On predictions of nuclear winter from Kuwaiti oil well fires

by Wm. Robert Johnston
January 1991

Dear Editor:

Your readers should be assured that a global disaster is not imminent, as they might conclude from Monday's editorial "On the Brink of Environmental Ruin" and Tuesday's headline "Iraqis Ignite Kuwaiti Oil Fields". First, Mr. Sagan's general understanding of nuclear winter differs from the scientific consensus on the subject. The 1983 paper coauthored by Mr. Sagan was fine for a first estimate. Since then, however, dozens of more sophisticated studies now tend to predict a nuclear autumn in comparision to early estimates--and even that only in summer.

Second, the notion that Mideast oil well fires could cause "nuclear winter" evolves from Mr. Sagan's claim that fires from only 100 nuclear warheads could cause a full-scale nuclear winter. This comes from an exaggerated special case in that early paper. Not only has no other study been able to confirm this, but some of Mr. Sagan's coauthors have publicly said his claims are unfounded. Numerous oil well fires in Kuwait could cover that country with smoke and could affect adjacent downwind nations. But talk of global nuclear winter, widespread starvation, ecological ruin, or years without summers is more sensationalism than science. We need not let our imaginations run wild; real war is bad enough.

(printed in The Brownsville Herald 29 January 1991)

© 1991, 2003, 2008 by Wm. Robert Johnston.
Last modified 27 January 2008.
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