuclear war that can make humanity much more vulnerable to other existential threats.[26]

A related area of inquiry is: if a future nuclear arms race someday leads to larger stockpiles or more dangerous nuclear weapons than existed at the height of the Cold War, at what point could war with such weapons result in human extinction?[26] Physicist Leo Szilard warned in the 1950s that a deliberate "doomsday device" could be constructed by surrounding powerful hydrogen bombs with a massive amount of cobalt. Cobalt has a half-life of five years, and its global fallout might, some physicists have posited, be able to clear out all human life via lethal radiation intensity. The main motivation for building a cobalt bomb in this scenario is its reduced expense compared with the arsenals possessed by superpowers; such a doomsday device does not need to be launched before detonation and thus does not require expensive missile delivery systems, and the hydrogen bombs do not need to be miniaturized for delivery via missile. The system for triggering it might have to be completely automated, in order for the deterrent to be effective. A modern twist might be to also lace the bombs with aerosols designed to exacerbate nuclear winter. A major caveat is that nuclear fallout transfer between the northern and southern hemispheres is expected to be small; unless a bomb detonates in each hemisphere, the effect of a bomb detonated in one hemisphere on the other is diminished.[27]

Effects of nuclear war