Extinction-level events have been a recurring theme in earth’s history since life began. However, nuclear weapons are unique in that they represent the first opportunity for a species to deliberately unmake itself. How real is the threat of humanity's extinction via nuclear holocaust? One important aspect of answering this question is to observe the quantities and qualities of the various nuclear weapons that are held in reserve today. By studying the types, effects, and total stockpiles of nuclear weapons in the world today we can form a more accurate assessment of the threat they pose to humanity.
To understand the peril that nuclear weapons pose, you must first have an understanding of what an individual detonation is capable of. In The Effects of Nuclear Weapons, Samuel Glasstone (1964) provides a basic overview of the ways that nuclear explosions differ from conventional ones. The most obvious difference is that they release tens of thousands to millions of times more energy than even the largest conventional explosives. Much of this energy is released as thermal radiation, meaning it can start fires and cause burns at great distances from the epicenter. Finally, nuclear explosions produce a large amount of dangerous radiation that persists even after the event (Glasstone 1).
The massive energy output and resulting radiation spawn a host of auxiliary effects that are not witnessed in conventional explosions. Of particular note are the effects nuclear weapons have on human beings, infrastructure , and the long term habitability of the areas they are used. The effects of nuclear weaponry on human beings can be divided into three categories; blast injuries, thermal radiation, and nuclear radiation. Blast injuries are caused by rapid and massive spike air pressure and also the displacement of projectiles and human tissue. Thermal radiation injuries are caused by the vast amounts of thermal radiation released from a nuclear explosion. These injuries are typically in the form of “flash burns” that occur nearly instantly. Even people in shelters that are sturdy enough to endure the initial blast may suffer burns from superheated gases. Burns and blast injuries, while rarely experienced to this degree, are present in conventional warfare. The gamma rays released by a nuclear explosion are a new type of injury previously unknown to war and are fatally dangerous and difficult to treat. These three types of injuries result in massive loss of human life from even the most modest of nuclear devices (Glasstone 554).
While the initial damage wrought by a nuclear explosion is catastrophic, the effects of nuclear weapons on important life sustaining infrastructure is a far more insidious threat. Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) is perhaps the most devastating effect on an industrialized country following a nuclear detonation. Emanuelson, Jerry (2013) describes the phenomena and its various causes and effects in his article Nuclear Electromagnetic Pulse. The...