Climate Scientists Repurpose Cold War Research Laboratories

Testing of nuclear weapons may appear to have little link with climate change research, but today, climate scientists have adapted key Cold War research laboratories as well as the science utilized to model nuclear bomb blasts and trace radioactivity. SAGE has published the research report in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Paul Edwards from University of Michigan noted in his article “Entangled histories: Climate science and nuclear weapons research” in the Bulletin, that nuclear weapons testing and climate science have a long, intimate relationship. For example, in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization traced the radioactive plume emitting from damaged nuclear reactors in Japan through a global network of surveillance stations designed to determine airborne radionuclides, and that network is a straight descendant of computer models and systems designed to track radiation from weapon tests.

Methods of tracing radiation as it travels through the atmosphere have purposes that go beyond the nuclear industry. Tracking radioactive carbon as it moves through the biosphere, the oceans and the atmosphere has been critical to gain insight into anthropogenic climate change.

In the environmental scientists’ toolbox, mathematical models with roots in nuclear science have also found a place. The earliest global climate models rooted on numerical methods similar to those created by nuclear weapons designers for figuring out the fluid dynamics equations required to examine shock waves created in nuclear explosions. Another major connection between nuclear affairs and climate science is the effects of nuclear war on the environment.

The powerful supercomputers placed in facilities constructed during the Cold war, including the US national laboratories built to create weapons, have now been infused with new life and the facilities are now modeled to address future climate change threats.


G.P. Thomas

Written by

G.P. Thomas

Gary graduated from the University of Manchester with a first-class honours degree in Geochemistry and a Masters in Earth Sciences. After working in the Australian mining industry, Gary decided to hang up his geology boots and turn his hand to writing. When he isn't developing topical and informative content, Gary can usually be found playing his beloved guitar, or watching Aston Villa FC snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.


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