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Greenland

A new report shows nuclear weapons almost detonated in North Carolina in 1961

Eric Schlosser has a new book out about how close the U.S. came to blowing off it’s own eastern seaboard during the Cold War

At the height of the Cold War, the Air Force feared that the Soviet Union could launch a surprise attack on the United States and destroy all of our air bases, and we’d have no way to retaliate against the Soviets. So the Air Force came up with this idea of having about a dozen B-52 bombers airborne 24 hours a day, with nuclear weapons on board. That way, if we were attacked, those dozen planes might escape the destruction on the ground, head to the Soviet Union, and blast the Soviets with hydrogen bombs.

The planes were sort of an insurance policy. They were meant to deter the Soviets from trying a surprise attack. But this Air Force program, called the “airborne alert,” also posed some serious risks for the United States. The B-52 was designed in the late 1940s–and it wasn’t designed to be flying 24 hours a day. So the airborne alerts put enormous stress on these aircraft. It really wore out the planes and made them more likely to crash.

Nobody realized, at the time, that some design flaws in our nuclear weapons made them vulnerable to detonating in an accident. There was an illusion of safety. In the book, I explore the safety problems with our nuclear arsenal. We were putting planes that were at risk of crashing into the air over the United States with nuclear weapons that were at risk of accidentally detonating. The airborne alert was finally ended in 1968, after a B-52 crashed in Greenland with four hydrogen bombs and contaminated a stretch of the Arctic Ice with plutonium.

How close was this to detonating?

Well, for most of the Cold War, there was no code or anything that you needed to enter. All you needed to do was turn a switch or two in the cockpit to arm the bomb, and then release it. There were mechanisms on the weapon to prevent it from detonating prematurely and destroying our own planes. There were barometric switches that would operate when they sensed a change in altitude. There were timers that delayed the explosion until our planes had enough time to get away. The Goldsboro bomb that almost detonated was known as Weapon No. 1. As the plane was spinning and breaking apart, the centrifugal forces pulled a lanyard in the cockpit–and that lanyard was what a crew member would manually pull during wartime to release the bomb. This hydrogen bomb was a machine, a dumb object. It had no idea whether the lanyard was being pulled by a person or by a centrifugal force. Once the lanyard was pulled, the weapon just behaved like it was designed to.

The bomb went through all of its arming steps except for one, and a single switch prevented a full-scale nuclear detonation. That type of switch was later found to be defective. It had failed in dozens of other cases, allowing weapons to be inadvertently armed. And that safety switch could have very easily been circumvented by stray electricity in the B-52 as it was breaking apart. As Secretary of Defense McNamara said, “By the slightest margin of chance, literally the failure of two wires to cross, a nuclear explosion was averted.” That’s literally correct, a short circuit could’ve fully armed the bomb.

I interviewed McNamara before he passed away. The Goldsboro accident occurred just a few days after he took office. He wasn’t an expert in nuclear weapons; he’d been head of the Ford Motor Company. And this accident scared the hell out of him. It would have spread lethal radioactive fallout up the Eastern Seaboard–and put a real damper on all the optimism of the Kennedy administration’s New Frontier. And this wasn’t the only really serious nuclear weapons accident that the United States had. There were others that were dangerous and yet kept from view.

So yeah, try not to think about this thought by Schlosser before you go to bed.

Any country that wants nuclear weapons has to keep in mind that these weapons may pose a greater threat to yourself than to your enemies. These weapons are complicated things to possess and maintain, especially if you keep them fully assembled and ready to use. If you’re only going to put them together when you’re about to go to war, then there’s a higher level of safety. But if you keep them fully assembled, and mated to a weapons system, and ready to go, then there are limitless ways that something could go wrong.

Sea Levels To Rise More Than Expected Due To Warming-Driven Surge In Greenland Ice Loss

Sea levels rise as ice is lost in Greenland due to climate change

Greenland’s contribution to global sea level has soared in the past two decades. An important new study finds that the massive northeastern part of the ice sheet, previously thought to be stable, has begun shedding ice. If this trend continues — and researchers say “a self-perpetuating feedback process may have been triggered” — actual sea level rise this century will likely be higher than many current models had projected.

Covering 660,000 square miles — roughly 80 percent of the country — Greenland’s ice sheet is second only in size to Antarctica’s. Scientists estimate that melting from the ice sheet as a whole has accounted for about 16 percent of sea level rise every year for the last two decades.

Research had also long suggested the northeastern portion of the ice sheet was stable. As a result, it was largely left out of the models used to anticipate future sea level rise.
But the new study, “Sustained mass loss of the northeast Greenland ice sheet triggered by regional warming,” published in Nature Climate Change (subs. req’d), suggests the northeastern portion began melting rapidly around 2003. And after first jumping from an ice loss rate of zero to about 10 billion metric tons per year, it’s now approaching 15 or 20 billion metric tons per year and may well keep accelerating.

“Most projections of the future behaviour of the ice sheet have no, or little, contribution from this part of Greenland,” said Professor Jeremy Bamber of Bristol University, a co-author of the study. “But these new results suggest that this region is sensitive to changes in climate and has the potential to contribute significantly now and in the future.”

The team arrived at their conclusion using a combination of surface elevation data from airplanes and four different satellites, along with a GPS-linked network of 50 stations located along the coast of Greenland’s ice sheet. The overall collection of data spanned 1978 to 2012 and was used to essentially weigh the ice sheet’s mass.

Specifically, the study suggests a series of particularly warm summers leading up to 2003 — bringing higher temperatures in both the atmosphere and the surrounding ocean — triggered the speed up in melting.

