John Hampson's warnings of disaster

John Hampson spent many years trying to alert national leaders to potential dangers to stratospheric ozone from nuclear explosions. His experiences provide a sobering lesson for those outside the mainstream who hope to appeal to national leaders.

Brian Martin

Unpublished, 1988

In July 1981 I sent a letter to John Hampson, an atmospheric scientist then living in England. My letter was a short request for information, a total of four sentences. Not long afterwards I was astounded to receive a lengthy and technically detailed reply: twenty pages, typed, single spaced, including a couple of hand-drawn diagrams.

This was the beginning of a long and intriguing correspondence. Through it I have learned a few of the ideas and experiences that John Hampson has to offer. In my mound of Hampson correspondence there are some valuable lessons worth sharing.

I first heard of Hampson in the early 1970s, while I was studying the problem of stratospheric pollution by supersonic transport aircraft (SSTs). We know today that only a small number of SSTs have been built, namely a few specimens of the Concorde and the Soviet Tupolev-144. Back in the late 1960s, there were expectations of 500 or more large SSTs, much larger than the Concorde and flying higher.

Supersonic transports spend much of their time in the stratosphere, a region of the atmosphere starting at 10 or 15 kilometres altitude. The stratosphere is characterised by very stable conditions, or in other words a lack of weather. The worry was that exhausts from SSTs might hang up in the stratosphere for months or years, chemically interacting with ozone. Ozone in the stratosphere is important to life on earth, since it absorbs ultraviolet light from the sun. Even a minor reduction in ozone means more ultraviolet at the surface, more skin cancers and effects on crops. A major reduction would be devastating.

The initial worry concerned hydrogen compounds from the exhausts of SSTs, which might destroy ozone in a catalytic cycle - a cycle in which ozone was destroyed but the hydrogen compounds were not, instead staying around to destroy yet more ozone. Calculations soon showed this hazard wasn't large. But then another danger was raised by Harold Johnston at the University of California and Paul Crutzen in Sweden: gases called nitrogen oxides. Nitrogen oxides are an inescapable part of SST exhaust, caused essentially by the burning of nitrogen in the atmosphere in the hot jet engine.

Nitrogen oxides are much more efficient than hydrogen compounds in destroying ozone. Stratospheric ozone quickly became a significant concern in the debate over the SST in the United States.

To further study the effects of nitrogen oxides on ozone, scientists began examining nuclear testing in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Nuclear explosions in the atmosphere produce vast amounts of nitrogen oxides, and the fireballs from large explosions send the stuff all the way up into the stratosphere. Scientists argued about whether there was any correlation between atmospheric nuclear testing and variations in ozone.

At this stage, John Hampson in 1974 published an important paper in the prestigious British scientific journal Nature.[1] He pointed out that in a nuclear war, vast amounts of nitrogen oxides would be produced. This could have a devastating effect on stratospheric ozone levels, resulting in intense doses of ultraviolet light at the earth's surface.

Today, after years of exposure to stories about nuclear winter, it is no longer surprising to think of the atmosphere as vulnerable to the assault of nuclear war. But in the 1970s this idea was not raised publicly until Hampson's article.

I learned in my correspondence that Hampson had been concerned about this issue, and many others, for quite a number of years. Hampson grew up in England and Wales and served in the Royal Navy during World War Two, in several parts of the world. After the war he proceeded in a scientific career and became involved in military research.

In the 1950s he became a military researcher for the Canadian government. He spent several years working on a guided missile project, and then moved on to work on how to detect intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), in order to intercept them using anti-ballistic missiles (ABMs). Among other things, he worked on laser development.

To detect ICBMs, it is necessary to understand the processes by which radiation is emitted and absorbed in the upper atmosphere. This is the province of atmospheric physics and chemistry. Through his work Hampson made contact with leading scientists around the world in these fields.

On the night of 14-15 August 1959, above Quebec, Hampson made an observation which triggered the development of passionate and enduring concerns. He observed a strong emission of radiation at a wavelength indicating nitrogen dioxide in the upper atmosphere. The strength of the emission indicated hundreds of times more nitrogen dioxide than was later observed at this altitude.

Why did the high level of nitrogen dioxide worry Hampson? Even at this early date, Hampson suspected that catalytic processes might control the level of stratospheric ozone. He also suspected that the large amount of nitrogen dioxide could be due to Soviet tests of ABM nuclear weapons in the upper atmosphere. The nitrogen oxides produced in these tests could well have drifted, by the standard upper atmospheric wind patterns, over Quebec.

So far, this seems to be simply another scientific observation, however fascinating. What really worried Hampson was that a large number of nuclear weapons, exploded high in the atmosphere, would release more energy than the chemical energy in the ozone. Although Hampson did not know then about the process of catalytic destruction of ozone by nitrogen oxides, the potential for such destruction was clear to him in general terms. But the time was not ripe, nor the information available, make a credible warning along these lines.

