December 13, 2018

Centennial E1 – How the Cold War advanced atmospheric science

Posted by Shane Hanlon

A view of "Baker Shot," part of Operation Crossroads, a nuclear test conducted by the United States at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands in 1946.  Credit: U.S. Department of Defense.

A view of “Baker Shot,” part of Operation Crossroads, a nuclear test conducted by the United States at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands in 1946.
Credit: U.S. Department of Defense.

Tensions escalated between the United States and Soviet Union in the wake of World War II as the two countries stockpiled nuclear weapons and detonated hundreds of test bombs in the atmosphere. But this arms race had an unexpected side effect: scientists learned for the first time how air behaves in Earth’s upper atmosphere and how pollution, volcanic ash, and radioactive fallout travel around the globe.

In this inaugural episode of Third Pod from the Sun’s Centennial Series, researchers from NOAA’s Air Resources Laboratory discuss how scientists’ understanding of Earth’s atmosphere changed as a result of the Cold War. Listen to one meteorologist describe witnessing nuclear bomb tests in on a remote Pacific Island and hear how scientists used their newfound knowledge of the atmosphere to trace radioactivity from Chernobyl, the most disastrous nuclear power plant accident in history.


Episode Transcript

Shane:                                  Hello Nanci.

Nanci:                                   Hey. Hey, hey.

Shane:                                  So today we’re ultimately gonna be talking about the Cold War, oddly enough. But I was wondering, what do you think of when you think of the Cold War?

Nanci:                                   Oddly enough, Billy Joel.

Shane:                                  Like not the wall falling or any … Billy Joel. Why? Okay, just explain.

Nanci:                                   He has this song called Leningrad. I don’t know. I just remember it from when I was a kid, and it comes to my mind. It’s about Billy Joel growing up in Long Island during the Cold War, and then on the other side of the world, a young kid growing up in Russia loses his father at Leningrad, grows up a communist in the Soviet Union, then he becomes a clown.

Shane:                                  A clown? What, the one over there? The one that’s [crosstalk 00:00:48] is a clown?

Nanci:                                   Yeah, the guy eventually becomes a clown.

Shane:                                  Okay.

Nanci:                                   But it’s really sweet because he wrote the song after he met the guy, when he went … Billy Joel did a tour in Russia and they met and they became friends, and he’s a clown.

Shane:                                  That is fascinating.

Nanci:                                   Yeah, so that’s what I think of when I think of the Cold War.

Shane:                                  I will never think of Billy Joel or clowns the same way ever again.

                                                Welcome to the American Geophysical Unions podcast, about the scientists and the methods behind the science. These are the stories you won’t read in a manuscript or hear in a lecture. I’m Shane Hanlon.

Nanci:                                   And I’m Nanci Bompey.

Shane:                                  And this is Third Pod From The Sun, centennial edition.

Nanci:                                   Centennial edition?

Shane:                                  Oh, you just wait.

                                                All right, so we are not talking about Billy Joel today.

Nanci:                                   Unfortunately.

Shane:                                  Unfortunately. We are talking about the Cold War, though.

Nanci:                                   Yes, and the reason we’re talking about the Cold War is we’re kicking off our centennial podcast series.

Shane:                                  Woo hoo!

Nanci:                                   So here is our producer Lauren to tell a little bit more about AGU centennial, and this podcast series we’re embarking on.

Lauren:                                 We’re embarking on. Hi, everyone. Yes, so 2019 is AGU’s centennial. It’s our 100th birthday.

Shane:                                  Woo hoo! Yay!

Lauren:                                 Pretty awesome. So we decided we wanted to take a look back at the past 100 years of science, and we’re gonna tell some stories about how science has influenced history and how history has influenced science over the past century.

Shane:                                  That’s exciting, so what is our first story?

Lauren:                                 Our first story, as you said, Shane, is about the Cold War. This all started because I went to a talk earlier this year by a historian. His name is Matthias Dörries. He works at the University of Strasbourg in France. And Matthias gave a talk about how the Cold War actually helped to advance atmospheric science. So basically he was explaining how, because of nuclear weapons, the bomb testing, the arms race, the space race and everything else that was going on in the middle of the 20th century, and especially the Cold War, scientists had to learn a lot about the atmosphere and how air behaves, and that really benefited us as a society.

