How Atomic Doomsday Experiments Shaped Fault Ecology | Aeon Essays (2023)

When Hurricane Fiona flooded regions of Puerto Rico with up to30 inchesRain last September, the island was still recovering from Hurricanes Irma and Maria, two cataclysmic storms in 2017 that nearly killed3,000 peopledied. Fiona left nearly 200,000 residents without potable water1.3 millionwithout electricity, highlighting the fragility of Puerto Rico's infrastructure and the lack of United States government assistance to its citizens.

Puerto Rico has experienced intense tropical storms for centuries, but anthropogenic climate change is altering their frequency, strength, and character. In recent decades, for example, the island has suffered both monstrous hurricanes and deep droughts: an unusual combination.

María Uriarte, a professor at Columbia University in New York, studied this unusual combination in Luquillo20 years.Uriarte began her work on hurricanes to understand their destructive power, but with no expectation that hurricanes would change over the course of her career.

Uriarte is a disturbance ecologist, a biologist who studies how storms, fires, insect infestations, and other events shape communities of plants and animals. Disturbance ecologists like them are trying to understand how certain species survive in the face of stressors and even disasters. Some disturbances, such as volcanic eruptions, are clearly caused by non-human activities. Others, like fires, invasive species, and climate change, are a jumble of human and non-human forces. Anyone who has heard of pine cones that need fire to open or struggled with the morning glory and dandelions that first colonize fallen earth has encountered disturbance ecology.

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Since the 1960s, concepts from fault ecology have changed the way scientists and other experts understand the biotic world. In particular, disturbance ecology has brought new attention to the processes of stress and response, and the qualities of fragility and resilience. Scientists breed drought-resistant plants. Land managers and landscape architects strive for itDesignEcosystems resilient in the face of sea level rise and extreme weather events. Cities around the world are developing climate resilience plans as governments try to anticipate the ecological future.

The impact of fault ecology on global environmental management makes it so important to understand the strange Cold War history with roots in Puerto Rico in some of the same places Uriarte works today.

FFor more than a century, scientists have gathered at the Luquillo Experimental Forest in the mountains of northeastern Puerto Rico to study ecological trauma: deforestation, erosion, hurricanes, chemical warfare, climate change - even nuclear holocaust. Luquillo is a place where scientists try to understand the resilience of life in a damaged world.

1965, as the ecologistHoward TOdum and his collaborators irradiated two hectares of Luquillo rainforest with 10,000 curiescesium-137The concept we know today as environmental resilience did not yet exist. "They managed to fry a hole in the woods," Jess Zimmerman, current director of the Luquillo Long-Term Ecological Research Program, tells me. Over the next decade, the forest recovered, and the course of that recovery caught the attention of both ecologists and the US military.

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The Luquillo Rainforest Irradiation Project was one of hundreds of Cold War US efforts to envision a nuclear end of the world. Between 1945 and 1962, the US detonated about 300 nuclear weapons. These atomic bombs changed the physical and biological environment of the colonized Marshall Islands and the US Southwest. The detonations prompted scientists and the public to recognize fallout as a regional and perhaps global threat to human health. Increasing concerns about nuclear fallout have coincided with outright fears of nuclear annihilation. In 1950 the US had 299 nuclear weapons in its stockpile. By 1960 it had 18,638. And by 1965 it had 31,139.

Ecologists damaged ecosystems rather than warships or model cities to understand if and how they recovered

As the US and Soviet Union increased the size and reach of their nuclear arsenals, it became possible—really easy—to envision a catastrophic war on a global scale. Studies by the RAND Corporation, a think tank with US War Department roots, estimated that an initial Soviet attack would target 50 US cities and would result in an attack90 millionLosses. Faced with figures like these, the US Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) set out to predict the economic and social consequences of a third world war. They assembled model fleets. They built entire cities and populated them with mannequin residents in haunting scenes of white suburban life: the nuclear family surrounded by new cars, furniture, and appliances donated by manufacturers. Then they atomized them. The government distributed photos andFilmof the aftermath to convince the public that nuclear war is survivable and that the responsibility for disaster preparedness rests with the family. Like the anthropologist Joseph MascoLeg is, through these simulations, "the government attempted to make mass death an intimate psychological experience while simultaneously asserting that a thermonuclear war could be planned alongside tornadoes, flooding, and road accidents." However, the bombs used in these simulations were non-imaginary and doomsday came for those whose homes the government considered victim zones.