Hampson continued his ABM work in the 1960s, and continued to participate in discussions about stratospheric chemistry and dynamics. In the early 1960s, he proposed before anyone else that hydrogen compounds could catalytically destroy ozone.[2]

In the late 1960s, his position became more difficult. There was a major public debate about ABMs, and the Canadian government wished to withdraw from research in the area. Hampson eventually resigned and left Canada in 1969, mainly for reasons connected with his family. A few years later he was invited back to Laval University to continue the work. Hampson soon felt that he was being hindered in his work. He inferred that the idea behind his appointment was to shut down any defence-related aspects of the work by transferring it to a university. He considered he had been hired under false pretences.

Unlike many who have since studied the environmental impacts of nuclear war, Hampson was not opposed to nuclear weapons per se. He considered that the US and Soviet governments were well aware of the dangers of nuclear war, and that deterrence worked fine because of the recognised risks. His more urgent concern was that either government might do things out of ignorance that could trigger environmental catastrophe.

The sort of situation Hampson feared can be illustrated by the following scenario, which many will consider far-fetched. One of the lesser nuclear weapons powers, such as Israel or South Africa, might decide in desperation to fire a missile at Moscow to distract attention from their own situation. Moscow is surrounded by the only major set of ABMs. If these were launched to counter even a minor attack, massive explosive power would be released in the upper atmosphere. This could cause a virtual 'hole' in stratospheric ozone which, as it drifted and enlarged, could reach continental size. Hampson believed that neither superpower was aware of dangers of this sort.

Also tied to this picture was Hampson's unorthodox view of the role of ozone in the evolution of life on earth. He feared that a dramatic increase in ultraviolet light, due to reduced ozone, could endanger certain basic organisms on which higher life depends.

Shortly after publication of his 1974 paper in Nature, Hampson left Laval to reside in England, feeling obliged to be out of Canada. He spent much of his time contacting scientists and politicians around the world, trying to alert them to the danger of inadvertent catastrophe through upper atmospheric explosions. In 1978 he was invited to spend three months in the Soviet Union working on scientific matters. Although he made some useful scientific contacts, he found it just as impossible there to get his message through to decision-makers.

Since leaving Laval and living in England, Hampson survived on very little money. Armed only with his manual typewriter and his long experience in atmospheric sciences and military matters, he waged a lonely battle for his message to be heard where it counted.

Hampson's experiences testify eloquently to the futility of appealing to political leaders simply on the basis of argument and evidence. By his own count, Hampson wrote to over 50 leading figures in Canada, Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union raising his concerns about accidental misadventure. This immense effort was to little avail.

Many of the politicians did not bother to respond. Others did so perfunctorily. They described their efforts towards disarmament and pleaded lack of time, money or expertise to investigate the issues raised by Hampson.

Hampson considered true politicians to be people searching for truth, peace and social justice, and who therefore should respond urgently to a warning of potential danger. The reality is far different. The politicians themselves seldom saw Hampson's actual letters. These were opened by staff who, with the best will in the world, had little hope of dealing with the massive amount of correspondence received from pressure groups and constituents. Most effort goes into current and local political issues, not potential global disasters. Disasters become of interest mainly if some political capital can be made of them.

The kinder fate for one of Hampson's letters was referral to a relevant government department. Here it might be passed among employees until it found a home - someone with the time and expertise to respond. The problem was that atmospheric scientists with the background to make sense of Hampson's technical arguments are few and far between. Furthermore, Hampson was asking for efforts to be put into further research into the dangers. Hampson's arguments probably were not understood, and even if they were, there was no political or organisational basis for acting on his suggestions. Hampson's own experiences show that the chance of one of his letters generating a positive response is vanishingly small.

His case was not helped by his difficult writing style, which mixed technical and political considerations and lacked a format for easy digestion by bureaucrats. This made it all the more easy to ignore or pass off Hampson's missives.

What then of scientists? Hampson corresponded with a number of them over the years, requesting them to look into the observations of nitrogen dioxide in 1959 and other evidence about upper atmospheric nuclear testing and ozone. Again, some did not even respond, while others made polite responses but pleaded that they are unable to deal with the issues themselves.

I had my own ideas about Hampson's lack of success with scientists, and in addition I asked a few others who had corresponded with him about this.

The main problem was that most scientists had their own programmes of research and did not have spare time to undertake a research effort following up Hampson's suggestions. Paul Crutzen, who first spelled out the importance of nitrogen oxides in the chemistry of stratospheric ozone, subsequently became one of the world's leading atmospheric scientists. Crutzen of course knew of Hampson's work, and also had received correspondence from Hampson around 1980. His own impression was that nuclear explosions above the stratosphere probably wouldn't lead to nitrogen oxides at a low enough altitude to destroy a lot of ozone.

Even the most informed impressions do not constitute a scientific calculation, but they do influence what problems scientists study. Crutzen told me he was simply too busy to follow up all the things raised by Hampson, given that there were other pressing research projects. Like other scientists, Crutzen continually has to make decisions about what is the most important thing to study. Crutzen did not rule out Hampson's suggestions, but he did not find them convincing enough to warrant intense investigation.

