Chain Reaction: How a Soviet A-Bomb Test Led the U.S. Into Climate Science

The untold story of a failed Russian geoengineering scheme, panic in the Pentagon, and a Nixon-era effort to study global cooling.

On March 23, 1971, the Soviet Union set off three Hiroshima-scale nuclear blasts deep underground in a remote region some 1,000 miles east of Moscow, ripping a massive crater in the earth. The goal was to demonstrate that nuclear explosions could be used to dig a canal connecting two rivers, altering their direction and bringing water to dry areas for agriculture.

When the director of DARPA heard about the blasts and their purpose, he had an immediate reaction: “Holy shit. This is dangerous.”

WHAT I LEFT OUT is a recurring feature in which book authors are invited to share anecdotes and narratives that, for whatever reason, did not make it into their final manuscripts. In this installment, Sharon Weinberger shares a story that was left out of “The Imagineers of War: The Untold Story of DARPA, the Pentagon Agency That Changed the World,” recently published in paperback by Vintage.

The nuclear bombs, it turned out, weren’t that effective for building canals, though they did create an “atomic lake” in the crater formed by the blast. But the tests had another lasting consequence, all but forgotten until now: They set in motion the first U.S. government research on climate change — a far-reaching project that has continued into this decade.

On the surface, the reaction to the Soviet tests was somewhat muted. Western countries, including the United States, detected the explosions and lodged a protest alleging a violation of the Limited Test Ban Treaty. Moscow wouldn’t publicly acknowledge the tests for several years.

But in the national security community in Washington, the blasts sparked panic. When intelligence officials briefed Stephen Lukasik, the director of the Pentagon’s secretive Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, he had an immediate reaction: “Holy shit. This is dangerous.”

The Soviet Union, it turns out, had for more than a decade been studying ways to use nuclear weapons to create massive canals to reroute water for irrigation, and the plan involved hundreds of nuclear detonations. “The Soviets wanted to change the direction of some rivers in Russia,” Lukasik, now 87 years old, told me recently in an interview. “They flow north where they didn’t do any good for them and they wanted to turn them around so they would flow south.”

The Pentagon didn’t particularly care which way rivers ran in the Soviet Union, but it cared about how this ambitious act of geoengineering, which would affect waters flowing into the Arctic Ocean, could potentially alter the world’s climate. Lukasik decided that DARPA needed to start a climate research program that could come up with ways to model the effects. The name of this climate program, highly classified at the time, was Nile Blue.

At first glance, DARPA might have seemed like an odd place to study climate change. The agency was created in 1958 as a response to the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik, to help the United States get into space. But in those years, DARPA was also deeply involved in nuclear issues. It had created an extensive monitoring system precisely to tip off the Pentagon to secret tests like the Soviet effort in 1971.

That same year, John Perry, a young Air Force officer, got an unexpected question from an official at DARPA (at the time called just ARPA; the D for “defense” was added in 1972.) “We need a program manager for this program we have. Would you like to come to Washington?” the DARPA official asked Perry.

“Washington was the not the Midwest or Vietnam, so I said, ‘Sure.’” Perry recalled answering. “I’ll discover later what the hell this thing is.”

For Perry, a meteorologist by training, it wasn’t a hard decision, even if he didn’t know exactly what the job entailed. He soon found himself at DARPA’s headquarters in northern Virginia, where he was put in charge of the mysteriously named Nile Blue. One of the first things he decided to do was get rid of the secrecy. Even if the concerns about Soviet nuclear tests needed to be kept quiet, research on climate modeling could be done in the open. Keeping the program classified, particularly during the Vietnam War, would only hurt DARPA’s ability to work with academic scientists, he argued.

The secrecy “did throw sort of a miasma over the program,” Perry recalled, noting there were rumors that DARPA was involved in weather-altering research. “In fact, I had a visit from a guy from the arms control office in the State Department who came over, armed with top-secret clearances and what-have-you, to find out what nefarious things we were doing. He was very disappointed to find out that there weren’t any.”


