The Weather is Usually Unusual: Nuclear Weapons Testing in the Age of Atmospheric Anxiety, 1945-1963

Mcbrien, Justin, History - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Balogh, Brian, Department of History, University of Virginia
McMillen, Christian, Department of History, University of Virginia

This paper explores a forgotten controversy during the early 1950s, when widespread fears arose that atmospheric nuclear weapons testing was causing extreme weather and climate change across the globe. Given the short time frame of the bomb’s existence, no one knew with any certainty at what scale its powers lay. While government scientists found concerns regarding “atom weather” nonsensical, to a confused populace stoked by public intellectuals predicting catastrophe they were of a legitimate, indeed urgent nature. The early 1950s shows not a society that blindly accepted science’s hegemony but rather one deeply divided over its imagined consequences. While the first postwar controversy over the causes of climate change proved unfounded, the uproar contributed to a political culture centered around the calculation of “risks.” Risk assessment reformulated all environmental problems as relatable to, or surmountable through, technology. Following Mary Douglas’ work on the cultural construction of risk and blame, this paper looks at how fears of “inadvertent weather modification” influenced how Americans interpreted future threats, as well as who they deemed an authority to speak on such matters, and who they deemed blameworthy when their attempts to mitigate disasters failed.

MA (Master of Arts)
nuclear testing, weather modification, cloud seeding, environmentalism, Irving Langmuir
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