Radioactive Weather

October 13, 2016
Satellite images of winds and precipitation from Japan

On April 11, the Japanese government raised the Fukushima nuclear accident level from five to seven, the same severity assigned to the Chernobyl disaster. One of the questions I have gotten since the initial reports of the accident has been “How much damaging radiation has reached the United States?”

“Satellite images of winds and precipitation from Japan. Dark colors are precipitation. The winds are carrying the radiation towards Alaska and raining it out over open waters.” Source: NASA

My answer has consistently been that there are few things sillier than bronzing on a tanning bed, chatting all day on your cell phone and microwaving dinner – and then rushing off to get iodine pills because of a nuclear accident thousands of miles away in Japan. The distance and weather is protecting the United States.

It turns out that more radiation than was previously thought might have escaped in the initial hours after the quake, making the accident as severe as the 1986 disaster in the Ukraine. Unlike that distant event, where the accident occurred in the middle of a continental land mass, Fukushima was on the eastern edge of an island. The radiation from Chernobyl was carried through Russia, the Ukraine, Eastern Europe and Germany, with most of the damaging radiation falling on Belarus and the Ukraine.

Most of the radiation has rained out over the Pacific Ocean
Source: NOAA

By contrast most of Fukushima’s radiation has been carried out to sea by the strong prevailing westerly winds. The same volatility that has caused extreme springtime weather has whipped the winds far to the north before they swung south again and entered the West Coast a week after the accident. By that time, the fallout had fallen out. Precipitation rained most of the radiation out into the Pacific. The ocean circulation has absorbed and diluted the radiation, letting it sink below the surface. It’s tough if you are a fish but really cool for Californians.

Our government is good at noticing radiation. Minute amounts have been detected as far away from the accident as the East Coast and even Europe. None of these amounts have been even remotely dangerous.

So relax—that healthy glow on your skin won’t glow in the dark.

About This Blog

Are you a weather watcher? Welcome to “Weather Whispers” by James Garriss and until recently, Evelyn Browning Garriss. With expertise and humor, this column covers everything weather—from weather forecasts to WHY extreme weather happens to ways that weather affects your life from farming to your grocery bill. Enjoy weather facts, folklore, and fun!

With heavy hearts, we share the news that historical climatologist and immensely entertaining Almanac contributor Evelyn Browning Garriss passed away in late June 2017. Evelyn shared her lifetime of weather knowledge with Almanac editors and readers, explaining weather phenomena in conversation and expounding on topics in articles for the print edition of The Old Farmer’s Almanac as well as in these articles. We were honored to know and work with her as her time allowed, which is to say when she was not giving lectures to, writing articles for, and consulting with scientists, academia, investors, and government agencies around the world. She will be greatly missed by the Almanac staff and readers.