Thursday, November 29, 2012

Silviu the Thief - Now Available!

Hello all,

My new book, Silviu the Thief - the first book in the Hero's Knot series - is now available for sale at Smashwords and Amazon.

As always, you can also find my books via my website,

I had a lot of fun cranking this one out during National Novel Writing Month, and I'm looking forward to following the adventures of Raven/Silviu through at least two more books.

I hope you enjoy it!


- Don

26 January 2012 – Sunshine, staple crops and rainbows


Those of us living in the Ottawa area got seriously ripped off on Tuesday.  It was cloudy, and we missed the best light show in a decade.

Late on Sunday 22 January, the Sun erupted with an M8.7 class solar flare.  The resulting coronal mass ejection (CME), a burst of highly energetic protons, left the Sun's surface at about 2,000 km per second, and impacted the Earth at a little after 1000 hrs EST on Tuesday.  The Space Weather Prediction Centre at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the US rated the storm as an S3 (the scale goes up to S5), making it the strongest space weather event since 2005, possibly 2003.  The resulting geomagnetic storm was rated G1 (minor).

Thanks to our atmosphere, solar storms can't harm humans, but when charged particles hit the Earth's magnetosphere, they can play hob with radio communications, and at high energy levels can damage satellites.  They also produce bursts of charged particles in the upper atmosphere, leading to tremendous auroral displays.  NASA had predicted that the Aurora Borealis could be visible at latitudes as low as Maine.  The following image was taken in Sweden:

See what I mean?  Awesome.  Elsewhere, the aurora was reported to have looked like a rainbow in the night sky.  Too bad we missed it here.

Who cares, though, right?  I mean, it's pretty, sure, but where's the relevance to what we do?  Well, this kind of solar activity is strategically very relevant, in a couple of ways.  First, powerful geomagnetic storms can impact humans - not through ionizing radiation, but through their immediate electromagnetic effects.  Geomagnetic perturbations can induce powerful currents on Earth.  Here's a plot from a Swedish lab showing the arrival of the CME:

Massive geomagnetic events can wreak havoc with power grids because, pursuant to Faraday's Law, a time-varying magnetic field induces a current in a conductor - and the surface of the world is positively covered with conductors.  A strong enough magnetic perturbation can create enough current in high-tension lines to overload switches and cause circuit breakers to blow.  Take a look at the magnetometer declination on that chart; last Tuesday's event induced a perturbation about 8 times the average maximum perturbation experienced over the hours preceding the event.  Frankly, the effects shouldn't be surprising; we're talking about billions of tonnes of charged particles hitting the planet at millions of kilometres per hour.  The kinetic energy alone of such an impact is staggering.  It's enough to bend the planet's magnetosphere out of shape.

There weren't any reports of power grid failures on Tuesday, but remember, this was only a G1 storm.  A CME that hit the Earth on 13 March 1989 knocked out Quebec's power grid for nine hours.  That one temporarily disabled a number of Earth-orbiting satellites, and folks in Texas were able to see the northern lights.  Another big geomagnetic storm in August of that same year crippled microchips, and shut down the Toronto Stock Exchange.

Those were bad, but the Carrington Event was something else entirely.  Back on 1 September 1859, British astronomers Richard Carrington and Richard Hodgson independently recorded a solar superflare on the surface of the Sun.  The resulting CME took only 18 hours to travel to the Earth, giving the mass of charged particles a velocity of ca. 2300 km/second, somewhat faster than last Tuesday's bump.  When the CME hit, it caused the largest geomagnetic storm in recorded history.  According to contemporary accounts, people in New York City were able to read the newspaper at night by the light of the Aurora Borealis, and the glow woke gold miners labouring in the Rocky Mountains.  The more immediate impact of the Carrington Event, though, was the fact that the intense perturbations of the Earth's magnetic field induced enormous currents in the telegraph wires that had only recently been installed in Europe and across North America.  Telegraph systems failed all over both continents; according to contemporary accounts, sparks flew from the telegraph towers, telegraph operators received painful shocks, and telegraph paper caught fire.

Geomagnetic storms like the Carrington Event are powerful enough to leave traces in the terrestrial geology.  Ice core samples can contain layers of nitrates that show evidence of high-energy proton bombardment.  Based on such samples, it's estimated that massive solar eruptions like the Carrington Event occur, on average, every five hundred years or so.  Electromagnetic catastrophists (I've derided them before as "the Pulser Crowd") point to the Carrington Event, and lesser impacts like the 1989 solar storm, as an example of the sort of thing that could "bring down" Western civilization by crippling power grids (and they also tend to posit that a deliberate EMP attacker could accomplish the same thing via the high-altitude detonation of a high-yield thermonuclear weapon over the continental US - as if the US strategic weapons system weren't the one thing in the entire country that was hardened against EMP from top to bottom).  It hasn't happened yet - and the protestations of the Pulsers notwithstanding, the grid is a lot more robust than the old telegraph lines used to be, if only because we understand electromagnetism a lot better now than they did back in the days of beaver hats, mercury nostrums, and stock collars.

