Skip to main navigationSkip to main content
The University of Southampton
Southampton Marine and Maritime Institute

SMMI Research Fellow Sam Robinson gives seminar on national security, geopolitics and the geosciences during the Cold War

Published: 21 February 2022
Sam Robinson
Sam Robinson

Dr Sam Robinson is a historian of Cold War science and technology with a particular focus on oceans history and was invited to give an Oceans and Earth Science seminar earlier this month. The seminar was entitled ‘The Earth Under Surveillance: national security, geopolitics and the geosciences during the Cold War. Sam’s paper discussed the use of the earth sciences by military authorities during the Cold War. Showing how funding for earth science during the 1950s and 1960s shaped the research agenda and was closely related to complex geopolitical realities. Regardless of this context the geosciences grew and amassed vast new data sets about the world during this period of unprecedent growth for science. The paper concludes by arguing that without this expansion of earth sciences we would not be so aware today of the human impacts on climate change, environmental pollution, and biodiversity loss. Placing the earth under surveillance helped the world avoid nuclear catastrophe and raised global environmental consciousness. Read the full abstract below.

Watching over enemies (political and otherwise) has been an essential feature in the exercise of power since time immemorial, and knowledge of the earth and its resources has long been useful to statecraft. But the transformation that took place during the Cold War involved putting the entire earth under surveillance, altering the scope, the nature, and above all the extent of scientific interrogation of the planet and its environs. Both superpowers, especially the US administration, conceived the capacity to monitor the earth within a framework of control through strategic influence, without the need for explicit sovereignty over colonial spaces. The surveillance networks that were created at this time owe their existence, or at least their sophistication and extent, to the dramatic expansion of funding to the geosciences after 1945. This contribution was decisive not only in making it possible to analyse the activities of potential enemies through traces upon the earth’s environment, but also to understand that environment as an end in itself.


Through the surveillance imperative – the need to monitor an enemy to determine the threat of nuclear attack – science was enrolled into the Cold War battlefield. For instance, a major injection of funds into the study of earthquakes was premised explicitly upon the need to monitor underground nuclear tests. Knowledge about the circulation of the jet stream and ocean currents assisted in the improvement of anti-aircraft and anti-submarine warfare. The launching of the Sputnik satellite - and the subsequent space race - gave scientists and the wider public an entirely new perspective of Earth; whilst developing the technologies that could be used to destroy it. Studies of the atmosphere, the oceans, and the inner earth thus coupled the desire of scientists to acquire new knowledge of the earth’s features with the need to better know the enemy.


The enormous influx of state funding for the geosciences during the 1950s and 1960s helped researchers to accumulate vast data sets and derive important new insights that furthered research agendas within specific disciplines, while also providing benefits – either directly or indirectly – for states. Using surveillance as a central analytical concept this paper explains how a constellation of disciplines, namely the geosciences, benefitted from this search for novel means to monitor the enemy instigated by the confrontation between the superpowers. Disciplines that eventually became imbued with “green” values – especially through environmental monitoring – flourished within a geopolitical context in which watching over enemy states and alliances was at least as important as the “assault on the unknown”. 


This brings forth several historical questions that have significances for the present science.

  • To what extent can science be said to have been ‘distorted’ by the influence of the military during this period?
  • What is the connection between knowing the enemy through knowing the earth (are the geosciences surveillance sciences)?
  • How has this relationship transformed our understanding of the climate crisis?
  • Is environmental knowledge still a critically underestimated source of power for decisions on the future of the planet and its inhabitants, human and otherwise?

 Watch the seminar here:


Privacy Settings