The Mark of the Atomic Age

For those of y’all that still haven’t come to grasp with the fact that humans have left an indelible mark on this planet, and have the ability to affect it quite profoundly, here’s the latest evidence…

Back in the 1950s, the Americans, the British, the French and the Russians tried to impress each other by “testing” atomic weapons. This involved blowing up multi-megaton bombs in the air in remote places, but the explosions didn’t stay local.

A Couple Of Extra Neutrons…

Each atomic blast released lots of neutrons into the atmosphere, many of which slammed into carbon atoms floating by with the result that lots of carbon atoms gained a couple of extra neutrons. If you remember your Periodic Table of Elements, carbon ordinarily carries 12 protons and neutrons. Add a couple of extra neutrons, and the 12 becomes 14. Which means during the 1950’s the world got a boost of carbon-14 atoms.

Those clouds of carbon-14 atoms didn’t stay at the bomb sites. “This cloud of carbon-14 went round and round and round the Earth and was persistent for quite a while,” says Professor Nadkarni.

When President Kennedy signed a test ban treaty with the Russians in the early 1960s, nations stopped blowing up bombs above ground and the population of carbon-14 in the atmosphere went down, but, from around 1954 to around 1963, trees all over the world sucked in extra dollops of carbon-14.

Trees don’t know the difference between regular carbon and carbon-14. They just breathe in carbon dioxide and use the sunshine to turn that CO2 into plant food stored in their trunks, so that if you look inside a tree, any tree, you can measure the carbon within. And here comes the big surprise.

An Atomic Bomb “Souvenir”

It turns out that virtually every tree that alive starting in 1954 has a “spike” — an atomic bomb souvenir. Everywhere botanists have looked, “you can find studies in Thailand, studies in Mexico, studies in Brazil where when you measure for carbon-14, you see it there,” says Professor Nadkarni. All trees carry this “marker” — northern trees, tropical trees, rainforest trees — it is a world-wide phenomenon.”

And, naturally, what goes for trees goes for others as well. In 2005, A Swedish stem cell biologist at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Jonas Frisen, decided to see if he could date people using the same technique. Frisen had studied pine trees and knew about the carbon-14 atomic bomb spike.

He also reasoned that people eat the products of trees — apples, pears, peaches, olives, almonds, walnuts — and we also eat the animals that eat the fruits of trees, so he decided to see if atomic testing had affected human cells.

At a cellular level, he surmised, we are affected by what we eat and so he performed autopsies on two sets of humans: one group was born in the mid-1950s during the era of atomic testing. The second group was born later, in the ’60s, after the test ban treaty. When he examined some brain cells in both groups, he discovered that humans born in the ’50s had more carbon-14 in their DNA, so the spike we see in trees is echoed in humans.

Full story available at NPR.

I love the image of these titans, England, France, the U.S. and Russia,…all staring across the pond or the steepes and dropping mad-huge bombs while staring deep into eyes of their opponents, looking for a blink.

The idea of topping each other got waaay out of control and left us with both the C14-mark, and the knowledge how to make stuff that can do this…

The effects were spectacular. Despite the very substantial burst height of 4,000 m (13,000 ft) the vast fireball reached down to the Earth, and swelled upward to nearly the height of the release plane. The blast pressure below the burst point was 300 PSI, six times the peak pressure experienced at Hiroshima. The flash of light was so bright that it was visible at a distance of 1,000 kilometers, despite cloudy skies. One participant in the test saw a bright flash through dark goggles and felt the effects of a thermal pulse even at a distance of 270 km. One cameraman recalled:

The clouds beneath the aircraft and in the distance were lit up by the powerful flash. The sea of light spread under the hatch and even clouds began to glow and became transparent. At that moment, our aircraft emerged from between two cloud layers and down below in the gap a huge bright orange ball was emerging. The ball was powerful and arrogant like Jupiter. Slowly and silently it crept upwards…. Having broken through the thick layer of clouds it kept growing. It seemed to suck the whole earth into it. The spectacle was fantastic, unreal, supernatural.

Another observer, farther away, described what he witnessed as:

… a powerful white flash over the horizon and after a long period of time he heard a remote, indistinct and heavy blow, as if the earth has been killed!

A shock wave in air was observed at Dickson settlement at 700 km; windowpanes were partially broken to distances of 900 km. All buildings in Severny (both wooden and brick), at a distance of 55 km, were completely destroyed. In districts hundreds of kilometers from ground zero, wooden houses were destroyed, and stone ones lost their roofs, windows and doors; and radio communications were interrupted for almost one hour. The atmospheric disturbance generated by the explosion orbited the earth three times. A gigantic mushroom cloud rose as high as 64 kilometers (210,000 ft).Despite being exploded in the atmosphere, it generated substantial seismic signals. According to a bulletin of the U.S. Geological Survey it had seismic magnitude mb = 5.0 to 5.25. The blast wave was detected circling the world.[Khalturin et al 2005]

Some time after the explosion, photographs were taken of ground zero. “The ground surface of the island has been levelled, swept and licked so that it looks like a skating rink,” a witness reported. “The same goes for rocks. The snow has melted and their sides and edges are shiny. There is not a trace of unevenness in the ground…. Everything in this area has been swept clean, scoured, melted and blown away.”

[full article]

And now I’m supposed to be afraid of ignorant teenagers trying to look cool and find something to do in between goat-herding sessions?  [yes, that’s how this guy characterized a good part of the Afghan insurgency]

That’s the whole point of terror…it makes you think small threats are much bigger than they are.   Is terrorism a danger?  Sure.

It is a danger like the one talked about above?  I don’t think so.  Not even close, IMHO.  And the idea that someone can deliver a nuclear weapons without it being tracked home is absurd.  The UK busted Russia for the use of 10 micrograms of polonium.  No one is going to be able to hide where a few pounds of Uranium came from, or hide a project to create a viable delivery system.  MAD is still much in effect.

The simple fact that we all share the same air and the same trees and the same brains will eventually overpower the ignorance that allows such terror to fester, unless we let the terror guide our actions.