Underground Cathedrals of Radiation and Zones of Irreversible Strain

[Image: Nevada test site, Google Maps, filtered through Instagram.]

There’s a great line in Tom Zoellner’s book Uranium: War, Energy, and the Rock That Shaped the World where he describes the after-effects of underground nuclear tests. Zoellner writes that, during these tests, “a nuclear bomb buried in a deep shaft underneath a mountain would vaporize the surrounding rock and make a huge cathedral-like space inside the earth, ablaze with radioactivity.”

I thought of Zoellner’s vision of a “huge cathedral-like space inside the earth” recently while reading a paper by Colin N. Waters et al., called “Recognising anthropogenic modification of the subsurface in the geological record.” Among other things, the authors describe the long-term “structural effects of subsurface weapon detonations.”

[Image: Nevada test site, Google Maps, filtered through Instagram.]

They suggest that these detonations produce spaces—such as collapse cones and debris fields—that have “no direct natural analogue,” although they do helpfully contrast weapon-test craters with meteor-impact sites. (The authors also break underground nuclear test sites down into “zones,” which include a “zone of irreversible strain,” which is an amazing phrase.)

The larger purpose of their paper, though, is to look at long-term “signatures” that humans might leave behind in our underground activity, from nuclear tests to mineralogical carbon-capture to deep boreholes to coal mines. Will these signatures still be legible or detectible for humans of the far future? On the whole, their conclusion is not optimistic, suggesting instead that even vast subterranean mines and sites of underground nuclear weapons tests will fade from the terrestrial archive.

“Many of the physical and chemical products of human subsurface intrusion either do not extend far from the source of intrusion, lack long-term persistence as a signal or are not sufficiently distinctive from the products of natural processes to make them uniquely recognisable as of anthropogenic origin,” they write. “But the scope and complexity of the signals have increased greatly over recent decades, both in areal extent and with increasing depths, and seem set to be a fundamental component of our technological expansion. There will be some clues to the geologist of the far-future, when historical knowledge records may not be preserved, that will help resolve the origin.”

[Image: Nevada test site craters, courtesy of the National Nuclear Security Administration Nevada Site Office Photo Library.]

Nevertheless, it is totally fascinating to imagine what future archaeologists might make of Zoellner’s “huge cathedral-like space[s] inside the earth, ablaze with radioactivity,” long after they’ve collapsed, and where sand has been fused into unnatural glass and anomalous traces of radiation can still be found with no reasonable explanation for how they got there.

Could future archaeologists deduce the existence of nuclear weapons from such a landscape? And, if so, would such a suggestion—ancient weapons modeled on the physics of stars—sound rational or vaguely insane?

(Vaguely related: “fossil reactors” underground in Gabon.)

Secret British Caving Teams and the Mineralogy of Nuclear War

[Image: An otherwise unrelated photo of a cave in China, taken by @PhailMachine, via wallhere].

An interesting story that re-emerged during recent coverage of the Thai cave rescue is that a team of British cavers trapped underground in central Mexico for “more than a week” back in 2004 had been accused of having an ulterior motive.

Of the six men, five were British soldiers, and the crew was rescued not by local emergency crews but by a team flown in from Britain. Nothing about either alleged fact is even remotely suspicious, of course, but, according to local press at the time, “the men had been looking for materials that could be used to make nuclear weapons.”

This was apparently more than just a bar-room rumor: Mexico’s energy minister “waded into the row by saying he would send members of the country’s nuclear research institute into the caves because of rumours the British potholers were looking for uranium deposits.” Things “descended into farce,” according to the Guardian, “amid claims the MoD-sponsored expedition was a secret uranium prospecting exercise and that precise details of the trip were not forwarded to the relevant authorities.”

The conspiracy seems to have begun when someone noticed a particular piece of equipment in a photo of the caving team: “someone spotted radon dosimeters being used. This wasn’t a military training exercise; it was a bunch of guys on holiday, some of whom happened to be in the armed services.”

What the British team would even have done with such materials, if they had found them, including how they would have safely transported uranium out of the underworld in their caving gear—not to mention how they would have exploited this knowledge later, perhaps by developing a vast, illegal, underground mine in the middle of central Mexico?—is difficult to imagine, but, wow, would I like to read that novella.

Six British soldiers descend into the Earth beneath Mexico looking for the infernal materials of war, part of a much larger, secret global mission for subterranean weapons-prospecting, slipping into caves in Central America, the U.S. Southwest, the Namibian desert, and beyond, combining raw international espionage, classified satellite reports, weaponized mineralogy, advanced underground mapping techniques, and every gear-head’s camping equipment fantasy turned up to 11.


Los_Angeles_Civic_Center_buildings_by_Nevada_A_Bomb_blast_1955[Image: “Los Angeles Civic Center buildings by Nevada A Bomb blast, 1955,” courtesy USC Libraries/Los Angeles Examiner Collection].

I first saw this photo back in August while searching through the archives at USC as part of the recent L.A.T.B.D. project, and was floored. The caption is awesomely, stunningly blunt: “Los Angeles Civic Center buildings by Nevada A Bomb blast, 1955.” A metropolis lit up by a weaponized sun.

Coverage at the time was Homeric and naive, with talk of two dawns ascending over the city—violent and stroboscopic, rather than the rosy-fingered morning of Greek myth—as this experimental sunrise detonated in the neighboring deserts of Nevada.

TwoDawns[Image: “Los Angeles had two dawns yesterday…” from the Los Angeles Examiner, courtesy USC Libraries/Los Angeles Examiner Collection].

In any case, I’ve written a short post over at KCET about the photo, so check it out if you get a chance.