Once the program was declassified, the next step was finding scientists to do the necessary studies. Perry found himself in charge of $3 million in funding, a sizable sum in the early 1970s, and his mandate was about to expand.

The early climate modeling had its critics. “Modeling is just like masturbation,” a GM scientist said. “If you do it too much you start thinking it’s the real thing.”

Soon after starting the research program, he was summoned to the director’s office to meet with Lukasik and Eric Willis, who directed DARPA’s nuclear monitoring program. Willis, who had been a student of Willard Libby, the inventor of radiocarbon dating, was interested in taking a historical look at climate.

Willis “took the position that the climate research program really didn’t make any sense unless you had good information on past climates to be able to do the verification models,” Perry recalled. “He thought there should be an element of past climate research in there.”

Perry knew nothing about this topic, so he nodded and smiled before walking out of the director’s office with a new charge to spend $400,000 on paleoclimate research. “Essentially, I called up a few people and said, ‘Hi, you don’t know me, but I want to give you a lot of money,’” he said.

The heart of the Nile Blue program was computational modeling. DARPA may not have had experience with meteorology, but it did have plenty of experience with computers. Just two years earlier, the agency’s computer science office had established the first nodes of ARPANET, the network that would later become the internet. DARPA was also in charge of the Illiac IV, one of the world’s first supercomputers.

DARPA’s climate work helped justify the continuation of Illiac IV, whose costs were attracting scrutiny. “They needed to say that its capability was being developed for some customers who could pay for it,” Perry said. “Climate modeling is a very good customer for computer science.” (Critically, DARPA’s funding for modeling rescued the RAND Corporation’s work on climate simulation, which the National Science Foundation was on the verge of canceling.)

The modeling work had its critics. Perry recalled that Ruth Reck, an atmospheric scientist at General Motors, expressed early skepticism of DARPA-funded climate models. “Modeling is just like masturbation,” he recalled Reck telling some of the DARPA-funded scientists at a conference. “If you do it too much, you start thinking it’s the real thing.”

Reck, who confirmed the anecdote in a recent interview with me, said her point was that scientists were confusing their models with reality. “They had a right to feel glad that they were doing it, they were contributing a lot, but it didn’t mean it was the real thing. It just wasn’t,” she said. “That is very much like masturbation: If they do it enough, it becomes the focus of what they want.”


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Yet DARPA’s work was critical to sparking those debates. The research program for the first time was drawing together modelers, paleo-climatologists, radiation experts, and meteorologists. The program created an interdisciplinary field, according to Warren Wiscombe, who credits the agency for transforming him from an applied mathematician into a climate scientist in the 1970s. “All of the sciences then that later contributed to climate science were very separate and they had brick walls between them,” he said. “They were what we call stovepiped now.”

As DARPA was building up its Nile Blue program, another government effort that would alter the course of climate research was taking place behind the scenes. In December 1972, George J. Kukla, of Columbia University, and R.K. Matthews, of Brown, wrote to President Richard Nixon expressing their concerns about “a global deterioration of climate, by order of magnitude larger than any hitherto experience by civilized mankind.”

Their concern was not global warming, but cooling, which they feared could lower food production and increase extreme weather. It was a preliminary result (and one that would later be used by critics of climate change in a simplistic fashion to argue that climate predictions were wrong). The letter caught the attention of Nixon, who ordered an interagency panel to look at the issue. The recommendation, according to William Sprigg, who helped set up the national climate program, was “that the government should have some kind of a program, a plan that would set goals and determine who should be doing what.”

A 1948 article in Mechanix Illustrated vividly captured American fears about the Soviet nuclear program.

Visual: Mechanix Illustrated/Apic/Getty Images

The scientific consensus is that climate change is real, and much of the credit for establishing that consensus goes to DARPA.

In the end, the Soviets abandoned their grand plan to alter the course of rivers, but by the time DARPA finished its research in 1976, the foundation of climate research was firmly in place: a community of scientists dedicated to the issue, and a political atmosphere conducive to continuing the research. DARPA, whose mandate is for fixed-term research, ended its climate program, but the National Science Foundation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration picked up the work, eventually leading to the establishment of the national climate program.

