Please mark your calendars for the latest in the library’s series of Resident Scholar presentations, which will take place next week. Justin McBrien, a doctoral candidate in History at the University of Virginia, will discuss his research in a lecture titled “Making Climate Change: The ‘Atom Weather’ Controversy and the Question of Human Planetary Agency, 1945-1970.”
This event will be Thursday, December 10 at 2:00 p.m. in the Reading Room of the Special Collections and Archives Research Center on the library’s fifth floor. A summary of McBrien’s talk is below. Hope to see you there.
This presentation examines the public debate in the US during the 1940s-1960s over the potential of the nuclear explosions to affect large-scale climatic changes. The “atom weather” controversy prefigured the awareness that humans have enormous environmental impacts with the power to save or destroy life on earth. By suggesting that nuclear explosions could inadvertently trigger extreme weather and rapid climate change, believers in atom weather were early articulators of the concept of the global biosphere as a chaotic system vulnerable to disturbances.
By the mid-1950s, a considerable proportion of the American public blamed nuclear testing for droughts, frosts and tornado outbreaks. Meteorological experts studying fallout circulation dismissed the possibility that nuclear explosions could rival nature’s most powerful forces. They assumed that the global atmosphere was a stable system that could absorb any disturbances or pollutants that humanity might produce. Yet in their attempts to justify the continuation of nuclear testing and mollify public fears, these experts began to promote the bomb’s potential to modify the climate. They advocated for ambitious programs to use “peaceful explosions” for the “good of mankind” in continental-scale “geographical engineering” schemes.
This rhetoric seemed only to exacerbate public fears of the bomb’s potential to precipitate environmental catastrophes. Even atmospheric experts who had previously denied possibility of bomb-induced “weather modification” began to speculate about their potential to trigger an Ice Age. When testing went underground in the 1960s, these same scientists turned their attention from the circulation of radioactive fallout to that of a variety of human-caused pollutants. Their studies led to the conclusion that the public had the right idea all along, though not the right culprit: it was not nuclear testing but industrial pollution that was inadvertently modifying the global climate system.