BOOK: Here On Earth: A Natural History of the Planet (Flannery) 1

Here on Earth: A Natural History of the Planet

by Tim Flannery – Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press (April 5, 2011)

ISBN-10: 080211976X — ISBN-13: 978-0802119766

Excerpt from pages 157-158

The British zoologist, Julian Huxley became the first director-general of UNESCO. He argued that if humans use nuclear weapons to destroy the arctic icecap we would create both a warmer climate and new habitable lands. Planning for an atomic war on nature had begun, and so widespread and effective would it become that every human alive today has traces of the conflict in their body.

By the 1950’s both the USA and USSR had sufficient stock-piles of nuclear weapons to be able to contemplate using a few for “peaceful purposes”. Atlantic Richfield Oil Corporation was pondering whether nuclear power might play a role in helping to exploit Alberta’s tar sands. The company executives reasoned that if it could explode a series of two-kiloton bombs below the 30,000 square metre tar sands deposit, the heat of the explosion would vitrify the sand, coating the cavity thus created with glass, while a peculiarity of the chemical structure of the tar would cause it to liquefy. When cooled, the tar would retain its runny consistency and so fill the cavities. Three hundred billion barrels of crude oil could be made accessible by the process, the experts claimed, with no hazard from radioactivity.

John Convey of the Canadian Department of Mines was a particularly enthusiastic advocate, seeing the atomic bomb as a new type of mining, and when the US Atomic Energy Commission conducted tests of the tar – the results of which were favorable – it looked like the world’s first nuclear mining operation would proceed. But then in 1959, Canadian officials got cold feet. Politicians began to worry about how to break the news that American nuclear bombs would be detonated on Canadian soil, potentially, devastating the Canadian wilderness. Planning came to a halt.

Meanwhile, far more ambitious plans for nuclear power, along the lines first suggested by Huxley, were being proposed. In 1962, Harry Wexler, chief of scientific services at the US weather bureau suggested that the weapon of choice for destroying the Arctic icecap should be the hydrogen bomb. Ten clean hydrogen bombs, exploded above the icecap would, Wexler argued, reduce the Arctic Ocean’s ability to shed heat energy, and so melt the ice.

Other proposals for destroying the icecap included covering it with a layer of chemicals, or seeding it with algae, both of which would darken its surface and so trap heat.

The Russians who had long struggled with a frigid climate, seemed drawn to such ideas and the Presidium of the USSR Academy of Sciences organized a conference in 1959 in Moscow to discuss how the ice might be melted, with two follow-up conferences held in Leningrad in the early 60’s.

The doyen of polar icecap destruction was Russian oil and gas engineer Petr Mikhhailovich Borisov, who published his comprehensive plan in a small book. After long experience working in the far north he had come to believe that melting the Arctic icecap would bring untold benefits to humanity. Shipping would increase, as would rainfall in the Sahara, while the tundra would become arable, he claimed. And rising seas were nothing to worry about: the melting of the Greenland icecap, he assured us, would cause a rise of only one millimetre or two per year. At the heart of Borisov’s proposal was the idea of giving birth to a Polar Gulf Stream. This would be accomplished via sophisticated engineering works, including the building of a huge dam across the Bering Strait. Warm water would flow into the Arctic and cold water out, the overall effect being to banish the ice. Borisov concluded that if enough water were moved in this way then earth could even be returned to the warm state that characterized the age of the dinosaurs, where there was, he said, little temperature difference between the equator and the poles. Borisov estimated the cost of the project would be a mere 24,000 million ruples which could be funded by a global consortium of benefitting countries. The US’s share would be 100,000 million which, he said, “all goes to say that the appropriations for improving the global climate are reasonable”.

These insane efforts at geoengineering proved, thankfully, to be beyond humanity’s grasp, but such was out love of the bomb that at least 500 nuclear weapons were detonated in the atmosphere. The energy and radiation released frequently exceeded all estimates, and some such ‘tests” were extraordinarily crude. polluting and mindless — such as the British trials carried out in central Australia in the mid-50’s — a matter of soaking plutonium in diesel fuel and setting it alight. And such was the overall impact of these activities that by the mid-60’s radiation had altered Earth’s atmosphere in a remarkable way. There was now much more carbon-14, a heavy isotope of carbon (an isotope being a different type of atom of the same chemical element) with eight rather than six, neutrons in the nucleus.

Normally, just one part per trillion of atmospheric carbon is Carbon-14 but by the 60’s the cumulative effect was so great that this figure doubled. While Carbon-14 has now declined evidence for its high levels can still be detected. Plants use carbon to build their tissues and they do not discriminate between Carbon-12 (the most common isotope of carbon) and Carbon-14. Any organism that was living in the 1950’s and 60’s incorporated the excess Carbon-14 into its tissues. So trees, for example, which lay down growth rings, have excess Carbon-14 in rings laid down during that time.

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