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YouTube // The New York Times

What Happened to 'Nuclear Winter?'

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YouTube // The New York Times

In 1982, Dr. Richard P. Turco coined the phrase "nuclear winter," describing a theory that ash clouds would blanket the atmosphere after a nuclear war, blocking out the sun and plunging the world (or at least parts of it) into a dry, cold winter. Turco joined Carl Sagan (among others), publishing a study simulating nuclear winter in Science in 1983. Soviet scientists were also concerned about this possibility, as it certainly did seem plausible that ash plumes could do this (the year without a summer, anyone?).

Carl Sagan's second TV series—after Cosmos—was to be based on his concern about nuclear winter. The series was never produced, and arguments about the core science behind nuclear winter continue to rage decades later.

In the "Who Speaks for Earth" episode of Cosmos, Carl Sagan explained his concern about the global arms race and the likely outcome of a nuclear-equipped world going to war. He made the key point that all the conventional bombs dropped in World War II (roughly two megatons) equal a single thermonuclear bomb—a single bomb in the next war would equal the entire previous war. The consequences are staggering. Here are two relevant clips from that episode:

In this Retro Report video, The New York Times explores the science of the "nuclear winter" theory and how our thinking about it has changed over the years. Listen up, and keep an ear out for this quote summing up the Cold War:

"Imagine a room awash in gasoline. And there are two implacable enemies in that room. One of them has 9,000 matches. The other has 7,000 matches. Each of them is concerned about who's ahead, who's stronger. Well, that's the kind of situation we are actually in." -Carl Sagan (ABC News Viewpoint, "The Day After," November 20, 1983)

The NYT has a nice write-up to go along with their Retro Report video.

If you want to go even deeper into the historical nuclear rabbit hole that exists on YouTube, check out the recording of Spacebridge, a conference linking scientists in the Soviet Union and United States. Here's the first bit (including some of the Sagan footage seen in the Retro Report above):

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NASA/Nathan Kurtz
New Images of the Massive Iceberg That Broke Off From Antarctica This Summer
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NASA/Nathan Kurtz

This summer, a massive crack finally broke apart Antarctica’s Larsen C ice shelf, creating one of the world’s largest icebergs, called A-68. NASA has taken plenty of satellite images of the area, but now, thanks to flights by the agency’s Operation IceBridge, we have close-ups too, as The Washington Post reports.

Operation IceBridge is NASA’s project to survey and map the status of polar ice via plane. The project is running several survey missions out of Argentina and from scientific bases at the South Pole this fall, using gravimeters, magnetometers, and other sensors to measure changes in polar ice. They have taken a few flights so far that passed over Larsen C, the most recent leaving from Ushuaia, Argentina, on November 12.

The sheer edge of A-68 leads into blue ocean
The edge of A-68
NASA/Nathan Kurtz

Aerial IceBridge photos taken in the last few weeks show the massive size of the ice shelf and the iceberg it calved this summer. "Most icebergs I have seen appear relatively small and blocky, and the entire part of the berg that rises above the ocean surface is visible at once,” Kathryn Hansen, a member of NASA’s news team, wrote on NASA’s Earth Observatory blog after seeing A-68 for herself on the most recent IceBridge flight. “Not this berg. A-68 is so expansive it appears [as] if it were still part of the ice shelf.”

NASA tweeted out these incredible images from IceBridge's October 31 flight earlier this month.

An aerial photo of an ice shelf and the iceberg it calved
The ice on the left is the Larsen C ice shelf; the right, the western edge of A-68.
NASA/Nathan Kurtz

An aerial view of sea ice, blue water, and the edge of iceberg A68
A view across sea ice toward A-68
NASA/Nathan Kurtz

The November 12 flight was aimed at mapping the bedrock below the polar ice with NASA’s gravimeter, but the scientists still have more research planned. Additional IceBridge flights will be leaving from Antarctica later this month, collecting data with different instruments than the flights that left out of Argentina.

[h/t The Washington Post]

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8 Useful Facts About Uranus
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Uranus as seen by the human eye (left) and with colored filters (right).

The first planet to be discovered by telescope, Uranus is the nearest of the two "ice giants" in the solar system. Because we've not visited in over 30 years, much of the planet and its inner workings remain unknown. What scientists do know, however, suggests a mind-blowing world of diamond rain and mysterious moons. Here is what you need to know about Uranus.


Uranus is the seventh planet from the Sun, the fourth largest by size, and ranks seventh by density. (Saturn wins as least-dense.) It has 27 known moons, each named for characters from the works of William Shakespeare and Alexander Pope. It is about 1784 million miles from the Sun (we're 93 million miles away from the Sun, or 1 astronomical unit), and is four times wider than Earth. Planning a trip? Bring a jacket, as the effective temperature of its upper atmosphere is -357°F. One Uranian year last 84 Earth years, which seems pretty long, until you consider one Uranian day, which lasts 42 Earth years. Why?


