Nuclear Weapons’ Surprising Contribution to Climate Science
Nuclear weapons’ surprising contribution to climate science
Los Angeles (July 13 2012). Nuclear weapons testing may at first glance appear to have little connection with climate change research. But key Cold War research laboratories and the science used to track radioactivity and model nuclear bomb blasts have today been repurposed by climate scientists. The full story appears in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, published by SAGE.
In his article for the July-August issue of the Bulletin, “Entangled histories: Climate science and nuclear weapons research,” University of Michigan historian Paul Edwards notes that climate science and nuclear weapons testing have a long and surprisingly intimate relationship. In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, for example, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization tracked the radioactive plume emanating from damaged Japanese nuclear reactors via a global network of monitoring stations designed to measure airborne radionuclides. That network is a direct descendant of systems and computer models created to trace the fallout from weapons tests, Edwards explains.
But ways of tracking radiation as it moves through the atmosphere have applications that extend far beyond the nuclear industry. Tracing radioactive carbon as it cycles through the atmosphere, the oceans, and the biosphere has been crucial to understanding anthropogenic climate change.
Mathematical models with nuclear science roots have also found a place in the environmental scientists’ toolboxes. 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.