Together, Environmental Scientists and the Military Could Make Everybody Safer

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Feb. 15 2013 7:45 AM

Environmentalists and the Military Should Play Nice

They could see the world and make beautiful data together.

A few minutes after detonation of the atomic blast in Operation Cue, May 5, 1955.
A few minutes after detonation of the atomic blast in Operation Cue, May 5, 1955.

Courtesy of National Archives

Nicholas Makris was on a mission. His goal was simple enough: The acoustical engineer at MIT wanted to find some old Navy equipment to study the cod fisheries in the North Atlantic. The cod population seemed to be in trouble, and Makris wanted to take an accurate census and to see just how bad the situation was.

Makris thought he could do the job with a special type of sonar and other equipment used by the Navy during the Cold War to monitor the depths for Soviet submarines. It was 2002, however, and much of the equipment hadn’t been touched for nearly two decades. Most of it was inoperable, and even the working paraphernalia was sitting in a warehouse and gathering dust. Ultimately, Makris and his team got the equipment back in working order, but it took a lot of time and money. “There’s a problem when a technology is used for only one purpose and that purpose goes away,” Makris said. “We need to take the sword and forge plows out of it or else the sword is going to rust.”

A group of scientists makes a compelling case in Science this week for formally bringing together tree-hugging environmentalists and government and military stiffs by having them work together to gather data on the world. The information both groups are after—about everything from chemicals in the air to explosions in the Earth’s crust—is actually quite similar. Scientists are already repurposing some Cold War technologies to study every aspect of the environment, from the bottom of the oceans to the top of the atmosphere. Other technology is still being used for its original military purposes, and the government is already paying to have data monitored and analyzed. It would be an easy and obvious step to piggyback environmental research onto national security research. Rather than fight childish turf wars over who gets what funding and why, the scientists propose that everyone play nice and share.


It sounds almost naïve to expect such cooperation. After all, many kids don’t even share their 64-packs of crayons. How can we expect large governmental agencies to share projects that can cost hundreds of millions of dollars? The solution is to make sure that everyone involved, from environmental groups to the U.S. Navy, gets something out of the bargain. The benefit to everyone else is that we get to know more and learn more than if these sometimes mutually suspicious groups don’t play well with others.

The idea of adapting technology is ancient. The Chinese originally invented gunpowder for fireworks; its military use in cannons and muskets was an afterthought. Gutenberg’s printing press was a rejiggered wine press, and Viagra was originally developed as a blood pressure medication.

One of the first marriages between Cold War technology and environmental science was in the heyday of nuclear weapons testing in the 1950s. The military wanted to know what factors affected the spread of nuclear fallout in the event of an attack on the United States. Other scientists and government officials wanted to use the opportunity to study the long-term environmental effects of plumes of radioactive chemicals in the water and air. The chilling results of these studies indicated that nuclear testing was far more dangerous than initially thought. The research was one of the many factors that led to the adoption of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty by the United Nations in 1996, which banned all nuclear explosions, both military and civilian. (Although Bill Clinton signed the treaty, it has yet to be ratified by the Senate; despite this, the United States has maintained a moratorium on all nuclear testing since 1992.)

To enforce the treaty, the U.S. and other governments regularly monitor the atmosphere for signs of radioactive chemicals produced by nuclear explosions. These monitors served a crucial function in the days and months following the meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear reactor after the devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan in 2011.

“This is an example of the real environmental benefit in monitoring and being able to document whether the health effects would be large or not. We could let countries know as the plume went around the world whether it was getting more or less dangerous,” said Raymond Jeanloz of the University of California-Berkeley and lead author of the Science article.

Today, many nations “test” nuclear weapons by running computer simulations of the blast and resulting fallout plume. These simulations require detailed mathematical models of all the potential variables. This work has spurred the development of mathematical models of climate change. As in the Cold War, improvements in computers and mathematics has had a profound impact on scientists’ ability to model how humans are changing the environment.

Oceanographers have found Cold War advances in sonar crucial to their studies of life beneath the waves. Over the past decade, Makris has used Soviet-sub-detecting sonar to study the behavior of large shoals of fish. Typical sonar detects objects in a very limited radius beneath the boat. It also has a long lag between pings of sound that bounce back off an underwater object, so tracking a randomly moving target can be difficult.