Most planets, as they orbit the Sun, rotate upright, spinning like tops—some faster, some slower, but top-spinning all the same. Not Uranus! As it circles the Sun, its motion is more like a ball rolling along its orbit. This means that for each hemisphere of the planet to go from day to night, you need to complete half an orbit: 42 Earth years. (Note that this is not the length of a complete rotation, which takes about 17.25 hours.) While nobody knows for sure what caused this 98-degree tilt, the prevailing hypothesis involves a major planetary collision early in its history. And unlike Earth (but like Venus!), it rotates east to west.


You might have noticed that every non-Earth planet in the solar system is named for a Roman deity. (Earth didn't make the cut because when it was named, nobody knew it was a planet. It was just … everything.) There is an exception to the Roman-god rule: Uranus. Moving outward from Earth, Mars is (sometimes) the son of Jupiter, and Jupiter is the son of Saturn. So who is Saturn's father? Good question! In Greek mythology, it is Ouranos, who has no precise equivalent in Roman mythology (Caelus is close), though his name was on occasion Latinized by poets as—you guessed it!—Uranus. So to keep things nice and tidy, Uranus it was when finally naming this newly discovered world. Little did astronomers realize how greatly they would disrupt science classrooms evermore.

Incidentally, it is not pronounced "your anus," but rather, "urine us" … which is hardly an improvement.


Uranus and Neptune comprise the solar system's ice giants. (Other classes of planets include the terrestrial planets, the gas giants, and the dwarf planets.) Ice giants are not giant chunks of ice in space. Rather, the name refers to their formation in the interstellar medium. Hydrogen and helium, which only exist as gases in interstellar space, formed planets like Jupiter and Saturn. Silicates and irons, meanwhile, formed places like Earth. In the interstellar medium, molecules like water, methane, and ammonia comprise an in-between state, able to exist as gases or ices depending on the local conditions. When those molecules were found by Voyager to have an extensive presence in Uranus and Neptune, scientists called them "ice giants."


Planets form hot. A small planet can cool off and radiate away heat over the age of the solar system. A large planet cannot. It hasn't cooled enough entirely on the inside after formation, and thus radiates heat. Jupiter, Saturn, and Neptune all give off significantly more heat than they receive from the Sun. Puzzlingly, Uranus is different.

"Uranus is the only giant planet that is not giving off significantly more heat than it is receiving from the Sun, and we don't know why that is," says Mark Hofstadter, a planetary scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He tells Mental Floss that Uranus and Neptune are thought to be similar in terms of where and how they formed.

So why is Uranus the only planet not giving off heat? "The big question is whether that heat is trapped on the inside, and so the interior is much hotter than we expect, right now," Hofstadter says. "Or did something happen in its history that let all the internal heat get released much more quickly than expected?"

The planet's extreme tilt might be related. If it were caused by an impact event, it is possible that the collision overturned the innards of the planet and helped it cool more rapidly. "The bottom line," says Hofstadter, "is that we don't know."


Although it's really cold in the Uranian upper atmosphere, it gets really hot, really fast as you reach deeper. Couple that with the tremendous pressure in the Uranian interior, and you get the conditions for literal diamond rain. And not just little rain diamondlets, either, but diamonds that are millions of carats each—bigger than your average grizzly bear. Note also that this heat means the ice giants contain relatively little ice. Surrounding a rocky core is what is thought to be a massive ocean—though one unlike you might find on Earth. Down there, the heat and pressure keep the ocean in an "in between" state that is highly reactive and ionic.


Unlike Saturn's preening hoops, the 13 rings of Uranus are dark and foreboding, likely comprised of ice and radiation-processed organic material. The rings are made more of chunks than of dust, and are probably very young indeed: something on the order of 600 million years old. (For comparison, the oldest known dinosaurs roamed the Earth 240 million years ago.)


The only spacecraft to ever visit Uranus was NASA's Voyager 2 in 1986, which discovered 10 new moons and two new rings during its single pass from 50,000 miles up. Because of the sheer weirdness and wonder of the planet, scientists have been itching to return ever since. Some questions can only be answered with a new spacecraft mission. Key among them: What is the composition of the planet? What are the interactions of the solar wind with the magnetic field? (That's important for understanding various processes such as the heating of the upper atmosphere and the planet's energy deposition.) What are the geological details of its satellites, and the structure of the rings?

The Voyager spacecraft gave scientists a peek at the two ice giants, and now it's time to study them up close and in depth. Hofstadter compares the need for an ice-giants mission to what happened after the Voyagers visited Jupiter and Saturn. NASA launched Galileo to Jupiter in 1989 and Cassini to Saturn in 1997. (Cassini was recently sent on a suicide mission into Saturn.) Those missions arrived at their respective systems and proved transformative to the field of planetary science.

"Just as we had to get a closer look at Europa and Enceladus to realize that there are potentially habitable oceans there, the Uranus and Neptune systems can have similar things," says Hofstadter. "We'd like to go there and see them up close. We need to go into the system." 


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