Even scientists like Reck, who were critical of some of the early modeling work, said the research has showed clearly that climate change is real. “I stand with what I told John [Perry] years ago: ‘I really don’t think we know, I think we are far from understanding the climate,’” she told me. “That does not mean we should not curtail everything that we can to slow down the rate of change. I think we have to do that. I think it’s absolutely frivolous not to do that.”

While the debates go on about the accuracy of climate models, the scientific consensus is that climate change is real, and much of the credit for establishing that consensus goes to DARPA — whose role has been largely forgotten, except by the scientists funded by the program and who went on to take leading positions in climate research.

More than 40 years after the end of Nile Blue, former DARPA officials like Perry and Lukasik still get together for a monthly lunch, where they reminisce about their days at the pioneering agency. Lukasik recalls Perry telling him: “You know, Steve, the work started in DARPA and continued by me in the National Science Foundation became the foundation for all of the understanding of global warming.”


Sharon Weinberger is an executive editor at Foreign Policy magazine and a former Knight Science Journalism fellow at MIT.

Top visual: Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images
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8 comments / Join the Discussion

    What about ice ages? they usually occur at intervals of 10,000 years approx. We are currently well overdue; if there is another one we will be glad of the co2. These doom spreading scientists are all very well; none of them have any suggestions how our civilisation can continue without fossil fuels. This is a far more important field but there seems to be scant progress

    Reply

    Actually climate science was funded by the United States government much earlier when they gave Roger Revelle and Charles David Keeling money to study the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere… in 1957.

    The first American I know of to study the climate was Thomas Chamberlin but I don’t know if he was funded by the US government. He published in 1899 about how CO2 could change the climate.

    Reply

    Millions of Americans have convinced themselves that all these global climate change warnings must be part of a massive conspiracy scheme run by ‘globalists’ and money-hungry scientists. It has become quite fashionable to believe such things among certain segments of this population. It also brings joy to them to join with like-minded believers. These folks choose to source most of their information from sites specifically set up to reenforce their deeply entrenched worldview and political leanings. They have become convinced that all the countering information is subversive and therefore not worth examining. This is a bit like some cult leaders telling their followers that outside influences will ruin their happiness.

    These folks are typically short term thinkers with little to no formal academic backgrounds in the physical and biological sciences. They often resent egg-head scientists that make them look ignorant in comparison. Their primary focus is on issues such as taxation, tyranny, terrorism, immigration and federal government over-regulation. That leaves them blind to the trashed environment our offspring will be inheriting.

    Such people can be presented with mountains of evidence, provided by a broad spectrum of scientific disciplines studying Anthropogenic Climate Disruption (ACD) effects, and will still reject it all off-hand as corrupted. They often do this with great pride, fully convinced this is the right approach. The more opposition they get the more convinced they become that they are right. This is the approach they typically take with the following information.

    The climate science denialists, who post here, will feel an obligation to either ignore or reject all the following information.

    Climate change: How do we know
    http://climate.nasa.gov/evidence/

    The Cook et al. (2013) 97% consensus result is robust
    https://skepticalscience.com/97-percent-consensus-robust.htm

    The 97% ‘Consensus’ on Climate Science
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7d8PwPHMKEw

    List of Worldwide Scientific Organizations that state climate change is real and human driven
    https://www.opr.ca.gov/s_listoforganizations.php

    What’s Really Warming the World?
    http://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/2015-whats-warming-the-world/

    Bloomberg Carbon Clock
    https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/carbon-clock/

    The three-minute story of 800,000 years of climate change with a sting in the tail
    https://theconversation.com/the-three-minute-story-of-800-000-years-of-climate-change-with-a-sting-in-the-tail-73368

    There’s No Science Behind Denying Climate Change
    https://www.forbes.com/sites/startswithabang/2017/05/02/theres-no-science-behind-denying-climate-change/#7b42cac4ff71

    Earth sets heat record in 2016 — for the third year in a row
    http://www.latimes.com/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-hottest-year-2016-20170118-story.html

