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Thu Aug 2, 2012, 02:59 AM

Entangled histories: Climate science and nuclear weapons research

From the current edition of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.
The article is available free right now, even though it's marked as "subscription required" in the index,
so you might want to download the pdf: http://bos.sagepub.com/content/68/4/28.full.pdf
http://bos.sagepub.com/content/68/4/28.full

Entangled histories: Climate science and nuclear weapons research

Paul N. Edwards

Abstract

Climate science and nuclear weapons testing have a long and surprisingly intimate relationship. The global networks that monitored the Fukushima radiation plume and forecasted its movement are the direct descendants of systems and computer models developed to trace fallout from weapons tests. Tracing radioactive carbon as it cycles through the atmosphere, the oceans, and the biosphere has been crucial to understanding anthropogenic climate change. The earliest global climate models relied on numerical methods very similar to those developed by nuclear weapons designers for solving the fluid dynamics equations needed to analyze shock waves produced in nuclear explosions. The climatic consequences of nuclear war also represent a major historical intersection between climate science and nuclear affairs. Without the work done by nuclear weapons designers and testers, scientists would know much less than they now do about the atmosphere. In particular, this research has contributed enormously to knowledge about both carbon dioxide, which raises Earth’s temperature, and aerosols, which lower it. Without climate models, scientists and political leaders would not have understood the full extent of nuclear weapons’ power to annihilate not only human beings, but other species as well. In the post-Cold War era, US national laboratories built to create the most fearsome arsenal in history are now using their powerful supercomputers, their expertise in modeling, and their skills in managing very large data sets to address the threat of catastrophic climate change.

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Suess went on to work with oceanographer Roger Revelle at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Revelle, too, had studied the byproducts of nuclear weapons tests; in 1946, he commanded a large US Navy scientific mission to Bikini Atoll, following the earliest tests there (Weart, 2007). Together, Revelle and Suess wrote a seminal study showing that, at 1950s rates of consumption, the oceans could absorb only about 80 percent of the carbon dioxide produced by fossil fuel combustion. The result would explain why measurements showed a steady increase, since the nineteenth century, in the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide.

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The remaining history of the nuclear winter debate is better known than these more obscure origins. In 1983, two independent groups, one in the Soviet Union and another in the United States, analyzed the spread of smoke and dust after a major nuclear exchange using simple climate models (Aleksandrov and Stenchikov, 1983; Turco et al., 1983). The two groups reached similar conclusions: Within days, the northern hemisphere’s surface temperature would drop below freezing and would remain there for up to six months. Just as in the K-T extinction, the smoke pall would soon surround the globe, disrupting ecosystems and agricultural production worldwide, with extremely severe consequences for humanity. A scientific debate ensued in which some climate scientists argued that more sophisticated modeling showed somewhat less serious consequences—more like a nuclear autumn than a nuclear winter (Thompson and Schneider, 1986).

Yet that was far from the end of the story. Along with the discovery of the Antarctic ozone hole in 1985, nuclear winter brought the prospect of massive human-caused damage to the planetary atmosphere out of the realm of distant speculation and into the close-at-hand fears of the US public. It played a significant role in the endgame of the Cold War (for a detailed account, see Badash, 2009). Research on nuclear winter stopped in 1990, but some of the principals from the 1980s debates revived it in 2006, using the latest generation of climate models. Their current consensus is that “nuclear winter theory was correct, and that, in fact, the effects would last for many years, much longer than previously thought” (Robock, 2010).

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