Between 1946 and 1958, the US detonated the equivalent of 7,000 Hiroshima bombs in the Marshall Islands. As of 2022, refugees from Bikini and Rongelap atolls still cannot return home safely. In 1950, the federal government established the Nevada Proving Ground on the Western Shoshone and Southern Paiute areas, and subsequently conducted 100 atmospheric and 921 underground nuclear tests there. The tests were released about12 billionCuries of radiation causing decades of cancer and death. (For comparison, the Chernobyl disaster released an estimated81 millionCuries of Radiation.)

The US government hired not only military planners, but also sociologists and evenScience-FictionWriter, with doomsday research. Beginning in 1943, the Manhattan Project (and later the AEC) hired ecologists to study what was happening to plants and animals at detonation sites. Originally, scientists expected that the vast ocean and atmosphere would quickly dilute the radioactive fallout. Instead, they found that organisms accumulated radioactive elements in their bodies and that organisms highest in the food chain were most radioactive. Researchers soon discovered that a variety of chemicals are also "biomagnified," including pollutants such as heavy metals and theinsecticide DDT.

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Along with the idea of ​​biomagnification, doomsday experiments spawned the disturbance ecology thatlearnhow disturbances or stressors shape the components and character of an ecosystem. Government investment in research began in 1961, when the RAND Corporation issued a classified report requesting that the Pentagon further investigate "post-war restoration of devastated biotic environments." Soon after, the AEC began funding studies in which ecologists intentionally damaged ecosystems, rather than warships or model cities, to understand if they recovered and if so, how. These were not fringe experiments: although little remembered today, the AEC was the primary funder of ecological research from the opening of World War II until the mid-1970s, when it was eclipsed by the National Science Foundation. ecosystem scienceWardoomsday science.

TThe first post-war ecological simulations took place at Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island. In 1962, ecologists continuously exposed a former agricultural field and oak-pine forest to gamma rayscesium-137AndCobalt-60Point sources for five months. The AEC Civil Protection Office supported this project. Its main objective was to evaluate biotic recovery from exposure to radiation on a scale that could result from nuclear war. Ecologists justified the experiment, which ran intermittently until 1978, by saying that since bomb sites were limited to deserts and tropical atolls with limited flora, it was important to anticipate the effects of nuclear war in eastern hardwood forests near urban centers.

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The radioactive deer that roam Long Island today aren't the only legacy of this experiment. Through this atomic field research, ecologists developed the idea of ​​"comparative radiosensitivity". Scientists at Brookhaven found that members of the daisy family survived high levels of radiation, while pine species were the "most sensitive" to radiation. This was a new way of categorizing species - not by taxonomy or what-ate-what, but by their ability to withstand disturbance. These days, many of us are used to thinking about species: which species is most drought tolerant, can withstand hurricanes, or is likely to survive the climate crisis. But from a historical perspective, this is a very new way of thinking about the qualities of a species.

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After irradiating the rainforest, Odum's team "watched with great interest" as the leaves began to yellow and fall off

For more than a century, the US federal governmenttreatedPuerto Rico as a laboratory for US social policy - and environmental policy. The AEC hoped the Luquillo irradiation experiment would help the mainland prepare for nuclear war. It also intended to irradiate Luquillo to inform another ImperialProject, the proposed Ploughshare Pan-Atomic Canal project, a plan to "upgrade" the Panama Canal (so that it does not require locks to move ships) by detonating a series ofH-bombsthrough Panama. The US Department of Defense also tested Agent Orange and other "tactical herbicides" in Luquillo for use in the Vietnam War. Puerto Rican forests were destroyed in a plan to protect mainland Americans.