    This Animation Lets You Watch Global Warming Heat Up Over 166 Years
    http://www.slate.com/blogs/future_tense/2016/05/09/climate_scientist_s_animation_helps_visualize_global_warming.html?wpsrc=sh_all_mob_tw_top

    New study confirms the oceans are warming rapidly
    https://www.theguardian.com/environment/climate-consensus-97-per-cent/2017/jun/26/new-study-confirms-the-oceans-are-warming-rapidly

    From pole to pole, twin sea ice records have scientists stunned
    https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2016/12/06/from-pole-to-pole-twin-sea-ice-records-have-scientists-stunned/?utm_term=.a6b76e020906

    ‘Extreme’ Changes Underway in Some of Antarctica’s Biggest Glaciers
    https://insideclimatenews.org/news/02042018/antarctica-ice-sheet-shelf-glaciers-grounding-line-receding-worst-case-sea-level-rise-risk?mc_cid=288a122419&mc_eid=115787945d

    ‘Extreme’ Changes Underway in Some of Antarctica’s Biggest Glaciers
    https://insideclimatenews.org/news/02042018/antarctica-ice-sheet-shelf-glaciers-grounding-line-receding-worst-case-sea-level-rise-risk?mc_cid=288a122419&mc_eid=115787945d

    ‘Extreme’ Changes Underway in Some of Antarctica’s Biggest Glaciers
    https://insideclimatenews.org/news/02042018/antarctica-ice-sheet-shelf-glaciers-grounding-line-receding-worst-case-sea-level-rise-risk?mc_cid=288a122419&mc_eid=115787945d

    Watch 26 Years of Arctic Ice Disappear in Seconds
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fo1Boie7mtI&sns=fb

    Melting Permafrost Is Turbocharging Climate Change
    http://europe.newsweek.com/permafrost-greenhouse-gases-global-warming-465585?rm=eu

    How the Earth will pay us back for our carbon emissions with … more carbon emissions
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2016/10/03/there-are-our-carbon-emissions-and-then-there-are-the-ones-the-earth-will-punish-us-with/?utm_term=.f0505fede5e6

    America’s TV meteorologists: Symptoms of climate change are rampant, undeniable
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/capital-weather-gang/wp/2016/11/18/americas-tv-meteorologists-symptoms-of-climate-change-are-rampant-undeniable/#comments

    Climate: What did We Know and When Did We Know it?
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ox5hbkg34Ow

    How Reliable are Satellite Temperatures? (Director’s Cut)
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bo_7q-w06B4

    Major correction to satellite data shows 140% faster warming since 1998
    https://www.carbonbrief.org/major-correction-to-satellite-data-shows-140-faster-warming-since-1998

    Surveilling the Scientists
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4QK5Kp2uM1E

    AP FACT CHECK: On climate science, most GOP candidates fail
    http://news.yahoo.com/ap-fact-check-climate-science-most-gop-candidates-080125499–election.html

    Climate change escalating so fast it is ‘beyond point of no return’
    New study rewrites two decades of research and author says we are ‘beyond point of no return’
    http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/donald-trump-climate-change-policy-global-warming-expert-thomas-crowther-a7450236.html

    Steven Chu Shares Some Sobering Climate Change Math
    https://climateone.org/video/steven-chu-shares-some-sobering-climate-change-math

    Scientists “too frightened” to tell truth on climate impacts
    http://www.climatechangenews.com/2016/09/26/scientists-too-frightened-to-tell-truth-on-climate-impacts/

    The Earth Itself Is Now Accelerating The Demise Of The Human Species
    http://www.dailykos.com/story/2016/12/7/1608385/-The-Earth-Itself-Is-Now-Accelerating-The-Demise-Of-The-Human-Species

    Climate change could plunge tens of millions of city dwellers into poverty by 2031
    http://www.businessinsider.com/climate-change-could-plunge-tens-of-millions-into-poverty-by-2031-2016-10

