Could Humans Grow Food During a Nuclear Winter?

Since the Cold War, American and Russian leaders have been wary of nuclear war. Even a limited nuclear exchange between nations would cause catastrophic destruction for the environment and society.

But what are the likely effects on global food production during a nuclear winter? Two researchers at Penn State University recently found that small segments of humanity might survive a nuclear apocalypse, in part thanks to some wild, edible plants and insects in tropical places.

The 2021 study by Daniel Winstead, a research technologist, and Michael Jacobson, a professor of forestry resources, is part of a larger Penn State research project on emergency food resilience. Published in early February in Ambiothe journal of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, the study became more relevant as Russia invaded Ukraine and renewed fears of nuclear conflict.

“I had absolutely no idea that this would be at all relevant to any sort of [current] scenario,” says Winstead, the lead author. “It was certainly very strange timing.”

Reducing Sunlight and Temperature

Of the sun-blocking catastrophes, including volcanic eruptions, meteor strikes or supernovas, the study notes that nuclear war is both the most probable and preventable.

A large-scale nuclear exchange of about 4,400 weapons between Russia and the United States (who possess more than 90 percent of the world’s nuclear inventory) would send upwards of 165 million US tons of soot into the upper atmosphere. That amount of soot is about 11 times the weight of the three pyramids of Giza, the study notes for reference.

Such an exchange would reduce the levels of sunlight to less than 40 percent near the equator, and less than five percent near the poles, compared to normal says the study. Temperate regions worldwide would endure freezing temperatures and severe precipitation reductions. And conditions would likely take up to 15 years to fully recover.

Permafrost would cover the landscapes of most of North America, Europe and Asia. And in wet, tropical forests like the Congo or Amazon basins, precipitation might reduce by 90 percent for several years after.

The soot from a large-scale nuclear war would cause global crop failure for at least four to five years. But in the tropics closest to the equator, less extreme temperature changes might provide a chance at agricultural production to feed survivors, both immediately and in the years before the sun would shine again.

Wild, Edible Plants

The study sought to determine where agriculture might be possible, and what plants might grow effectively after a nuclear war.

To do this, researchers determined population centers close to forested, tropical regions, and chose both tropical dry and wet forests. Next, they examined a list of 247 wild, edible plants (WEPs) and chose 33 that could hold farming or foraging potential in post-nuclear war conditions.

They separated the WEPs into seven categories: fruits, leafy vegetables, seeds and nuts, roots, spices, sweets and proteins. Their criteria included abundance and ease to process, density in energy, essential vitamins and minerals, non-perishable in long-term storage without refrigeration and availability for harvesting most of the year. They also chose the 33 based on their tolerances for shade, drought, and cooler temperatures, though there were few, the study notes.

Back1 of 3

Leave a Comment