In 1965, Odum and his associates—who eventually numbered in the hundreds—irradiated the Luquillo tropical forest for three months. They studied its recovery over the next six years. They compared the irradiated plot to two "control" plots: one without any vegetation and one without treatment. After irradiating the rainforest for three months, Odum's team "watched with great interest" as the leaves began to yellow and fall off. After a few months, the moss turned an eerie blue-black. Ultimately most of the trees inside30 Meterthe radiation source died. One of the most common plants in the Luquillo Experimental Forest, the Sierra palm, was particularly sensitive to radiation, with a94 propercent population decline. Other species proved to be resistant to radiation. A giant red snoutCyrillaBaum, exposed to an incredible 100,000 roentgens of radiation, survived another33 yearsbefore it died in a big rainstormIn 1998.

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In Odum's view, the forest ecosystem was an actor: faced with the stress of irradiation, it "actively resisted the loss of its complexity" by sprouting new seedlings on bare ground. He imagined early succession species as "wound healers on small damaged areas". Two years later, the irradiated zone looked "like the scrub in the Appalachia." By 1969, bare rocks were again covered with moss andCecropiatrees were30 feethigh. For Odum and other ecologists, the irradiated forest's "healing system" and "repair mechanisms" resembled those of a human body.

By In 1970, following the RAND Corporation's recommendation that "comparative radiation sensitivity studies should be greatly expanded," ecologists had placed radiation sources in a tropical rain forest near Luquillo and in agricultural fields and deciduous forests in New York, Nevada, South Carolina, and Tennessee. Although conducted in a specific location, ecologists' World War III simulations have always been designed to develop generalized, transferrable strategies for the survival of US citizens -- except for those living in Puerto Rico, the Marshall Islands, or Nevada. At the same time, ecologists believed that doomsday experiments would shed light on how the biotic world is naturally constructed. In his bookEcological Effects of Nuclear War(1963), for example, the ecologist George Woodwell explained that doomsday experiments were designed simultaneously to anticipate "the complex ecological problems attendant on a nuclear holocaust" and to reflect the "normal patterns of structure, function, and development inherent in natural ecosystems are characteristic”. . Ecologists wanted to know how the world puts itself back together after a catastrophe.

In search of this knowledge, destruction became a standard way of studying ecosystems: ecologists also began clear-cutting, burning, and applying biocides to their fields. In a particularly dramatic example in 1966Edward O. Wilson, an entomologist at Harvard, and one of his graduate students, Daniel Simberloff, chose six islands in the Florida Bay on which to kill all living animals. First they counted the insects on each island, then they tented entire islands and fumigated them with methyl bromide. After this "defaunation" Simberloff carried out a new census of the insect communities. To ensure the reintroducing bugs got there "naturally" and not on Simberloff himself, he doused himself in an insect repellent called Off! between visits. In theWrite downFrom their experimental results, Simberloff and Wilson established the precedent for their experiment in studies by ecologists of field sites exposed to various "perturbations," including insecticides and fire. Their project was partially funded by the Department of Defense. The involvement of ecology in planning the end of the world not only made this experiment possible, but made it conceivable in the first place.

Before the 1960s, most ecologists believed that given time and space, nature would heal itself. They came to this conclusion through succession theory—the belief that ecological communities evolved from unstable aggregations of species to a stable “climax community” that adapted to its physical environment. Successor theorists held that human-caused ecological damage was reversible, with the important exception of species extinction. The book is emblematic of this point of viewhuman and nature(1864) by George Perkins Marsh, a US scholar and diplomat. Marsh wrote that "natural orders, once disturbed by man" would be "restored" when man "withdraws from the field and gives free rein to spontaneous recreational energies." A similar view prevailed in the 1950s, bolstered by studies of abandoned New England farmland that seemed to be rapidly turning into dense forest. Among the influentialSymposium"Human Role in Changing the Face of the Earth" in 1955, ecologist Edward Graham found that nature easily recovered from intensive cultivation, grazing, hunting, and logging when humans refrained from harmful practices. Ecological communities, he noted, have the "renewing power" to "reestablish themselves when the cause of the disturbance disappears."