    A Horrifying New Study Found that the Ocean is on its Way to Suffocating by 2030
    http://www.theinertia.com/environment/a-horrifying-new-study-found-that-the-ocean-is-on-its-way-to-suffocating-by-2030/

    March against madness – denial has pushed scientists out into the streets
    https://www.theguardian.com/environment/climate-consensus-97-per-cent/2017/apr/25/march-against-madness-denial-has-pushed-scientists-out-to-the-streets

    The Threat of Global Warming causing Near-Term Human Extinction
    Temperature, carbon dioxide and methane
    http://arctic-news.blogspot.com/p/threat.html

    CO2 Concentration – Last 800,000 years
    http://scripps.ucsd.edu/programs/keelingcurve/wp-content/plugins/sio-bluemoon/graphs/co2_800k.png

    CO2 Concentration during the last 316-years
    http://arctic-news.blogspot.com/2016/01/greenhouse-gas-levels-and-temperatures-keep-rising.html

    Atmospheric CO2 Rocketed to 405.6 ppm Yesterday — A Level not Seen in 15 Million Years
    http://robertscribbler.com/2016/02/05/co2-rockets-to-405-6-ppm-a-level-not-seen-in-15-million-years/

    World on track to lose two-thirds of wild animals by 2020, major report warns
    http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/oct/27/world-on-track-to-lose-two-thirds-of-wild-animals-by-2020-major-report-warns

    Humanity driving ‘unprecedented’ marine extinction
    https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/sep/14/humanity-driving-unprecedented-marine-extinction

    Reply

    I should point out some of the history that preceded this effort. In the U.S.S.R. the nuclear geo-engineering program was referred to as Peaceful Nuclear Explosions (PNE) and was encouraged by the counterpart effort, in the U.S., known as Project Plowshare. U.S. scientists and engineers encouraged the USSR to compete with us in efforts to employ nuclear explosive devices for various civil engineering applications. A major proponent, of the U.S. program was eminent nuclear physicist Dr. Edward Teller, often referred to as the father of the American H-bomb. Over a 17 year period the U.S. program spent approximately $770 million on the Project Plowshare program. There were 27 nuclear explosive tests conducted by the U.S. to test various concepts.

    ARPA was engaged in some of those tests for the purposes of detecting underground nuclear explosions. Two of ARPA’s dedicated test took place in a salt dome southwest of Hattiesburg, Mississippi. They were known as the Salmon and the Sterling events.

    As part of the Project Plowshare program students were encouraged to come up with various proposals for how nuclear explosives could be used. One proposal was to detonate nuclear explosives above the Los Angeles Basin to create a hole in the inversion layer that would allow the smoggy air to be drained upward with the nuclear blast plume.

    An architecture student generated a plan to use nuclear explosives to terra-form the hills in the Marin Headlands to divert the natural fogs there so a new metropolis could be constructed across the Golden Gate, just north of San Francisco.

    Certain segments of our society believe that such potentially embarrassing aspects of U.S. history are not worthy of being recorded in our history textbooks. That is one reason few people are now aware of such mega-follies.

    Reply

    Man has nothing to do with climate change? That’s like saying the zookeeper who let the lions loose was not responsible for the consequences. What was the climate like last time the carbon we drilled for and dug up and burned for the past 150 years was free in the atmosphere?

    Climate scientist Reck is quoted above as saying that we don’t understand how it works, but that we need to do what we can.

    Conservatives applauded the Cheney Doctrine as applied to invasion and interventions in the Middle East, but ignore its application to climate threats. https://abcnews.go.com/Technology/story?id=2120605&page=1

    Reply

    So we have spent billions of dollars and determined…Yup the climate changes. In some parts of the world it changes 3-4 times a year and in some parts only a couple of times or maybe not at all. Most of us had learned this in first grade. What I find interesting is they spent all this money and haven’t figured out that weather is cyclical. There are warm times and there are cool times. It is a natural cycle that man has little if anything to do with.

    Reply

    Climate has always changed.What human influence may exist continues to be open to debate. It is impossible to do scientific tests to prove or disprove human causation.

    Reply
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