The effects of nuclear weapons have been studied extensively since the initial use of atomic bombs upon Japan in 1945. As the pillars of smoke rose above the decimated cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and formed the characteristic mushroom clouds thousands of feet into the air, the danger of international conflict changed forever. Knowledge gained from the survivors of these bombs and from research done on the many test explosions performed in the decades following World War II indicated that the threat of nuclear war extends to every aspect of life on Earth. One of the best compilations of the effects of nuclear weapons comes from a study published in 1977 by the United States Department of Defense (edited by Samuel Glasstone and Philip Dolan), which was updated several times as advances in thermonuclear fusion bombs were made and tested. There are also excellent books that have been published on this topic as well as numerous Internet sites that have compiled information on the physical and medical effects of nuclear war. Many of these references are cited in this section and in the sections which follow.
Probably the first characteristic that immediately comes to mind regarding the effects of nuclear war is the surging clouds of smoke and debris that quickly rise up to thousands of feet in the atmosphere after a nuclear blast. The majority of people would recognize a nuclear explosion solely as a result of seeing this distinctive “mushroom cloud” reaching far above the earth. These plumes of smoke are formed through blast excavation of soil and earth at the point of detonation in addition to the pulverization of buildings, plants, and other structures on the ground. The initial nuclear fireball creates a region of super-heated air having low density, which because of its extreme buoyant mass creates a region of turbulence that rapidly rises into the atmosphere. These turbulent vortices form the upper mushroom part of the cloud, which has the characteristic of ballooning outward with bellows of smoke and debris curling downward at its outer edges as it rises upward. In addition, the strong updraft from the ascending fireball creates an internal suction, causing cooler air to quickly move in from all surrounding directions at velocities that can exceed hurricane-strength winds, which then rise within a central column of ash and smoke. In fact, the largest nuclear weapons can produce updraft winds within the central column that are in the range of 600-800 miles per hour. This upward flow rapidly forms the stem of the mushroom cloud, and its thickness and ultimate height are indicative of the size of the nuclear explosion. Within seconds the mushroom cloud can rise above the typical cumulus cloud height and after about 10 minutes it can extend up into the stratosphere with a tremendous ascending flow pulling the smaller particles of debris, soot, smoke, and ash along with it. Thus, the full mushroom cloud effect of a nuclear blast typically takes only moments to form from a ground burst or a near-ground explosion, but can create a massive column of smoke extending from the surface even up into the stratosphere.
The major component of these mushroom clouds is smoke. Smoke can be formed from the combustion of any flammable organic materials (carbon based), and it becomes sootier as the temperature of combustion increases. In the center of a nuclear explosion, the temperatures are far greater than typical fires or explosions. At a temperature of millions of degrees within the fireball, any flammable items will be instantly transformed into tiny particles of soot. These particles are largely made up of amorphous elemental carbon with sizes in the range of nanometers to micrometers in size (from: Environmental Consequences of Nuclear War Volume I: Physical and Atmospheric Effects, Ch. 3, p. 40). At this size, they can easily be carried upward with the rising fireball.
In addition, the closer the blast is to the Earth’s surface the more dirt and debris can be carried up by the inflow and up-flow of winds. A ground blast will often carve out a massive crater and cause strong inflowing winds that can pick up the pulverized debris from miles around and form a thick dark column leading up to the ascending fireball. The final height of the pillar of smoke is dependent on the yield of the nuclear explosion and the prevailing winds in the atmosphere. For weapons of about 1 MT yield exploding near the surface, the mushroom cloud top can reach over 12 miles high. For the largest thermonuclear fusion bombs tested, the cloud can actually reach over 25 miles high, which is about 4 times the cruising altitude of a typical passenger jet. Thus, one of the initial effects of nuclear war are the giant columns of smoke emanating from each blast.
However, in a full-scale war these mushroom clouds would become much more than just signatures of individual explosions. Most of the primary targets that would be hit by the NATO countries and the Russian Alliance would involve multiple explosions extending over hundreds of square miles over each city and also hitting military installations and other important energy and industrial facilities. Huge amounts of smoke and debris coming from a full nuclear exchange involving thousands of explosions would coalesce and blanket large regions of the world and be a significant cause of death, especially for those downwind or within the fallout range of ground zero.
