Nuclear Winter vs. Volcanic Winter: 3 Key Differences

Nuclear Winter
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Written by Marisa Wilson

Published: September 27, 2022

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Nuclear winter has never occurred and is based on tests, theories, and research. It can be devastating should it ever happen. Volcanic winter isn’t a walk in the park either, and has happened before. What exactly are nuclear and volcanic winter? Which one has the most deadly effects? 

It can be challenging trying to understand why one is worse than the other. This is why nuclear and volcanic winter will be explained before the differences are addressed. After you know how each can happen, you’ll better understand the differences. 

You may also find a few similarities, although that isn’t heavily focused on in this article. Continue reading to discover the most significant key differences between the two and how both are nightmarish.

What Is Nuclear Winter?

The term “nuclear winter” refers to a theory that discusses how nuclear war will alter the climate. The sun would heat the smoke from nuclear weapons-caused fires, which would then be lofted into the upper stratosphere and spread worldwide for years. This smoke would be particularly dark and sooty. It would come from cities and industrial facilities. 

The resultant chilly, dark, and dry circumstances at the surface of the earth would inhibit agricultural development for at least one growing season, causing widespread hunger. Massive ozone depletion would also occur, allowing for more UV radiation. Because of these indirect impacts, more people may die in non-combatant nations than in those where the bombs were dropped. 

A nuclear explosion is like briefly(less than a second) bringing a portion of the sun to the earth’s surface. A nuclear blast contains around one-third of its energy as light or heat. It burns cities and industrial areas like a huge match. As proved in actual tests in Nevada before the atmospheric nuclear test ban, it is assumed in many nuclear winter scenarios that anything receiving ten or more calories per square centimeter every minute will catch fire.

Nuclear Power Plant

A nuclear explosion is like briefly(less than a second) bringing a portion of the sun to the earth’s surface. A nuclear blast contains around one-third of its energy as light or heat.

What Would Not Be Caused by Nuclear Winter?

While it’s necessary to highlight the effects of nuclear winter, it’s equally important to highlight the absence of those effects. In early research, biologists did not completely rule out the possibility of our species going extinct, but it now appears that this would not happen. In particular, humans would have a higher chance of surviving in Australia and New Zealand. 

Additionally, an ice age will not break out on earth. Ice sheets, which blanketed North America and Europe barely 18,000 years ago and were more than 3 km thick, take many thousands of years to develop. Both the flames’ oxygen consumption and the creation of carbon dioxide would minimally impact the atmosphere’s warming effect. However, the implications of nuclear winter are already severe enough without them.

Nuclear Winter

The term “nuclear winter” refers to a theory that discusses how nuclear war will alter the climate.

What Is Volcanic Winter?

Volcanic winter cools the surface of the earth, brought on by the stratospheric deposition of large volumes of volcanic ash and sulfur aerosols. Incoming solar radiation reflects and is absorbed by sulfur aerosols. These processes work together to chill the troposphere below. 

If the sulfur aerosol loading is large enough, it may affect the climate globally for years after the event, resulting in crop failures, colder temperatures, and unusual weather patterns worldwide. During violent volcanic eruptions, sulfur dioxide (SO2), pulverized rock, and hydrogen sulfide (H2S) can all be sent into the stratosphere. Volcanic ash can reduce vision in a location for a few months following an eruption. 

Still, sulfur compounds released into the stratosphere create sulfur aerosols, which can reflect some of the sun’s rays for years. Greater reflection occurs as sulfur aerosol concentrations rise in this area of the atmosphere. As a result, surface heating decreases, and lower temperatures prevail at the earth’s surface. These aerosols might stay in the stratosphere for several years before settling out because it has less air turbulence than the troposphere beneath it.

Mount St. Helen Mudslides

Volcanic ash can reduce vision in a location for a few months following an eruption. 

Three Key Differences 

1. Soot from Nuclear Winter Would Last Longer.

In cities, fires would consume everything in their path, emitting an extremely filthy, sooty smoke. The leading cause of a nuclear winter is this soot or black carbon. Black carbon is a highly effective radiation absorber. 

As the heated and lofted black carbon absorbs radiation, the air around it becomes incredibly buoyant and can raise the soot into the stratosphere. Black carbon lingers in the stratosphere for years, leading to a long-term, global climatic reaction. If the black carbon remained in the troposphere, it might eventually be eliminated by precipitation. 

Other non-nuclear phenomena, such as volcanic eruptions and wildfires, can cause aerosol releases into the stratosphere. Still, they don’t have the same impact as soot emitted due to nuclear war. Sulfate aerosols produced by volcanoes have a lifetime of between one and two years since they don’t absorb as much radiation. According to a study, nuclear-produced soot can persist for up to ten years.