That said, this sort of thing does tend to make one look at our ever-benevolent star in a new light (no pun intended).  The second reason this sort of thing is strategically relevant is because recent studies and observed data seem to be confirming some disturbing solar activity trends identified a few years ago - and the potential consequences aren't pleasant.

As I've mentioned before, one of the perplexing claims in the IPCC's list of assumptions upon which all of the general circulation ("climate") models are built is that the aggregate impact of "natural forcings" (a term that the IPCC uses to lump together both volcanic aerosols and all solar forcings) is negative - i.e., that the sum total of volcanic and solar activity is to cool the Earth, rather than warm it.  The IPCC also argues that these natural forcings “are both very small compared to the differences in radiative forcing estimated to have resulted from human activities.” [Note A] The assumption that solar activity is insufficient to overcome the periodic cooling impact of large volcanic eruptions (which, let's face it, aren't all that common - the last one to actually have a measurable impact on global temperatures was the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo on 15 June 1991) is, to say the least, "unproven."  The IPCC has also dismissed the Svensmark hypothesis (the argument that the warming effect of seemingly minor increases in solar activity is magnified by the increase in solar wind, which interrupts galactic cosmic radiation and prevents GCRs from nucleating low-level clouds, thereby reducing Earth's albedo, and vice-versa - you'll recall this from previous COPs/TPIs), which, unlike the hypothesis that human CO2 emissions are the Earth's thermostat, is actually supported by empirical evidence.

This is probably why the IPCC's climate models have utterly failed.  Temperature trends are below the lowest IPCC estimates for temperature response to CO2 emissions - below, in fact, the estimated temperature response that NASA's rogue climatologist, James Hansen, predicted would occur even if there was no increase in CO2 emissions after 2000. 
(Dotted and solid black lines - predicted temperature trends according to Hansen's emissions scenarios.  Blue dots - measured temperatures.  Red line - smoothed measured temperature trend.)

The lowest of the black dotted lines is what Hansen predicted Earth's temperature change would be if global CO2 emissions were frozen at 2000 levels.  Obviously, that hasn't happened; in fact, global CO2 concentrations have increased by 6.25%.  Temperatures haven't increased at all.  In other words, while CO2 emissions have continued to skyrocket and atmospheric CO2 concentrations have continued to increase, actual measured temperatures have levelled off, and the trend is declining.  Don't take my word for it; the data speak for themselves. 

I particularly like the next graph, which shows the last 10 years of average global temperature trends as measured by the most reliable instruments available to mankind:

The satellite temperature measurement data are maintained by the University of Alabama at Huntsville, and the short puce line at the left of the graph shows 2012 temperatures to date.  That's right - according to satellite measurements, this is the coldest winter in at least a decade.  Have you heard anything about that from the mainstream media?  Have you heard anything about it from NASA?  Probably not; Hansen just released another statement shrieking that 2011 was the "11th-warmest" year on record.  This was after modifying the GISS temperature dataset - again - to make the past colder, and the present hotter.  Seriously, where apart from climate science is it considered acceptable to change the past to conform to your theories about the future?  Well, apart from communist dictatorships, I mean.

Why aren't the data following the GCM predictions?  Well, let's look back a few years.  In a paper I wrote back then, I took a look at what solar activity trends had to suggest about the likelihood of continued, uninterrupted global warming.  Here's an excerpt.  Bear with me here, and please excuse the dated charts; the paper, after all, was written in January 2009, and updated in April 2009, using sources and data available to that point:

Solar physicists have begun to speculate that the observed, and extremely slow, start to solar cycle 24 may portend an unusually long, weak solar cycle.  According to NASA, in 2008 the Sun experienced its “blankest year of the space age” – 266 spotless days out of 366, or 73%, a low not seen since 1913.  David Hathaway, a solar physicist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, noted that sunspot counts were at a 50-year low, meaning that “we’re experiencing a deep minimum of the solar cycle.”[1]  At time of writing, the figure for 2009 was 78 spotless days out of 90, or 87%, and the Goddard Space Flight Centre was calling it a “very deep solar minimum” – “the quietest Sun we’ve seen in almost a century.”[2]

This very low solar activity corresponds with “a 50-year record low in solar wind pressure” discovered by the Ulysses spacecraft.[3]  The fact that we are simultaneously experiencing both extremely low solar wind pressure and sustained global cooling, incidentally, may be considered prima facie circumstantial corroboration of Svensmark’s cosmic-ray cloud nucleation thesis.

