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Entangled Histories: Climate Science and Nuclear Weapons Research 92

Posted by samzenpus
from the two-in-one dept.
Harperdog writes "Paul N. Edwards has a great paper about the links between nuclear weapons testing and climate science. From the abstract: '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.'"
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Entangled Histories: Climate Science and Nuclear Weapons Research

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  • I wonder about the climate impact of the series of multi-megaton surface blasts by the US and USSR in the 1950's and 1960's. These tests put both dust and radionuclides into the atmosphere in large, possibly globally-significant quantities. When we see surface temperature changes over the last 50 years, how much of that is a recovery from an abnormal climate?

    • by Anonymous Coward

      On the scale of the whole Earth, I don't think the tests would have much effect. There were "only" a couple thousand nuclear tests spread over decades, most of which were underground rather than atmospheric. At the peak there were ~100 a year. The effect on climate was likely much less than from other processes, such as agriculture, volcanic eruptions, or smoke from forest fires. The radionuclides would have little or no effect on climate. They just make good tracers.

    • by cpu6502 (1960974) on Sunday July 15, 2012 @03:51PM (#40657577)

      Probably nothing. Even the largest nukes were blown-up high above the ground, to avoid throwing-up a lot of dust, and they were less than 1/10th as powerful as the 1800s Krakatoa volcano

      • Nonsense. Early on there were quite a few surface and near-surface tests, and after that there were quite a lot of "underground" tests, which did not always quite stay underground.
      • In addition to that, you have to add in the radioactive releases of nuclear plants associated with bomb production, like the radioactive iodine releases from the Hanford nuclear reservation. Maybe not "bombs", but they were certainly related to bomb production, and they were not just environmental releases but DAMAGING environmental releases.
      • by rgbatduke (1231380) <rgb.phy@duke@edu> on Sunday July 15, 2012 @07:00PM (#40658811) Homepage
        Or, all together were probably less than Tambora: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Tambora [wikipedia.org] -- at 800 Mt, considerably less. Tambora holds many records: Largest explosion in recorded history, loudest sound in recorded history, largest single-event influence on the climate in recorded history (it basically eliminated "summer" for two years in a row in at least some temperate latitudes) and helped make the decade of 1810 the coldest decade on historical record (but not the coldest year or part of the coldest half-century or century).

        But I don't think we can be certain of the effect of the nuclear tests. Many of the largest were low over water and kicked a lot of water into the stratosphere. We just don't have the data, and hence any conclusions are likely to be guesses.
  • It seems the point is that scientists were employed during wartime, and the science they discovered has peacetime uses.
  • greenhouse gasses (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Black Parrot (19622) on Sunday July 15, 2012 @02:22PM (#40656993)

    The effect of greenhouse gasses has been known for a couple of hundred years.

    However, I think it was Sagan's group's concern about a possible Nuclear Winter that got people started actually thinking about greenhouse gasses and climate.

    • Re:greenhouse gasses (Score:4, Informative)

      by marcosdumay (620877) <marcosdumay@@@gmail...com> on Sunday July 15, 2012 @02:51PM (#40657165) Homepage Journal

      Not only the nuclear winter. At around the same time, astronomers started* to study the climate of the other planets of the Solar System, palenontologues started* to study the ancient climate changes that happened on Earth, and the people thinking about nuclear warfare started* to study man-made climate change.

      * Yeah, I know, there were older studies. But not with as strong conclusions.

    • Re:greenhouse gasses (Score:4, Informative)

      by TapeCutter (624760) on Monday July 16, 2012 @12:01AM (#40660291) Journal

      got people started actually thinking about greenhouse gasses and climate

      That started a little over a century ago, however for the first 50yrs the killer argument was that the H2O absorption spectrum overlapped that of CO2. This was not resolved until the 50's when better spectoraphs were built for reasearch into heat seeking missiles. The role of CO2 as the main driver of Earth's climate came about from trying to work out what caused the ice ages, even though the discovery of the Milankovich cycles eventually explained the timing of the ice ages, it could not explain the maginitude of the change without including CO2 feedbacks (such as melting permafrost).

      All this was known to science in the late 50's when the NAS first warned the US government that emmisions were causing the climate to warm. Areosols are much more complex, some (sulphur compounds) have a cooling effect because they reflect sunlight, others such a soot absorb sunlight and dump it into the ocean as heat. This complexity is reflected in the error bars put around it's contribution to climate change. This complexity and uncertainty is also the origin of the canard "they predicted global cooling in the 70'", it's true that ~30% of the papers that did attempt a climate prediction in the 70's, predicted the wrong sign. However that was 40yrs ago and there is no scientifically valid support for such a view now, particularly since Reagan pushed for and won a (successful) international cap and trade system on sulphur emmissions to combat acid rain.

  • tech is tech (Score:4, Insightful)

    by circletimessquare (444983) <circletimessquare&gmail,com> on Sunday July 15, 2012 @02:42PM (#40657097) Homepage Journal

    it can be used for good, it can be used for evil

  • So the contribution of nuclear weapons research to atmospheric understanding is the justification for billions (trillions?) of dollars spent on nuclear weapons stockpiles and the entire Cold War fiasco? Let's trot out nuclear medicine as the next justification or, gasp, nuclear power. Humanity has been on the brink of extinction through nuclear war for fifty years. If those benificent aliens are going to save us they had better hurry...
    • by dreamchaser (49529) on Sunday July 15, 2012 @04:32PM (#40657885) Homepage Journal

      So the contribution of nuclear weapons research to atmospheric understanding is the justification for billions (trillions?) of dollars spent on nuclear weapons stockpiles and the entire Cold War fiasco? Let's trot out nuclear medicine as the next justification or, gasp, nuclear power. Humanity has been on the brink of extinction through nuclear war for fifty years. If those benificent aliens are going to save us they had better hurry...

      I don't think anyone said it 'justified' it. Think of the old adage of making lemonade when life hands you lemons and maybe you'll actually get the point.

  • Let's release some aerosols into the atmosphere!
  • The article hardly talks about climate research at Los Alamos National Laboratory [lanl.gov], which develops the ocean (POP [lanl.gov]) and ice (CICE [lanl.gov] and CISM [lanl.gov]) components of one of the world's leading climate models, CESM [ucar.edu]. The climate group at Los Alamos got started studying nuclear winter (related work was mentioned in TFA), and built its strength in ocean modeling with new ideas in high performance computing for parallel partial differential equation solvers (fishing for new applications, since they had all these giant superc

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