We may get a bit longer to kiss our arses goodbye

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The Spinoff: What happens to NZ after global nuclear war breaks out?

According to various experts, New Zealand would indeed likely be the best place to be in the event of a nuclear holocaust. But “best” is a relative term, and this belies just how hellish life could become on one of the world’s last inhabitable countries.

Nailing down the exact consequences of a nuclear war isn’t easy, and not just because it’s never happened. With so many variables at play – the countries involved, where they’re located, the number of weapons deployed, what time of the year it is – there’s no definitive post-war scenario.

The chances of New Zealand being a direct target are probably slim, but Australia must be a higher risk and we usually get their drift, weather wise.

Still, some have tried to map out a potential aftermath. In a 2014 paper for Earth’s Future, a team of scientists attempted to model the effects of a limited, regional nuclear war between India and Pakistan that would see each country use 50 warheads, each with a yield of 15 kilotons, about the same as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

The results weren’t pretty. Even a “limited” war like this would send five megatonnes of smoke into the stratosphere, heating it by up to 100°C and wiping out most of the earth’s ozone layer for as long as a decade. This means the average burn time in the sun would halve for humans, while the resulting surge of UV radiation would wreak havoc on the world’s vegetation and sealife, including, in the latter case, disrupting the entire food chain of the ocean and damaging marine life in its early, developmental stages.

More alarming is the fact that the colossal amount of black carbon sitting up in the stratosphere would cause a global nuclear winter, the coldest average surface temperatures in 1,000 years. That means shorter growing seasons and the destruction of crops by killing frosts, which Brian Toon, one of the authors of the report, has said would reduce yields of corn, wheat and rice by 10-40% for years afterwards.

And this is just for a “limited” war.

“After a full scale nuclear war, temperatures would plunge below Ice Age conditions,” Toon explained to a TED audience earlier this year. “No crops would grow. It’s estimated 90% of the population of the planet would starve to death.”

Not a good outlook, even in New Zealand. We produce a lot of food, and exports would likely plummet if there is a nuclear holocaust, but that probably just means surviving a bit longer than most.

Unless we get flooded by refugees. People seeking safer havens may be a huge moral issue.

Where does New Zealand fit into all this? No studies thus far have specifically examined New Zealand. But based on what several experts have told me, there’s good news and bad news.

The good news is, we would likely be spared the worst consequences of all this. Experts like Toon and Brian Martin, a social scientist at the University of Wollongong who has a PhD in theoretical physics, say that we’d have little to fear from radiation drifting our way. The most harmful isotopes would decay before reaching our shores, and even fallout drifting over from a potential attack on Australia would likely be blown eastward, where it would be rained out.

We get a lot of our weather ex Australia, so we must be at risk of copping some of their fallout – unless a holocaust dramatically affects weather patterns.

Now for the bad news: even if we’re spared the worst of these effects, the impact of nuclear war would reverberate in the South Pacific thanks to trade and the economy. This wouldn’t be the case in every scenario, says Ilan Noy, Victoria University’s Professorial Chair in the Economics of Disasters, who examines economics and public policy as they relate to the management of natural disasters. In the case of a local war between India and Pakistan, which aren’t large traders, the effects would be somewhat muted.

“I don’t see world trade collapsing,” he says. “It would dent the New Zealand economy – fewer tourists, uncertainty in the world, the need to find trade replacements.”

It’s a different story when the combatants are Russia and the United States.

“I don’t really know how to think about that kind of world,” he says. “If there is an event between Russia and the US, it becomes a mess. There’s no shipping, no trade for a while, we are all down to every country surviving by itself.”

Noy says the sudden halting of global trade would create a “dramatic change in our lives.”

According to Noy, daily life would be set back a century, when most people relied on subsistence farming to survive – except in this case, most of us no longer have the rudimentary skills and knowledge needed to eke out this kind of existence.

Some people want to return to ‘the god old days’ – I’m not sure they want to do that literally though.

It’s fair to say, however, that this “best” choice is still not great. In the best case scenario, our economy will be dented, the ecosystems we depend on to live will be heavily damaged, and we’ll have far less food to pass around. At worst, we’ll experience mass starvation, be plunged backward in time and forced into lives we’re in no way prepared to live, and possibly be invaded by heavily armed ships led by an irradiated Jeff Bezos. It’s a sobering thought.

It’s a reminder that whatever happens on June 12 and at future global nuclear negotiations, New Zealand is not a disinterested bystander – and neither are those around the globe who want to treat this country like their own personal bomb shelter.

No one gets to opt out of nuclear war.

The US, Russia, North Korea, Iran, Israel et al already opt out, fortunately. But will the nuclear stand off continue indefinitely?

If not, we may simply get longer to prepare ourselves to kiss our arses goodbye.

Leave a comment


  1. Kitty Catkin

     /  20th May 2018

    A century ago was 1918. Hardly still the era of subsistence farming for most people, as they lived in towns and cities then and the age of subsistence farming was long gone. This writer seems not to have heard of the industrial revolution.

  2. Alan Wilkinson

     /  20th May 2018

    So the last thing we need is a lunatic Muslim jihadist with a nuclear arsenal for whom mutually assured destruction is just a quick route to paradise.

  3. insider

     /  20th May 2018

    About 500 atmospheric nuclear tests from the 40s to the 70s. We’re all still here… I wonder if the modellers included reality as a parameter

    • Griff

       /  20th May 2018

      limited, regional nuclear war between India and Pakistan that would see each country use 50 warheads, each with a yield of 15 kilotons,

      100 Warheads in a day or so is very different to 500 in fifty years.
      Once even a limited nuclear exchange starts it would be rapid fire as each aggressor tries to destroy the oppositions arsenal and limit their own damage ..
      If its Russia ,China or the USA involved it could be thousands of warheads.
      Then there is the effects of https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_electromagnetic_pulse


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