Climate explained: did atomic bomb tests damage our upper atmosphere?


Brett Carter, RMIT University and Rezy Pradipta, Boston College


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I recently read an article stating the atomic bomb testing in the Pacific destroyed so much of the upper atmosphere that the US could no longer bounce communications off the atmosphere and had to deploy artificial satellites for communication. Is this true? And just how much damage did they do?

The article the question refers to doesn’t mention satellites, so let’s focus on the atmospheric damage part of the question. Indeed, surface and atmospheric (high-altitude) detonations of nuclear weapons can have short-term and long-term effects.

One short-term effect was a temporary blackout of long-distance high-frequency (HF) radio communication over the surrounding area. But this radio communication blackout was not a result of the nuclear explosions destroying the ionosphere.

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On the contrary, the nuclear detonations temporarily increased the natural level of ionisation in the upper atmosphere.

The ionosphere and radio communication

The Earth’s ionosphere is a natural layer of charged particles at approximately 80-1,000km altitude. This ionised portion of the Earth’s upper atmosphere largely owes its existence to solar radiation, which strips electrons from neutral atoms and molecules.

The ionosphere consists of three major layers, known as D, E and F layers. The lower D and E layers typically exist only during daylight hours, while the highest F layer always exists.

A graphic showing the various layers of the ionosphere.
The ionosphere showing the approximate levels of the D, E and F layers. The D and E layers are much weaker at night time. The two yellow arrows show example ray paths of high-frequency radio waves from transmitters at ground level. Encounters with the D layer will result in some absorption.
The Conversation, CC BY-ND

These layers have distinct characteristics. The E and F layers are very reflective to HF radio waves. The D layer, on the other hand, is more like a sponge and absorbs HF waves.

In long-distance HF radio communications, the radio waves are bounced back and forth between the ionosphere and the Earth’s surface. This means you don’t need to establish a line of sight for HF radio communication.

Many applications, such as emergency services and aircraft/maritime surveillance, rely on this mode of HF radio propagation.

But this radio communication scheme only works well when there is a reflective E or F layer, and when the absorbing D layer is not dominant.

During regular daytime hours, the D layer often becomes a nuisance because it weakens radio wave intensity in the lower HF spectrum. However, by changing to higher frequencies you can regain broken communication links.

The D layer may become even more dominant when intense X-ray emissions from solar flares or energetic particles are impacting the atmosphere. The absorbing D layer then breaks any HF communication links that traverse it.

Bomb blasts and the ionosphere

Nuclear detonations also produce X-ray radiation, which leads to additional ionisation in all layers of the ionosphere. This makes the F layer more reflective to HF radio waves, but, alas, the D layer also becomes more absorptive.

This makes it difficult to bounce radio waves off the ionosphere for long-distance communication soon after a nuclear explosion, even though the ionosphere stays intact.

Beyond additional ionisation, shock waves from nuclear detonations produce waves and ripples in the upper atmosphere called “atmospheric gravity waves” (AGWs).

These waves travel in all directions, even reaching the ionosphere where they cause what are known as “travelling ionospheric disturbances” (TIDs), which can be observed for thousands of kilometres.

Other atmospheric disturbances

Bomb blasts are not the only things that cause disturbances in the atmosphere.

In September 1979, there were reports of bright flashes of light off the South African coast, igniting theories South Africa had nuclear weapon capabilities.

Analysis of ionospheric data from the Arecibo Observatory, in Puerto Rico, confirmed the presence of waves in the ionosphere that corroborated the theory of an atmospheric detonation. But whether the detonation was artificial or natural could not be determined.

The reason for the ambiguity is that meteor explosions and nuclear detonations in the atmosphere both generate AGWs with similar characteristics.

Atmospheric Gravity Waves (AGW) and Travelling Ionospheric Disturbances (TID)
Common sources of atmospheric gravity waves (AGW) that could cause travelling ionospheric disturbances (TID).
Rezy Pradipta, Author provided

The 2013 Chelyabinsk meteor explosion in Russia generated waves in the ionosphere that were detected all across Europe, and as far away as the United Kingdom.

Volcanic eruptions, such at the 1980 Mount St Helens eruption in the US, and large earthquakes, such as the 2011 Tohoku earthquake in Japan, are other examples of energetic processes at the ground impacting the upper atmosphere.

Waves observed in the ionosphere above Japan during the 2011 Tohoku earthquake.

Another well-known source of ionospheric disturbances is the geomagnetic storm, typically caused by coronal mass ejections from the Sun or solar wind disturbances impacting Earth’s magnetosphere.

Satellites as backup

In summary, nuclear detonations can impact the upper atmosphere in many ways, as do many other non-nuclear terrestrial and solar events that carry enormous energy. But the damage (so to speak) isn’t permanent.

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Did the impact of these nuclear tests on the ionosphere specifically lead to the immediate launch of communications satellites? Not directly, because the impacts were temporary.

But in the Cold War setting, the potential for adversaries to even briefly interrupt over-the-horizon communications would certainly have been a motivating factor in developing communications satellites as backup.The Conversation

Brett Carter, Senior lecturer, RMIT University and Rezy Pradipta, Research scientist, Boston College

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australia still lags behind in vehicle emissions testing

File 20171026 13327 1i52oqe.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Emissions from real-life urban driving can be much higher than advertised.

Zoran Ristovski, Queensland University of Technology and Nic Surawski, University of Technology Sydney

Australian cars are using 23% more fuel than advertised, according to a report from the Australian Automobile Association, which also claims that eco-friendly hybrid electric cars emit four times more greenhouse gas than the manufacturers advertise.

The report on real-world (that is, on-road) emission testing was commissioned by consultancy firm ABMARC to test 30 cars twice on Melbourne roads. The method used to measure both the emissions and the fuel consumption was a so-called Portable Emissions Measurement System (PEMS).

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They found that when compared to the laboratory limits, on-road vehicle NOx (a toxic gas pollutant) emissions were exceeded for 11 out of 12 diesel vehicles, and carbon monoxide (also a toxic gas) emissions were exceeded by 27% of tested petrol vehicles.

However, the key consideration here is the phrase “comparison to the laboratory limits” because on-road tests can’t directly be compared to the laboratory test limits, for several key reasons.

How are emissions from vehicles measured?

Australian Design Rules (ADR) stipulate that before introducing a new vehicle model on the market, every car or truck manufacturer in Australia has to test one new car in the laboratory.

This is done by placing the vehicle on a chassis dynamometer, connecting the exhaust to highly accurate emissions-measurement equipment, and driving the vehicle according to a strictly defined routine.

The chassis dynamometer simulates the load conditions that the vehicle would experience if it were driven on a road. In current practice, the New European Driving Cycle (NEDC) is used. This defines the speed of the vehicle and rate of acceleration for every second of the 20-minute test.

There is strict control of the testing protocol, with stipulations on how and when the gears should be changed, right down to minute details such as turning off the radio while the headlights are on. This strict control enables testers to compare the performance of different vehicles measured in different laboratories around the world.

However, these highly defined conditions have led to certain manufacturers enabling the car’s engine management system to recognise when it is being tested and to adopt and produce cleaner exhaust emissions. The most famous example of this is the recent VW scandal that affected millions of vehicles worldwide.

Even though the driving cycle has “new” in its name, NEDC was designed in the 1980s and today can be considered outdated.

Real Driving Emissions

To address these challenges, Real Driving Emissions (RDE) tests were developed. RDE tests measure the pollutants emitted by cars while driven on the road. To run a RDE test, cars are fitted with a Portable Emissions Measurement System (PEMS).

A PEMS is a complex piece of equipment that sits in the back of the car and monitors key pollutants emitted by the vehicle in real time as it is driven on the road.

These tests have proved extremely useful in highlighting some of the shortfalls of the laboratory tests. They can be run for much longer periods (several hours as compared with 15-30 minutes in the laboratory) and can give us information on long-term emission performance of the vehicles. They will not replace laboratory tests, but can provide additional information.

RDE requirements will ensure that cars deliver low emissions during on-road conditions. In 2021, Europe will become the first region in the world to introduce such complementary on-road testing for new vehicles.

RDE tests still face several unresolved challenges. The first is that the PEMS are still being developed and are not as accurate as the lab measurement equipment. The second, and more important, is the variability that one encounters while driving in real-world road conditions.

In order to compare the RDE test results with the laboratory-based standards a “conformity factor” is defined as a “not to exceed limit” that takes into account the error of measurements. This error is due to the PEMS equipment being less accurate, the variability in road conditions and driving behaviour, and thus the fact that the RDE tests will not deliver exactly the same results for each run.

A conformity factor of 1.5 would mean that the emissions measured by the PEMS in an RDE test should not exceed the standard NEDC test by more than a factor of 1.5. This is exactly the value that European Union legislators want to introduce – but not before 2021.

Australia is years behind

Australia remains years behind the European Union when it comes to vehicle emission standards.

The Euro emissions standards define the acceptable limits for exhaust emissions of new vehicles sold in the EU. Australia introduced the Euro 5 emission standards in 2016 as compared to Europe, which introduced these in 2009. At that time EU abolished the Euro 5 standard for already new ones in 2015.

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Australia needs to upgrade to meet Euro 6 standards in order to provide effective detection of new vehicles. These include measures such as remote sensing as part of a vehicles road-worthiness assessment. This would help to ensure the maintenance status of vehicles and deliver compliance with Euro 6 RDE legislation.

What the Australian Automobile Association report highlights most of all is that the in-use vehicles (whether or not they are hybrid vehicles), many of which fall under the Euro 5 standard (or older), have almost all failed emission tests.

The ConversationUntil Australia updates our vehicle testing regimes to meet international standards, it will remain extremely difficult for Australians who want to buy an energy-efficient vehicle to make an informed purchasing decision.

Zoran Ristovski, Professor, Queensland University of Technology and Nic Surawski, Lecturer – Air Quality/Vehicle Emissions, University of Technology Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


There is now more information on the story I posted yesterday regarding the disappearance of Steve Fossett at:

The wreckage discovered during the renewed search for Steve Fossett (following the discovery of several items belonging to Steve Fossett by a bushwalker) has turned out to be that of the missing Steve Fossett. Human remains have also been found in the wreckage with DNA testing to be used to confirm whether the remains are indeed those of Steve Fossett.