Going Nuclear On Climate Change

REUTERS/Stephane Mahe/File Photo

David Lewis Research Director, Focus For Health Foundation
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At the center of the earth lies its nuclear furnace. Nearly two-thirds the size of the moon, the inner core is as hot as the surface of the sun. The intense heat it generates melts vast quantities of quartz and other minerals, which are ejected out of volcanoes and rifts in our planet’s seafloor.

As the earth’s core continues to cool and solidify, our planet will eventually lose its protective magnetic shield along with most of its atmosphere, and become permanently frozen. Regardless of what role greenhouse gases and other factors may play in global warming at the present time, climate change in the long run is controlled by the earth’s core.

That being the case, scientists should consider how our dying core may affect climatic conditions long before thinning of our atmosphere becomes problematic. For example, we have no idea how current perturbations in the rotation of the core may affect climate. My guess is that most climatologists assume that, since the core is cooling, it must always be moderating global warming rather than contributing to it.

Recently, researchers at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and MIT discovered that the last seven Ice Ages ended when the earth’s axis reached its maximum tilt as it orbited the sun. Scientists interpret these data to mean that changes in the angles at which sunlight struck the earth created warming trends that ended the Ice Ages.

That may be true. But tilting the earth’s axis may also alter currents in Earth’s outer core of molten iron, or the manner in which magma transfers the core’s heat to the earth’s surface. NASA recently found that global changes in rainfall since 2000 have caused the earth to tilt eastward by as much as 7 inches a year. Tilt, therefore, may be a positive feedback mechanism by which the earth’s core contributes to global warming.

Based on current data, it’s impossible to clearly differentiate the effects of greenhouse gases from subtle changes in heat transfer from the earth’s core to the surface of the planet. Ocean warming due to increasing magma temperatures or flow rates, for example, would simultaneously raise CO2 levels in the atmosphere by stimulating microbial respiration.

In the first Clinton Administration, I oversaw a climate change research project at Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory conducted by President Clinton’s associate director for the environment at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. I was also conducting my own climate research in EPA’s Office of Research & Development.

Since the early 1990s, I have been interested in investigating trends in core-related heat transfer that may affect ocean temperatures. Unfortunately, EPA withdrew my internal funding when I published two Nature articles questioning some of the science EPA uses to support one of its regulations. Then, after a 4-year appointment I had to the University of Georgia’s Department of Marine Sciences ended, EPA waived federal regulations requiring that I work equal time at EPA, and unilaterally processed my early retirement.

In 2015, the Royal Society of London invited my participation in discussions about public skepticism over climate change and other important areas of science. The moderator, a Harvard Professor of the History of Science, began wrapping up the last day by turning the floor over to me for an additional half-hour of discussion.

During the discussion, it became clear that there is a growing appreciation among scientists that scientific misconduct within government and academia aimed at supporting government policies and industry practices is taking a toll on public confidence in the scientific literature.

Partisan politics, however, may be the biggest obstacle to investigating any role that changes in the earth’s core may play in global warming. Significant resources currently invested in studying greenhouse gases would have to be redirected toward understanding how the transfer of heat generated by nuclear decay within the core affects climate change.

And, if it turns out that perturbations of the core have already become a major driving force behind climate change, we should begin shifting our energy production more in the direction of small-scale nuclear reactors. Going nuclear would help ensure that we survive any negative effects moderate to severe climate change will have on other energy sources that we currently depend on, including solar, wind, biofuels and other renewable sources.

David L. Lewis, Ph.D., Research Director for the Focus for Health Foundation in Watchung, NJ, is the author of Science for Sale, How the U.S. Government Uses Powerful Corporations and Leading Universities to Support government policies, Silence Top Scientists, Jeopardize our Health, and Protect Corporate Profits.