Matthias Dorries:             In the aftermath of the second World War during the Cold War, that’s where really, stratospheric science took off. In the second half of the 1950s, the stratosphere becomes more and more of interest, and the space, then, in general. The rockets potentially that carry the atom weapons, they would go through the stratosphere, so you have to know more about it. The rockets that are sent into space, that starts with Sputnik in 1957. The first weather satellites that arrive in 1960 and so on, so there’s also this technology now becomes more and more important, and so that’s what that reason you want to know more about the stratosphere.

Shane:                                  I am a biologist by training, and I feel like we talk about a lot of spheres here like stratosphere and troposphere and ionosphere. What are we talking about here? What are the spheres?

Lauren:                                 The first, most bottom-layer of earth’s atmosphere is called the troposphere, and that’s where all the weather happens; the storms, the clouds, the rain, all of that. The next layer up is the stratosphere, and the stratosphere is important because that’s where the ozone layer is. And once air gets up into the stratosphere it can kinda circle the globe and go anywhere. And it’s actually interesting because down here close to the surface in the troposphere, the higher you go in altitude it gets colder, like when you climb a mountain it’s really cold. The stratosphere is weird, because the higher up you go in altitude, it actually gets warmer.

Shane:                                  I’m picturing an hourglass between those two spheres. It’s inversed maybe?

Lauren:                                 Yeah, mm-hmm (affirmative). That is, I think what it is, yeah. So Matthias was telling me that during World War II there were some things going on that really brought the stratosphere to people’s attention. So for the first time people had to deal with radioactive fallout from nuclear bombs, and when fallout gets up into the stratosphere, it can go all over the globe. So they had to know if a bomb went off, where would the fallout go. It becomes this major issue. So the government, the US government, created a special lab just to look into fallout, specifically. They wanted to know if they could detect a nuclear explosion, if they detected fallout somewhere, and they wanted to know that if an explosion happens, where does the fallout go.

                                                So this lab they created actually still exists.  It’s called the Air Resources Lab, and it’s in College Park, Maryland. And I got to actually speak with a couple scientists there. The first one is Jerome Hefter, but he goes by Nick. He’s a meteorologist, and he’s retired, but he worked at this lab back in its infancy in the 60s, and his job was to observe the nuclear bomb tests the US did back in the Pacific ocean.

Nick Hefter:                        They had a whole series they wanted to test before the treaty came in for no more testing in the atmosphere. That was the Dominic series at Christmas Island, 1962. That’s the series I really came in on, and I was out in Christmas Island. And there, they were testing megaton, eight, ten megaton shots. This is 1,000 times the size of the ones that were blown off in Japan.

Lauren:                                 So what was your role, there?

Nick Hefter:                        Well, we were forecasting where the fallout, if there was fallout, where it would go. In the Pacific during Dominic, we wanted to make sure that anything blown there would not go up towards Hawaii. And what we did, is just make sure, before each shot, that the atmosphere would not transport whatever fallout there was, even though we didn’t really know, because we had never had large-scale air bursts before. And you had to be very conservative on these forecasts. Anything that was heading up toward the Hawaiian area, you just canceled it for that day.

                                                The planes flew in from Hawaii early in the morning, and if I gave ’em the go ahead, they’d do it. Occasionally, we had a changed forecast, so it took ’em a while to come down. If they couldn’t detonate, they were not a very happy crew. Putting one of these things, a megaton bomb in a aircraft is not a simple matter.

Lauren:                                 Just tell me a little bit about what it was like for you witnessing these nuclear explosions, these tests, and being there on site. What was your experience with it?

Nick Hefter:                        Awesome. When I first went out to Christmas Island, the first shot I saw was, I think, something like an eight megaton shot. And of course, I was there by myself, because everybody else had vacated. They were going back and forth. I had never been out to anything like this before. I had a very good friend who did the sound forecasts for the bombs, and what he said is, “You have to … ” First of all, we all had high-density glasses. And then what you had to do was stand with one foot in front of the other, and one foot behind, and lean into it, because the impulse of the shot would come up. Well, they knew I was a novice at this. So I did just that. I mean, I had no idea. They shot these things off before sunrise.