The ecosystem theory emerged when the US saw itself as under constant threat

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However, doomsday experiments shattered ecologists' belief in a constantly self-healing nature. Experiments aimed at damaging ecosystems made it conceivable that ecological recovery was not inevitable and that ecosystems could cease functioning entirely if sufficiently damaged by humans. As Woodwellwrote 1965:

Most natural temperate zone ecosystems retain their ability to peak regenerate after a variety of types and degrees of damage. Forests are usually self-regenerating entities, even after clear-cutting; abandoned fields revert to stable native vegetation through a series of developmental stages... However, ecosystem destruction may reduce the site's potential for sustaining life for long periods, possibly tens of years.

In doing so, disturbance ecology supplanted the earlier framework of ecology: the theory of succession. Ecological succession is the process of changing the composition of an ecological community over time. Succession theorists have tended to view groups of plants and animals as becoming progressively more complex over time until they become an ordered and stable 'climax community'.

It is no coincidence that the theory of ecological succession emerged alongside the idea of ​​"obvious destiny," the colonial settler belief that succession from Indian to white ownership was natural and inevitable. Politics shapes the questions scientists ask and the metaphors they reach for. The ecosystem theory, in turn, arose when the United States saw itself as constantly under threat. Ecologists began to question how ecosystems sustain themselves when constantly bombarded with stressors.

In the context of doomsday planning, ecologists began to question whether there was a damage threshold at which ecosystems would lose their ability to recover. A Department of Defense from 1965Messagenoted that doomsday ecologists had discovered that ecosystems can be so degraded "that recovery can never be more than partial and incomplete." Once the “ecological balance is seriously disturbed,” the report goes on to say, “some species no longer controlled by their natural predators can proliferate enormously; others, deprived of their normal food sources or otherwise affected by the total system change, may disappear.” In a damaged world, species other than those that existed before would thrive. More than a decade later, a study by the Office of Technology Assessment for the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee concluded that after a Soviet attack, it would be difficult or impossible to restore an ecosystem to its pre-attack state because " the possibility exists that irreversible ecological changes". What haunted the discipline of ecology even after the end of the Cold War was not the blunt possibility of global annihilation but the more subtle specter of irreversible ecological change.

Doomsday ecology also anchored the diversity-stability hypothesis, the basis of contemporary environmental management. This is the idea that an ecosystem with more species will change less in response to a disturbance than an ecosystem with fewer species - whether that disturbance is a hurricane or nuclear war. At a 1963 Ecological Society of America symposium on nuclear war, ecologist Robert Platt argued that diverse ecosystems have built-in functional redundancy: if certain species were wiped out by insects, drought, ionizing radiation, or other disturbances, diversity meant there would be " Substitute Species". In support of his Luquillo study, Odum explained that the experiments would show whether high levels of biodiversity in tropical ecosystems provide "more mechanisms for survival and recovery." Woodwell wrote that biodiversity makes ecosystems "resilient to disaster," whether that disaster was "ionizing radiation" or "a gardener's hoe." In the 1980s, ecologists had come to see speciesdiversityas a key measure of the health of an ecosystem.

SSuccessive generations of ecologists have studied different versions of ecological doomsday, but the concepts and methods of disturbance ecology have remained the same. Luquillo has remained a center of fault ecology, but today it's hurricanes and climate change that ecologists try to simulate.

As of November 2004, scientists in Luquillo were creating three types of hurricane simulation charts. In the first case, they cut and removed branches to open the canopy. In the second case, they left the tall trees intact but added fallen branches and detritus to the forest floor. For the third treatment, both opened the canopy and added detritus. They compared these plots to control plots, which they left untreated. They found that increasing canopy openness was the dominant factor affecting forest regeneration. Increased sunlight and heat promoted seedling growth more than a lack of detritus. The research at Luquillo contradicted the prevailing view that tropical forests are fragile. Rather, they seemed well-adapted to major disturbances, winds, and floods, a hurricane regime that reigned in the region for millions of years.

