Worldwide Effects of Nuclear War

The Mechanics of Nuclear Explosions

In nuclear explosions, about 90 percent of the energy is released in less than one millionth of a second. Most of this is in the form of the heat and shock waves which produce the damage. It is this immediate and direct explosive power which could devastate the urban centers in a major nuclear war. Compared with the immediate colossal destruction suffered in target areas, the more subtle, longer term effects of the remaining 10 percent of the energy released by nuclear weapons might seem a matter of secondary concern. But the dimensions of the initial catastrophe should not overshadow the after-effects of a nuclear war. They would be global, affecting nations remote from the fighting for many years after the holocaust, because of the way nuclear explosions behave in the atmosphere and the radioactive products released by nuclear bursts.

When a weapon is detonated at the surface of the earth or at low altitudes, the heat pulse vaporizes the bomb material, target, nearby structures, and underlying soil and rock, all of which become entrained in an expanding, fast-rising fireball. As the fireball rises, it expands and cools, producing the distinctive mushroom cloud, signature of nuclear explosions. The altitude reached by the cloud depends on the force of the explosion. When yields are in the low-kiloton range, the cloud will remain in the lower atmosphere and its effects will be entirely local. But as yields exceed 30 kilotons, part of the cloud will punch into the stratosphere, which begins about 7 miles up. With yields of 2-5 megatons or more, virtually all of the cloud of radioactive debris and fine dust will climb into the stratosphere. The heavier materials reaching the lower edge of the stratosphere will soon settle out, as did the Castle/Bravo fallout at Rongelap. But the lighter particles will penetrate high into the stratosphere, to altitudes of 12 miles and more, and remain there for months and even years. Stratospheric circulation and diffusion will spread this material around the world.

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National Science FoundationNational Science Digital LibraryNuclear Pathways Member SiteThis project is part of the National Science Digital Library and was funded by the Division of Undergraduate Education, National Science Foundation Grant 0434253