Speaker 6:                           Three, two, one, zero.

Nick Hefter:                        And as we were watching, the entire sky lit up. It was like it was noon.

Speaker 6:                           The shockwave will arrive shortly. Keep firm footing until wave passes.

Nick Hefter:                        It just lit everything up. It was like noon!

Lauren:                                 Wow.

Nick Hefter:                        And what you saw is a ripple in the palm trees coming towards you, and that was the pulse. And so I stood there, and it was a crack. It really hurt. And the fellow who told me to stand, beforehand, was watching me and kinda laughing. When I turned around, he was on the ground. He got knocked over. He missed the forecast of the original pulse. It was much higher than he thought. It broke practically every dish and window in the main camp. But that’s a … I mean, this is awesome.

Lauren:                                 Oh my god. How far away from the blast were you?

Nick Hefter:                        We were about 15 miles out.

Lauren:                                 Wow.

Speaker 6:                           Hello? This is a test.

Nick Hefter:                        Radiation from that, into the stratosphere, was studied for years afterwards.

Speaker 6:                           I’m on the air [whistling].

Nick Hefter:                        That’s where we started to learn a lot about the exchange between stratosphere and troposphere.

Shane:                                  All right, I gotta ask. What did they learn in all of this?

Lauren:                                 Yeah, so like Nick said, these tests allowed them to learn about how air moves between different layers of the atmosphere. And Ariel Stein, who is another meteorologist, and he’s actually director of the Air Resources Lab, he told me all about what they learned.

Ariel Stein:                          This radiation was used, and the technical term for that is, it’s used as a tracer. So it tells you how … It’s kind of like putting a dye on a swimming pool, and actually you can see how the flow of the atmosphere occurs. And that’s a unique way that has been the trademark of this laboratory for years. Basically, we are trying to find ways of understand how the atmosphere behaves using this kind of information. It was, at that time, it was pretty easy to measure radiation. That’s one of the things that you can go very, very low to the detection limit and you can get a pretty good signal, there. So with that information, you basically know how the atmosphere is moving the parcels of air around, and you figured out what is the circulations patterns of the earth. That was, of course, in the stratosphere, but we do it all the time in the lower troposphere when we are trying to figure out where the pollution or some chemical will go.

Nick Hefter:                        We knew that the Russians were detonating large detonations in central … I’m sorry, the Chinese, in central China. And they were getting radiation in the central United States. Iodine was being discovered in some of the animals, here. And they finally discovered that the detonations in China were coming over the United States, up in the stratosphere, raining out in a storm. The rain would rain out the iodine onto the fields, the cows would eat the grain, and put it in the milk, so that the levels of contamination in the milk were being found and they figured that for babies, you had to be careful. So what we had to do is find out when the Chinese would shoot a … They didn’t tell you. We measured in the aircraft, and things like this, where it was going, if it was coming over the United States. If it was gonna rain, we would then tell whoever, EPA or somebody that there was a chance of rainout or washout, mainly rainout, or radioactive material. They would then get in touch with the farmers. And the farmers would then take their animals and put them on dry hay inside during that period so that they would not be eating contaminated stuff.

Shane:                                  How long was all this bombing going on for, that they were testing?

Lauren:                                 Well, so it started after the war ended in the ’40s, and then it went all the way up in the ’50s into the early ’60s.

Shane:                                  Wow.

Lauren:                                 Yeah, but in ’63, the US, the Soviet Union, the other countries that were testing, they realized that atmospheric testing just had to stop. So they eventually signed a treaty banning all atmospheric tests. And at this point, because of the fallout, all the tests went underground, essentially. But this issue of fallout, so it wasn’t a big deal anymore, but it got scientists thinking about what actually would happen if there was a nuclear war, and we all just started bombing each other.

                                                And a couple others, a group of scientists, and they came up with this idea of nuclear winter. And so this is just the idea that if enough countries engaged in nuclear war, the bombs would vaporize so much material from the surface that it would eventually rise up into the atmosphere and create this dust cloud that would block out the sun.