Expedition to the End of the World

From Mountainfilm in Telluride, a ragtag crew sails deep into a fjord in Greenland. The water channel, iced over for millenia, is open to exploration only because of global warming.

The Scott Expedition

In the last 100 years, twelve people have stood on the moon, more than 500 have been into space, and more than five thousand have climbed Everest. Yet the journey Captain Scott and his team died trying to complete a century ago remains unrealised. No one has ever walked from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole and back again.

In 2013, Ben Saunders and his team mates Alastair Humphreys and Martin Hartley take on arguably the most ambitious polar expedition in the last century: the four-month Scott Expedition – the first return journey to the South Pole on foot, and at 1,800 miles, the longest unsupported polar journey in history.

Here is a video of one of their training trips to Greenland.

Living on Ice

What it takes for Ben Saunders to ski from the Northwest Territories to the North Pole.

For some of us, this was the first we heard of the record breaking explorer back in 2008.

This was last summer.

This is from his stop at Resolute Bay.

Trainings on the Isle of Skye

This summer is a trek south. He is using Basecamp from 37 Signals the 1,800-mile Scott 2012 Expedition.  It will complete Captain Scott’s ill-fated journey to the South Pole 100 years ago.

Heck of a life. Glad he shares it with us.

Cutting our own wrists

Back in 2005 I saw a link to a review of Jared Diamond’s book Collapse on the New Yorker website. Malcolm Gladwell was telling the story of Norse settlers coming to Greenland a millennium ago and I found the story fascinating. Even to the Norse, Greenland was not a place that one would want to inhabit but on the southwest corner there are some Fjords that looked a lot like southern Norway and was a perfect place to settle so they got off the boats and set out to tame the land. For four hundred and fifty years they built two settlements, churches, traded with Europe and possibly even had a section of prime downtown real estate they couldn’t develop. They hunted seal, caribou and raised livestock and pets. Life was good and then one day it was all over. What happened?

Diamond’s book is full of stories of societal collapse. Easter Island, Mayans, and even the genocide in Rwanda but the Norse on is the one that I keep re-reading. Partly because I am part Norwegian but partly because I keep seeing those settlement’s demise being played out again and again today.

What happened in Greenland is what happened in most of the societies that Diamond looks at. The ecosystem was too fragile to support the population. The trees were chopped down for fuel, the soil erodes, the crops fail and society has to leave or ends up dying. He tells essentially the same story over and over again. Greenland wasn’t as green as the Norse thought it was and the same thing happened to them.

What is so odd about this chapter is that within feet of their shore is some of the best fishing grounds in the world. Diamond describes running into a tourist who had caught two Arctic Char with her bare hands so why did they not fish. For years archeologists have looked for the fish bones and no one has ever found them. They found tons of trash fully of garbage and livestock bones. When the pastures couldn’t support the cattle, the Norse ate the cattle, then their young (right down to the hoofs), and even their pets while ignoring a massive food supply right that was within feet of them. You could argue that maybe the Norse didn’t know any better but there was Inuit there but the Norse looked down at the Inuit and their hunting practices that probably would have saved their lives.

What does this have to do with today? Until last week I wasn’t that preoccupied with the U.S. debt ceiling. To be honest I was much more preoccupied with the NFL lockout. It never occurred to me that American politicians would allow the U.S. government to default on its debt. As the rhetoric flew in Washington, I realized it all sounded familiar. This isn’t about economics; this is about the survival of ideologies and political parties. In the same way the Norse wouldn’t fish, intermarry with the Inuit or even copy their ways of life because they were ranchers and because of cultural status, Republicans can’t make a deal because they can’t be seen raising taxes or Democrats can’t been seen cutting Social Security or Medicare. Michele Bachmann can’t compromise because that would alienate the Tea Party. John Boehner can’t compromise because then he looks weak. Obama can’t compromise or he’ll upset his base. They may push the United States into another recession but they won’t have compromised on their values.  It’s a pile of crap and the rest of the world in this case pays for it.

This is what bothers me about ideological arguments, they ignore the cost to people along the way.  Real leaders are not ideologues.  They are pragmatists who are capable of making hard decisions that go against their base.  In Saskatchewan how popular do you think it was for the NDP when they closed rural hospitals or cut the public sector in their efforts to reign in the Saskatchewan deficit?  In Alberta during the same time Ralph Klein instituted user fees on healthcare.  How popular were the Chretien budget cuts and austerity of the 1990s with Liberals.  So much for the short term vision of a just society.  While the Saskatchewan Party says it is a party of free market principles, they dug in (with the support of the NDP) to help save PotashCorp (an American company that for some reason we could not handle being taken over by an Australian company because that would be wrong for some reason).  Leaders decide to go fishing from time to time.  They also know they need to raise taxes to pay for a war in Afghanistan and Iraq, no matter what it does to their presidential aspirations or how much it hurts their base.

So why didn’t the Norse settlements eat Arctic Char (apparently it’s quite tasty, similar to rainbow trout)?  Because they were so concerned with the survival of their northern European culture, a culture of churches, cattle, and trade that they never could see there was an alternative way to act.  Why is the United States about to walk into financial Armageddon because Republican’s don’t raise taxes and Democrats don’t cut entitlements and they are both too stupid to realize that this polarization can’t continue.

As Gladwell points out,

The lesson of "Collapse" is that societies, as often as not, aren’t murdered. They commit suicide: they slit their wrists and then, in the course of many decades, stand by passively and watch themselves bleed to death.

I think I see blood on the floor.