Nuclear Fallout: From the Sky to the Sea

Elizabeth Maroon
Elizabeth Maroon

With the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine, fears of nuclear war have increased across the globe. And while we’ve had an idea of how nuclear fallout will affect life on land, a new study, led by Louisiana State University, sheds light into what could happen in the darkest depths of the ocean.

Elizabeth Maroon, assistant professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences, was on the research team that published the findings. Maroon is a faculty member in the Nelson Institute’s Center for Climatic Research, an interdisciplinary center that focuses on the Earth’s climate systems, particularly historical, ongoing, and projected climate variability and change.

On land, it would take about a month for nuclear fallout to cause temperatures to drop — climate modeling by Maroon suggests that the drop could be more drastic than the last ice age. “Changes in the ocean take longer than in the atmosphere or on land,” Maroon says, but the team’s modeling suggests that it would only take a year for ocean circulation to change beyond recognition.

“Within the first year or two, water in the North Atlantic sinks all the way to the bottom of the ocean, which we think has not happened even in the ice ages,” says Maroon. “In today’s ocean, only near Antarctica does water sink all the way to the seafloor.”

This change in ocean circulation would only be the beginning — paving the way for a damaged ocean food web and extending sea ice.

The study required “impressive” international collaboration, says Michael Notaro, interim director of the Center for Climatic Research, and extremely advanced Earth system modeling techniques. “With the timeliness given the Russia-Ukraine conflict, [this study] really highlights the global dangers of nuclear conflict.”

Read more about the study and Maroon’s research.