Thirteen years later, in September 2017, two very real and devastating hurricanes swept through the hurricane simulation plans. Hurricane Irma, aCategory-5Storm, moving on near the main island of Puerto Rico7. September,resulting in widespread power outages and water supply disruptions. And further20. September,Hurricane Maria hit the island directly. ACategory-4Hurricane with peak wind speeds of155 milesper hour, it was the most violent hurricane to make landfall in Puerto Rico since 1928. In the weeks and months that followed, thousands of people died of preventable deaths. While researchers at George Washington University developed statistical models that showed between 2,658 and 3,290 additional deaths for that periodSeptember 2017ToFebruary 2018, then-President Donald Trump called the response to Maria an "unsung success." Hurricane Maria, one of the worst natural disasters in US history, is now being used as a case study for onshore disaster preparedness. A kind of simulation.

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Hurricane Maria instantly killed twice as many trees as previous storms

Uriarte's work combines long-term observations - comparing the species described in Odum's surveys with surveys after hurricanes Hugo (1989), Georges (1998) and Maria (2017) - and simulations, building huge tents and ditches to rule out rain and simulate drought, or chop down trees to simulate hurricane force winds. Her lab's main questions are: Will stronger storms have fundamentally different effects on forest recovery than less severe storms? And how do droughts and hurricanes interact?

How Atomic Doomsday Experiments Shaped Fault Ecology | Aeon Essays (5)

Climate models for the Caribbean predict longer dry periods and stronger and more frequent hurricanes. Uriarte and her colleagues found that Hurricane Maria instantly killed twice as many trees as previous storms and snapped more than three times as many trunks. Some species performed worse than others, with breakage rates of up to12 malthose of previous hurricanes, including some of the slowest-growing, valuable hardwoods once considered the most resilient to major storms.

Uriarte's preliminary findings, which will guide the US Forest Service's climate adaptation plans, suggest species that survive hurricanes are vulnerable to drought. Puerto Rico's forests may not be as resilient to disaster as scientists once believed. This means that scientists are still a long way from being able to design tropical forests to be resistant to climate crises: climate models assume that the annual amounts of precipitation in Puerto Rico will decrease by up to1,3 Meter,a dramatic change even as the Caribbean experiences hurricanes of greater strength and frequency. When I ask Uriarte if it will be possible to design and plant climate-resilient forests, she hesitates. The storm-resistant tree species are not always the drought-resistant tree species. "If we had all the money in the world, all the knowledge, I think we would still have to deal with these trade-offs," she says.

Today’s scenario planning efforts, whether it’s a climate change scenario or a new COVID variant, have common roots in 1960s doomsday planning. The goal is no longer prevention or containment, but mitigating the inevitable harm. Resilience, the buzzword of our climate-changed present, is only proven through adversity. Judith Rodin, former President of the Rockefeller Foundation,describesResilience as "the ability of individuals, communities, institutions, businesses, and systems within a city to survive, adapt, and thrive, regardless of the types of chronic stress and acute shocks they experience."

But promoting resilience as a value or asset can be toxic. As Miami poet and Dominican immigrant Mario Alejandro ArizawritesInWegwerfstadt(2020) "The proposition of the climate change resilience movement lies at the heart of North American neoliberalism and its correspondingly brutal moral order." When governments place the responsibility for resilience on communities, they are asking communities to accept the status quo. Planting drought-resistant trees can prepare you for climate change, but passing legislation to reduce fossil fuel use would get to the root of the problem. Celebrating resilience means imagining a future of perpetual harm.

This essay is taken from the bookWild by Design: The Rise of Ecological Restoration(2022) by Laura J Martin, published by Harvard University Press.


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