Does meteorological science have an impact on public policy?

One key piece of the world’s evolution toward nuclear sanity during the height of the Cold War was motivated by growing understanding of a fundamental meteorological phenomenon: the development of what’s now known as upper-level frontal systems.

The first atomic bomb was tested on July 16, 1945, in New Mexico, ushering in the nuclear age. Over the next decade and a half, continuously bigger bombs were tested in our atmosphere and oceans. Most of these bombs were exploded in the Earth’s stratosphere under the assumption that the air never mixed downward into the troposphere, where we all live.

During this time, meteorologists at MIT began to find evidence poking holes in this assumption. Professor Richard Reed was discovering that upper-level fronts were a possible pathway by which stratospheric air could mix into the troposphere.

His ideas were initially met with derision. However, evidence for the ubiquity of these upper fronts and the efficiency of the stratospheric/tropospheric mixing that they encouraged grew in proportion to the strength of the bombs that were being tested.

Eventually, the evidence was accepted by the meteorological community at large and this new scientific insight was employed in the shaping of important public policy.

In a June 1963 address at American University, President John F. Kennedy announced a new round of high-level arms negotiations with the Russians. This speech was considered so important by Premier Nikita Khrushchev that the Soviet press allowed it to be printed in its entirety.

On July 25, 1963, after only 12 days of negotiations, the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty ending atmospheric tests of nuclear devices; it was signed 11 days later.

Category: Meteorology

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