A nuclear war between India and Pakistan could kill up to 125 million people and then tip the world into a decade of starvation as smoke blocks sunlight, researchers have estimated.
If the neighbours attacked each other with a significant proportion of their growing nuclear arsenals, millions would die instantly from the blast and then firestorms would rage through cities. The fires would send huge quantities of smoke into the atmosphere, devastating agriculture as it blocked sunlight and cut temperatures.
Escalating tension between the countries because of their rivalry over Kashmir has this year underlined the threat of war between the nuclear-armed states. They have fought two wars over the disputed Himalayan territory and fought air clashes in February.
“India and Pakistan are of special concern because of a long history of military clashes including serious recent ones, lack of progress in resolving territorial issues, densely populated urban areas, and ongoing rapid expansion of their respective nuclear arsenals,”
according to a paper in the journal Science Advances. Researchers considered a scenario in 2025 where militants attack India’s parliament, killing most of its leaders. New Delhi retaliates by sending tanks into the part of Kashmir controlled by Pakistan. Fearing it will be overrun, Islamabad hits the invading forces with its battlefield nuclear weapons, triggering a nuclear war.
Calculating different outcomes according to whether the rivals use their largest nuclear weapons, the researchers estimated 50 to 125 million people could die, and nuclear-ignited fires would spread smoke across the world within weeks.
Surface sunlight could fall by 20 to 35 per cent, cooling the global surface by 2 to 5C and reducing rain and snow by 15 to 30 per cent. Recovery would take more than 10 years. Agriculture would fall by 15 to 30 per cent on land, threatening mass starvation and additional worldwide collateral fatalities.
“Unfortunately it’s timely because India and Pakistan remain in conflict over Kashmir, and every month or so you can read about people dying along the border,” Alan Robock, a professor in environmental sciences at Rutgers University, who co-authored the paper, told AFP.