Even the Bible mentions smoke as being a major characteristic of the final battles. When the Kings of the East attack Israel at the end, John tells us that one-third of mankind will be killed by the fire, smoke, and brimstone, which results from their onslaught (Rev. 9:13-18). Joel, however, gives us the best description of what a nuclear explosion might look like to anyone observing it. Thousands of years ago he predicted that at the end of the age the Lord would show…
“…wonders in the heavens and in the earth; blood, and fire, and pillars of smoke”.
When a correspondent for the New York Times witnessed the bombing of Nagasaki on September 9, 1945, while flying in an accompanying plane next to the main bomber, he described the event as producing a “pillar of purple fire” and as “a giant mushroom that increased the height of the pillar to a total of 45,000 feet (see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mushroom_cloud and the publication Eyewitness Account of Atomic Bomb Over Nagasaki, by William Laurence, War Department, Bureau of Public Relations, 1945). It is incredible that even after the first nuclear weapons were used on populated cities the initial reaction from an eye-witness included a description matching exactly what Joel predicted: pillars of smoke. God was revealing through those events the eventual fulfillment of end times prophecy decades before it would come to pass—not only demonstrating the accuracy of the Bible in predicting the future, but giving our generation a warning that there is not much time left before this dire holocaust comes upon the world and Christ Returns.
When the superpowers eventually engage in the final nuclear conflict in the last days, gigantic pillars of smoke will rise far above the earth and coalesce into dark blankets of death, which will darken the skies and rain radioactive fallout onto almost every part of the globe. Fine particles and smoke will remain suspended in the upper regions of the atmosphere for extended periods, causing significantly decreased sunlight reaching the Earth’s surface and affecting plant growth and temperatures worldwide (more on these points later).
According to early research into the mushroom clouds and the enormous amount of smoke, soot, and ash which would be injected into the upper atmosphere, the global consequences will be disastrous for the world’s ecosystem. Turco et al., 1990, attempted to catalog all of the flammable materials that would be ignited during a likely nuclear exchange between the major superpowers [Turco, R.P., Toon, O.B., Ackerman, J.B., Pollack, J.B., and Sagan, C. (1990) Climate and Smoke: An appraisal of nuclear winter, Science 247, 166-176; also see their previous publication in Science, called the TTAPS study from the initials of the authors: Science 222, 1283-1292 (1983)]. These flammable materials would contribute significant sources of secondary smoke that would continue to burn and be injected into the air in the days, weeks, and months following the initial nuclear explosions. The authors predicted that from 6,740 to 13,480 teragrams (Tg = 1012 gm = trillion grams) or 6.7 to 13.4 quadrillion grams of flammable materials would burn and produce supplemental sources of smoke, soot, and ash after the initial nuclear exchange between the Russian alliance and the NATO nations. This includes building materials such as wood, lumber, cellulosic byproducts, and interior furnishings; primary and secondary petroleum products; plastics and polymers; asphalt roofing materials; and plants and vegetation (grasses, weeds, bushes, and trees).
Therefore, the total quantity of flammable materials that would burn in a war between Russia and the West was estimated to be from 6.7 to 13.4 trillion kilograms (or 14.8 to 29.7 trillion pounds). Seeing that populations and cities have grown significantly since the TTAPS study was published, the amount of flammable materials that could ignite today would likely exceed the high end of this estimate. Thus, the total effects of nuclear war would include both the smoke and debris from the initial explosions creating thousands of mushroom clouds as well as the subsequent smoke and soot from thousands of fires consuming trillions of pounds of combustible materials.
In his article The Nuclear Winter, Carl Sagan stated:
“A more or less typical strategic warhead has a yield of 2 megatons, the explosive equivalent of 2 million tons of TNT. But 2 million tons of TNT is about the same as all the bombs exploded in World War II—a single bomb with the explosive power of the entire Second World War but compressed into a few seconds of time and an area 30 or 40 miles across…
“In a 2-megaton explosion over a fairly large city, buildings would be vaporized, people reduced to atoms and shadows, outlying structures blown down like matchsticks and raging fires ignited.”
Amazingly, the regions of the world that the TTAPS study analyzed perfectly correspond to the countries predicted in the Bible to be involved in the initial battles during the Great Tribulation. Through these studies, the Lord has provided knowledge and understanding ahead of time on the effects of nuclear war to warn us of what will soon come to pass. It is important to also realize that there is still time to repent and believe in Christ before the end comes upon us!
Next: The Fireball and Thermal Pulse