In 1983, one Stanislav Petrov made a decision that would forever change the fate of mankind.
During the peak of the cold war between the USA and the USSR, USSR early warning systems detected that the USA had launched 5 nuclear warheads towards Russia. Had the higher authorities been informed of this, Russia would have retaliated with hundreds of warheads of their own. This would have triggered a full-scale retaliation from USA and the NATO countries, resulting in an obliterated USA, Canada, all of western Europe and western Russia. The entire world would have plunged into a nuclear winter for centuries.
(Fallout would have been real)
Stanislav Petrov was the man in charge of monitoring Soviet Air Defense Forces. He was supposed to report the incoming nuclear attack to his superiors but decided not to. He believed it to be a system malfunction, which it turned out to be. The system had indeed detected clouds over North Dakota to be a nuclear launch. Petrov’s instincts saved the world that day. He later recollected that he did not really know if the alarm was false or not. He had acted purely on instinct.
On 26 September 1983, Petrov saved humanity. In countless interviews thereafter, Petrov has stated that he does not know if he should be considered a hero because he was indeed “just doing his job.” Although later western media criticized Russia for having punished Petrov by removing him from the position, Petrov says that he was neither rewarded nor punished and simply moved to a less sensitive position and took an early retirement. Initially General Yury Votintsev did promise a reward; although if Petrov was to be officially rewarded, it would have meant that his superiors and influential scientists who designed the alarm system would be at fault and had to be persecuted.
Many organizations have later recognized him as a hero and given him awards and such, but the incident reminds us that even small and relatively easy to make mistakes could have plunged us into a nuclear winter and the threat is only slightly minimised now. The fact that North Korea and USA are increasing tensions doesn’t help.
Could humans survive a nuclear winter? Watch this video from Life Noggin: