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Wednesday, July 28, 2010
Nuclear winter theory tested as mushroom cloud blacks out sun in August 1985 near Chapleau
If you were living in the United States and reading your Sunday newspaper on August 5, 1985, it is quite likely that on the front page you would have noticed a a story datelined Chapleau, Ontario, reporting on the results of a test of the nuclear winter theory conducted near the community the previous day.
Writing in the Chicago Tribune before the test, Janet Crawley explained that Canadian and U.S. scientists planned to study a controlled forest fire in northern Ontario to test the newly proposed theory that a catastrophic "nuclear winter" would follow a nuclear war.
The observers wanted to study the behavior of the smoke from the blaze, which had been scheduled as part of the province's regular program of burning out dead trees so land can be replanted.
Andrew Forester, an environmental scientist and research associate at the University of Toronto, had said the study was believed to be the first such large- scale research into the possibility of "nuclear winter," a theory proposed in the early 1980s by Cornell University scientist and author Carl Sagan.
As a result, national and international media descended upon Chapleau, including reporters from major dailies in the United States and television crews from the big three U.S. networks. And yes, I was there to cover the story for United Press International, an assignment I got through Robert "Bob" Fife who had previously worked for UPI. I had forgotten about the nuclear winter test 25 years ago until I received an email from Dave Way-White suggesting it as a column.
So from the mothballs of my own memory and a Google search, here is the story of the weekend when a Chapleau moment became international news.
The Orlando Sentinel on August 5 captured the test results: "A giant mushroom cloud blacked out the sun over a Canadian forest Saturday. It cast a dark shadow over the northern Ontario wilderness as far as the eye could see. Cause: A fire set by scientists in a test of the ''nuclear winter'' theory. The experiment began when a helicopter dropped napalm over 2 1/2 square miles of a diseased forest 400 miles north of Detroit. The cloud rose thousands of feet into the air and spread over 80 miles. Theory's prediction: A nuclear war would blow millions of tons of smoke into the air, blocking out the sun and freezing the Earth."
The New York Times used an Associated Press story: "The fire was set in 1,600 acres of pines trees bulldozed last year in preparation for the burning. The trees, killed by a spruce budworm infestation, were burned to allow replanting. Thick white smoke billowed thousands of feet into the sky, where a gentle wind blew it directly over Chapleau, a town of 3,500 people about 15 miles southeast of the fire."
The New York Times also reported that the test was watched by seven scientists who were testing the ''nuclear winter'' theory. The theory holds that a nuclear war could blast so much smoke and debris into the atmosphere that it would block the sun for months, chilling the earth and resulting in greater death and devastation than the nuclear explosions.`
Using UPI story, the Los Angeles Times reported that "It will embody some of the characteristics of the firestorm that will follow a nuclear blast," said Andrew Forester, of the University of Toronto who brought the researchers together.
Forester, who directed a Royal Society of Canada study on Nuclear Winter and Associated Effects, said the scientists would attempt to learn more about the effects of smoke in the atmosphere and how smoke and ash block out sunlight.
Forester told UPI that the experiment would be the first test of the nuclear winter theory proposed in 1982 by Cornell University astronomer Carl Sagan and Richard Turco, a consultant with R&D Associates of Marina del Rey, Calif. They suggested a nuclear war would create a blanket of smoke and ash, blocking out the sun and chilling the Earth. Turco was among those planning to observe the experiment.
The Los Angeles Times - UPI report went on to explain that in in northern Ontario, "a helicopter was to drop a napalm-like substance on the area near Chapleau, 400 miles north of Detroit, to set fire to thousands of fir trees killed by a budworm infestation that began in the 1960s."Forester added he hoped when the blaze fanned out, it would create a 20,000-foot convection column of smoke, ash and gas to simulate some effects of a nuclear explosion. He described the fire as a "partial representation of one aspect of a nuclear explosion" without the blast or radiation.The helicopter was to carry a "flying drip torch," moving in concentric circles to drop an oil-based substance on pre-selected spots--literally dropping fire on the forest.
High in the convection column, scientists expected to see a ring of ash that would filter down, said Brian Stocks of the forest fire research unit at the Canadian government's Great Lakes Forest Research Center in Sault Ste. Marie. Above the ash, scientists expect gases and condensation that could trigger firestorms, Stocks said, according to the Los Angeles Times report.
I recall flying over the test area into the mushroom cloud and one of the scientists excitedly proclaimed, "We've got it."
I have always thought it was so cool that Bob Fife, a former student at Chapleau High School and great friend, would be responsible for getting me an assignment as a reporter, particularly on such a major assignment as a test of the nuclear winter theory. When he was a student at CHS, Bob would pepper me with questions on everything -- a certain clue that he was headed for a distinguished career in journalism.
Bob is now the Ottawa Bureau Chief of CTV News, and for more than 30 years been one of Canada's best journalists! My email is firstname.lastname@example.org