Matthias Dorries:             Then you have whole debate in 1983 about the nuclear winter, yeah. That means that the party, and nobody should attack, because it would become back, basically. It would affect the whole northern hemisphere. And so that was heavily debated throughout the 1980s, but this group, TTAPS, as it was called, which Carl Sagan was part of this group, this group argued that the smoke from destroyed cities, that it would be rising into the stratosphere and stay there for a long time, and would affect seriously the climate. So that was heavily debated, ’cause it could not be … No experiment could be done.

Lauren:                                 Right.

Matthias Dorries:             Or, it could be done only once. That even a smaller war between two countries like Pakistan or India would already be sufficient to have major consequences on a global level.

Lauren:                                 Wow.

Nanci:                                   I love Carl Sagan.

Lauren:                                 I know.

Nanci:                                   I mean, who doesn’t? We actually have a framed picture of Carl Sagan on our wall.

Shane:                                  Really?

Nanci:                                   And then we got this really cool artist’s art when we were in New Orleans.

Shane:                                  Oh.

Nanci:                                   You know how they sell art in the street? And this one guys was doing … He had these pictures of Carl Sagan, and we have it hung on the wall.

Shane:                                  Of course you do.

Nanci:                                   But I do, I love Cosmos, the old Cosmos.

Carl Sagan:                          Our own planet is only a tiny part of the vast cosmic tapestry, a starry fabric of worlds yet untold.

Lauren:                                 He’s probably the best science writer-communicator that ever lived.

Nanci:                                   I know.

Lauren:                                 He’s great.

Nanci:                                   And his turtlenecks.

Shane:                                  But okay. So but how is he involved in all of this stuff?

Lauren:                                 Yeah, Carl Sagan was kind of like this surprise that popped out of the story when I was talking to Matthias about it. Carl Sagan, I always thought of him just as the Cosmos guy, studying other planets. But he was actually an atmospheric scientist back in the ’60s and ’70s. But all that Sagan changed around the time of the Vietnam War.

Matthias Dorries:             Vietnam War in the 1960s affects the way scientists also think about participating in military projects. Because they realized that something is wrong, the knowledge of the atmospheric science has been used also in the war. And so they sort of take their distance, let’s say it that way. And they don’t want to have anything to do with these kinds of research. And Carl Sagan, for example, was in all the important circles, he was also in an secret advising group. And he, at some point, said, “No, I don’t want to be part of this anymore.” And all his colleagues said, “You’re crazy because you’re losing all the connections,” but he took this distance and worked more on planetary atmospheric scientists. And that’s what he worked on in the early 1970s, then. And so he became interested in planetary atmospheres.

                                                And for the younger generation, they actually said, “Okay, maybe it’s better to be on the safer side. Let’s do research which has no connections with military research,” and that’s an attitude that’s very much inspired by the Vietnam War.

Lauren:                                 Wow.

                                                So it’s kinda weird to think that without the Cold War, or the Vietnam War, we may never have had Cosmos.

Nanci:                                   Awe.

Shane:                                  Yeah, that’s-

Lauren:                                 Can you imagine?

Shane:                                  I mean, especially-

Nanci:                                   No Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Lauren:                                 No Neil-

Shane:                                  Yeah, it’s wild.

Nanci:                                   So how do scientists use this stuff now, all this information that they learned?

Lauren:                                 So another thing that came out of the 20th century, the second half, was the development of the computer. So for the first time, scientists were able to create computer models of the atmosphere. Because before, they were just drawing up, doing all these back trajectories by hand, which takes a lot of time and effort. Now, they had computers, and they could look at so many different things.

                                                So what they do now is they use computer to create models of the atmosphere and use it to forecast things like where the ash cloud from a volcanic eruption might go, or what happens if a nuclear bomb goes off, or what if there’s an accident at a nuclear power plant, where will the fallout go?

Ariel Stein:                          And these modeling tools are used by the scientific community and by the Weather Service to provide information to the public. For instance, if there is a chemical spill in a street in a city, they sue one of our models that has been developed based on this nuclear fallout, basically telling you where the chemical is going to go, and what quarters or what places need to be evacuated from that. The same for volcanic ash. So you see that the detonation of a nuclear device is very similar to a volcano eruption. So what we learned from that, we now transfer it to an application like a volcanic ash modeling, and we can tell the airplanes how to avoid that ash. In the ’50s, the government and mostly the Department of Energy started to explore the idea of using atomic energy to create electricity. So those nuclear power plants were starting to generate electricity, but one of the problems, and that’s why this lab was called upon, was, “Okay, what happens if something goes wrong? If there is a leak, if there is an explosion?” So where is that radiation going? And of course, we were really involved with Chernobyl happened in Russia.

