05/30/2013 - 16:18

Entangled histories: Climate science and nuclear weapons research

Paul N. Edwards

Paul N. Edwards is a professor in the School of Information and Department of History at the University of Michigan, where he directs the university’s Science, Technology, and Society...

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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.