Crutzen's work, it should be mentioned, has been vitally important in the discussions about the atmospheric effects of nuclear war. He and John Birks were preparing for publication in 1982 a calculation of the effects of nuclear war on ozone using the latest models. They found that, due to the trend towards smaller warheads, this effect was not very significant. But then they chanced on the idea that smoke from fires ignited by nuclear blasts might absorb sunlight. Their paper on this effect, subtitled "Twilight at noon,"[3] had an enormous impact. The blotting out of sunlight would cause lower temperatures. Crutzen and Birks' study led directly to the investigations of nuclear winter published the next year.

Actually, the nuclear winter phenomenon is exactly the sort of accidental misadventure that Hampson had been warning about: an unanticipated effect of nuclear explosions.

Another scientist who commented to me on Hampson's work was G. A. Nikolsky of the Atmospheric Physics Department at Leningrad University. Nikolsky is one of the world's eminent atmospheric scientists. He met Hampson during Hampson's 1978 visit to the Soviet Union, and they corresponded for many years. Nikolsky wrote me along these lines, "I am sure you know that John Hampson is a man for generating ideas. Most of them are original and bright. He has a tendency to broaden the scope of his ideas, and I am convinced this tendency brings him a lot of trouble. It would probably be more reasonable if he took a couple of problems only and studied them more narrowly and deeply instead of jumping to details and conclusions concerning military aspects."

This is reasonable advice for most scientists who are working in research labs. Perhaps their best chance of having a major political impact comes from first establishing a scientific reputation and then capitalising on that reputation to enter wider debates. The study by Crutzen and Birks had a big impact because they were highly reputable atmospheric scientists in established institutions, writing for a prominent scientific journal in receptive social circumstances. Carl Sagan and others nuclear winter researchers who have entered wider political debates have relied on their scientific credentials as legitimation for their apparently extra-scientific statements.[4]

These options were not really available to Hampson because he did not have a financial or organisational base to back his efforts. He lacked institutional affiliation, research funds, travel funds, research assistants and so forth. If, for the sake of argument, he had headed a research group at some university, he might have been able to initiate a research programme into the effects of high-altitude nuclear explosions. If the results seemed to support his concerns, he could have published the findings. Then, with the backing of institutional location and published results, any warnings he made would have had much greater influence.

Hampson's 1974 Nature paper, published when he was at Laval University, did have this sort of impact. It led directly to a study by the US National Academy of Sciences in 1975 on the long-term effects of nuclear weapons explosions. This study remained the primary document on this issue until the early 1980s when, stimulated directly or indirectly by the peace movement, scientists began looking at the effects of nuclear war.

Perhaps the message for those with unconventional, wide-ranging ideas is to team up with more traditional scientists in a prestigious institution, in this way harnessing much more legitimacy for the ideas. The trouble with this advice is that it is not easy to get traditional scientists to take up novel ideas or to get prestigious institutions to sponsor investigations into them. It is precisely because Hampson has been unorthodox that he has also run into problems in his scientific career. To counsel 'working from the inside' may undercut some of the independence and original thinking that outsiders such as Hampson provide.

To my knowledge, the one person in the world who seriously considered Hampson's ideas for the purpose of doing research was Ian Hare, when he was a Ph.D. student at York University in Toronto. Hare's work concerned injections of nitrogen oxides into the atmosphere by low-altitude nuclear explosions. With a suitable change in the models for this work, Hampson's concerns about high-altitude explosions could be addressed.

Hare's view was that with present nuclear arsenals, the scenario of accidental but massive destruction of ozone by high-altitude nuclear explosions is unlikely, but that if a full star wars x-ray laser system were ever built, Hampson's doomsday situation could well come about. Hare also accepted Hampson's point that studies of the effects of nuclear war should not be based solely on the standard repertoire of nuclear war scenarios.

A heart attack a few years ago slowed Hampson down but did not stop him. He continued to write numerous and voluminous letters to politicians and scientists, with little hope but with a stubborn refusal to give up.

With the end of the cold war and the decline of the peace movement, the issue of nuclear war has faded from public consciousness. Hampson's personal crusade may now seem to be irrelevant. But there are two important lessons to be learned from his experiences.

First, it is futile to expect governments to react to warnings of disaster simply on the basis of arguments and evidence submitted by an individual. This may seem obvious enough, but it is surprising how many people continue to hope that there is some official, somewhere, who will take heed.

Second, there is little chance that mainstream scientists will investigate an unorthodox idea. They are too involved in their careers pursuing those ideas that are currently most topical. Most of their funding comes directly or indirectly from government and industry, and this shapes research agendas.


1. John Hampson, "Photochemical war on the atmosphere," Nature, Vol. 250, 19 July 1974, pp. 189-191.

2. John Hampson, "Photolysis of wet ozone and its significance to atmospheric heating of the ozone layer," International Council of the Aeronautical Sciences, Third Congress, Stockholm 1962 (London: Macmillan, 1964), pp. 215-234.

3. Paul Crutzen and John Birks, "The atmosphere after a nuclear war: twilight at noon," Ambio, Vol. 11, Nos. 2-3, 1982, pp. 114-125.

4. Brian Martin, "Nuclear winter: science and politics," Science and Public Policy, Vol. 15, No. 5, October 1988, pp. 321-334.

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