A helicopter dropping water

Other non-nuclear phenomena, such as volcanic eruptions and wildfires, can cause aerosol releases into the stratosphere.

2. Nuclear Winter Is Worse for Food Production.

Out of the two, the food supply would be most damaged from nuclear winter as opposed to volcanic winter. According to the experts, a nuclear war would result in injections of black carbon into the upper atmosphere, covering the majority of the world with dark clouds and hiding the sun for several years. A significant nuclear conflict is predicted to release upwards of 165 million tons of black carbon soot into the upper atmosphere from over 4,000 nuclear bomb explosions and subsequent wildfires. 

According to the study, such a nuclear war could result in freezing temperatures in the majority of temperate regions and drastic precipitation reductions — just half of the global average — with less than 40% of ordinary light levels close to the equator and less than 5% of light levels near the poles. In some tropical forests, like those in the Amazon basins, post-catastrophe conditions, which may last 15 years, could result in a 90% fall in precipitation for several years following such an occurrence.

Dying crops

Out of the two, the food supply would be most damaged from nuclear winter as opposed to volcanic winter.

3. Nuclear Winter Is the Biggest Nightmare Overall.

In around a 5000-megaton war, at the northern mid-latitude sites far from the targets, radioactive fallout can cause mean chronic doses of up to 50 rads from whole-body exposure to gamma rays from the outside biologically active radionuclides can likely do the same or even more damage inside the body. 

Particle and radiation transmission from the North Hemisphere to the South Hemisphere may be considerably accelerated by large horizontal and vertical temperature gradients brought on by sunlight absorbed in smoke and dust clouds. 

Long-term exposure to cold, darkness, and radioactivity could seriously threaten human survivors and other species. This is especially serious when combined with the immediate destruction by nuclear blasts, fires, and fallout. Also, the later enhancement of solar ultraviolet radiation due to ozone depletion makes it more deadly.

Radioactive territory

Long-term exposure to cold, darkness, and radioactivity could seriously threaten human survivors and other species.

Bomb vs. Volcano 

While comparing one to the other is hard with the amount of information available, comparing the worst bomb to the worst volcano does seem that the volcano may have been worse. However, nuclear winter is much more severe based on the information available. Let’s look at the worst bomb vs. the worst volcanic eruption.

Tsar Bomba

According to the nuclear explosion classification, the Tsar Bomba explosion was an ultra-high-power low-air nuclear explosion. The flare could be seen from more than 620 miles away, and the explosion’s nuclear mushroom reached a height of 42 miles. The cloud was seen 500 miles away from the detonation. 

The blast wave went around the world three times, the first time lasting 36 hours and 27 minutes. The explosion’s shock wave created a seismic wave in the earth’s crust that circled the globe three times. Windows broke 480 miles away from the blast. For around 40 minutes, ionization of the atmosphere interfered with radio transmissions hundreds of kilometers away from the test site.

Nuclear Explosion

According to the nuclear explosion classification, the Tsar Bomba explosion was an ultra-high-power low-air nuclear explosion.

The Effects of One Volcano

Mount Tambora is a volcanic mountain on the northern shore of Sumbawa Island, Indonesia, that erupted in an enormous volcanic eruption in recorded history in April 1815. It is presently 9,354 feet tall after losing most of its top during the 1815 eruption. 

The subsequent explosion, pyroclastic flows, and tsunamis killed at least 10,000 people and devastated the homes of 35,000 more. Mount Tambora was approximately 14,000 feet tall before its eruption. Since this was an actual event, not a test, the effects are more notable. 

Mount Tambora Indonesia

Mount Tambora was approximately 14,000 feet tall before its

eruption

.

Conclusion

After comparing Nuclear Winter and Volcanic winter, you can see that nuclear would be the worst of the two. In the long run, nuclear winter wrecks havoc and can harm the earth in several ways. For example, it can affect more of the world. Volcanic winter has occurred, and the worst of it was decreasing the temperatures worldwide by a few degrees. 

While an actual eruption vs. a bomb’s impact isn’t heavily discussed, the long-term effects of nuclear winter would be more devastating. That is still terrifying. You should know that while both are intense to think about, they aren’t as likely to occur as other things. 

If you found learning about the differences between nuclear and volcanic winter helpful, share this post with someone who loves an excellent apocalyptic vibe read. If you want to read more on topics like this, check out the ones linked below. 

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About the Author

Creepy-crawly creatures enthrall Marisa. Aside from raising caterpillars, she has a collection of spiders as pets. The brown recluse is her favorite spider of all time. They're just misunderstood. You don't have to worry about squishing the creatures as her catching, and relocating abilities can safely move stray centipedes or snakes to a new location that's not your living room.

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