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[Slashdot] - Can Nuclear Fallout Make It Rain?

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sciencehabit writes: Radioactive fallout is rarely a good thing. But new research suggests charged particles emitted from Cold War-era nuclear tests may have boosted rainfall thousands of kilometers away from the testing sites, by triggering electrical charges in the air that caused water droplets to coalesce. The United States, Soviet Union, and other nations often tested nuclear weapons above ground in the 1950s and early 1960s. The fallout contained a devil's cocktail of radioactive elements that can have subtle effects in the atmosphere. Charged particles emitted during radioactive decay can smack into surrounding atoms and molecules, ripping them asunder and creating even more charged particles. Then, that flurry of charged particles can glom onto dust, soot, or water droplets in the atmosphere, sometimes making the droplets hefty enough to fall to the ground as rain. To see whether above-ground nuclear testing actually increased rainfall, University of Reading atmospheric scientist Giles Harrison and colleagues looked at Cold War-era rainfall records from a weather station on a remote island north of Scotland... The team's analysis suggests a strong link between fallout and precipitation from 1962 through 1964, a period when fallout from above-ground testing of nuclear weapons was commonly present in the stratosphere. At the Scottish site, clouds were thicker, and precipitation was 24% higher on days when above-average levels of fallout were present (as inferred from measurements of the atmosphere's electric field), the researchers report in Physical Review Letters. The researchers believe it could help us understand weather patterns on planets like Jupiter and Neptune with charged partciles in their atmosphere -- and might even make it possible for small-scale experiments in controlling the weather.

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