Speaker 9:                           Nuclear experts in both capitols say it appears that a meltdown has taken place, and the fire is burning out of control.

Speaker 10:                         Monitoring the radiation situation throughout the day. Readings of up to 100 times normal levels have been recorded in connection to the-

Speaker 11:                         Soviet officials are now calling the Chernobyl nuclear plant accident a disaster.

Nick Hefter:                        Our lab was the lab that discovered where the Chernobyl accident happened.

Lauren:                                 Really?

Nick Hefter:                        Yeah. It was a Monday morning. I mean, I remember this, we were so involved. It was a Monday morning, and somebody called and said there were some very high radiation readings in Sweden, and would somebody look into what they were about. The main concern of the United States is, we had troops all over Europe, and they were worried about any US troops. And so my boss, Lester Machta at the time, said, “You go ahead do some back trajectories from where the sample was taken.” They did the sample in about a day or so, a couple of days, and found it very high. So we went there, and did a back trajectory because they thought if it was coming from one of the power plants in France, where there were a lot of them in France, this would directly involve our troops.

                                                Well, when we went back, we discovered that the back trajectory went towards western Russia and down into the Ukraine. And so we immediately got that word to the White House, or somewhere. And they, then, talked to the Soviet embassy, at the time. The Soviets finally admitted that there was an accident, just a small accident, at Chernobyl.

Speaker 12:                         Putting it out is going to be a very difficult problem. I don’t think anybody has ever dealt-

Speaker 13:                         What the nuclear experts are saying, it is the worst nuclear plant disaster in history.

Nick Hefter:                        They had not told anybody about it in Russia, or out of Russia. Well, it turns out, our back trajectory was remarkably close. So we just took a back trajectory back two or three days, and it was in … The trajectory went … So we were pretty sure it came from Russia. And when, of course, they finally admitted it and told us what the size, this was devastating.

Ariel Stein:                          But you see how, after so many years of experience, we can develop the tools that are more and more accurate, and we can predict the transport and dispersion.

Nanci:                                   I feel like I saw a documentary recently about the animals of Chernobyl.

Lauren:                                 Oh, yeah!

Shane:                                  It’s the rewilding, yeah.

Nanci:                                   Oh, yeah!

Lauren:                                 Yeah.

Shane:                                  There’s a ton of animals there, now. There’s frog communities and amphibians and there’s-

Lauren:                                 Deer.

Nanci:                                   Deer.

Shane:                                  Deer and wolves and, yeah.

Nanci:                                   Deer. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah. No, it’s true.

Shane:                                  ‘Cause yeah, that’s my reference to Chernobyl, ’cause I was two months old when Chernobyl happened.

Nanci:                                   My reference may have also come from Billy Joel.

Shane:                                  Oh, god.

Nanci:                                   You know … No, no, no, I feel like he definitely probably has a reference in We Didn’t Start The Fire.

Shane:                                  I was just thinking in my head, I was like, “Oh, man. That’s really on the nose.” And we’re back. Okay. All right so that’s all from Third Pod From The Sun, centennial edition.

Nanci:                                   Thanks so much to Lauren from bringing us this story, and to Matthias, Ariel, and Nick for sharing their work with us.

Shane:                                  The podcast is also produced with help from Josh Speiser, Olivia Ambrogio, and Katie Brendel, and Liza Lester. And thanks to Robin Murray for producing this episode.

Nanci:                                   We’d love to hear your thoughts on this podcast. Please rate and review us on Apple podcasts. And you can find new episodes on your favorite podcasting app, or at

Shane:                                  All right, thanks all, and be on the lookout for more centennial episodes to come.

Nanci:                                   As well as our regular episodes, as well.

Shane:                                  Oh, yeah, which will drop in your feed at the beginning of every month, like usual. So thanks again.