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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.