Figure 17 - Solar cycle lengths 1750-2007; and the 2 longest cycles of the past 300 years [4]

Measured between minima, the average length of a solar cycle is almost exactly 11 years.  The length of the current solar cycle (Solar Cycle 23, the mathematical minimum for which occurred in May 1996), was, as of 1 April 2009, a little over 12.9 years.[5]  This is already well over the mean, and at time of writing, the minimum was continuing to deepen, with no indication that the next cycle has begun.[6]  Only one solar cycle in the past three centuries has exceeded that length – solar cycle 4, which lasted 13.66 years, 1784 to 1798 (see figure 17).  This was the last cycle before the Dalton Minimum, a period of lower-than-average global temperatures that lasted from approximately 1790-1830. The Dalton Minimum was the last prolonged “cold spell” of the Little Ice Age, from which temperatures have since been recovering (and which, as noted above, the IPCC and the proponents of the AGW thesis invariably take as the start-point for their temperature graphs, in a clear demonstration of the end-point fallacy in statistical methodology).[7]  On the basis of observations of past solar activity, some solar physicists are predicting that the coming solar cycle is likely to be weaker than normal, and could result in a period of cooling similar to the Dalton Minimum.[8]

If we were to experience a similar solar minimum today – which is not unlikely, given that, as noted above, we are emerging from an 80+-year Solar Grand Maximum, during which the Sun was more active than at any time in the past 11,000 years – the net result could be a global temperature decline on the order of 1.5 degrees over the space of two solar cycles, i.e. a little over two decades.[9]  According to Archibald, during the Dalton Minimum, temperatures in central England dropped by more than a degree over a 20-year period, for a cooling rate of more than 5ºC per century; while one location in Germany – Oberlach – recorded a decline of 2ºC during the same period (a cooling rate of 10ºC per century).[10]  Archibald predicts a decline of 1.5ºC over the course of two solar cycles (roughly 22 years), for a cooling rate of 6.8ºC per century.  This would be cooling at a rate more than ten times faster than the warming that has been observed since the mid-1800s.  “At this rate,” Monckton notes wryly, “by mid-century, we shall be roasting in a new ice age.”[11]

Well, since predictive analysis ought to be subject to review, what do things look like today, three years after that paper was written?  Let's turn to NASA's David Hathaway, who - as a solar physicist - continues to track and refine predictions for the depth and duration of the next solar cycle.  Back in 2006, Hathaway, looking at the Sun's internal "conveyor belt", predicted that the next solar cycle - #24, the one we're currently in - would be higher than cycle #23, and that #25 would be lower.
(Source: NASA, David Hathaway, "Solar Cycle 25 peaking around 2022 could be one of the weakest in centuries", 10 May 2006 [Note B])

Hathaway's prediction was based on the conveyor belt model (look it up if you're interested).  In 2010, two different authors, Matthew Penn and William Livingston of the National Solar Observatory, developed a physical model based instead on the measured magnetic fields of sunspots.  Based on their model, which seems to have greater predictive validity, they argued that the sunspot number would not be low (75 or so) like Hathaway predicted, but exceptionally low, less than a tenth of that - a total peak sunspot number of around 7, or the lowest in observed history.

Independent of the normal solar cycle, a decrease in the sunspot magnetic field strength has been observed using the Zeeman-split 1564.8nm Fe I spectral line at the NSO Kitt Peak McMath-Pierce telescope. Corresponding changes in sunspot brightness and the strength of molecular absorption lines were also seen. This trend was seen to continue in observations of the first sunspots of the new solar Cycle 24, and extrapolating a linear fit to this trend would lead to only half the number of spots in Cycle 24 compared to Cycle 23, and imply virtually no sunspots in Cycle 25. [Note C]

The authors predict that umbral magnetic field strength will drop below 1500 Gauss between 2017 and 2022.  Below 1500 Gauss, no sunspots will appear.  This is what the predictive chart from their paper looks like:

For the record, that's not a happy prediction.  A maximum sunspot number of 7 is virtually unheard-of in the historical record.  Using the Penn-Livingston model and NASA's SSN data, David Archibald, another solar expert, has projected sunspot activity over cycle 25...and this is what it looks like [Note D]:

First, note that measured data have already invalidated Hathaway's 2006 prediction about solar cycle 24; turns out it is proving to be considerably weaker than cycle 23.  If Penn and Livingston are correct, however, cycle 25 could be less than 1/5th the strength of cycles 5 and 6, which in the first quarter of the 19th Century marked the depths of the Dalton Minimum.  During this period, as noted above, temperatures plummeted, leading to widespread crop failures, famine, disease, and the delightful sociological and meteorological conditions that entertained Napoleon during the retreat from Moscow, and that Charles Dickens spent most of his career writing about.  A SSN of less than 10, in fact, would be considerably lower than the Dalton Minimum; it would put the world into conditions not seen since the Maunder Minimum in the 17th Century, which was even worse.

How significant could this be?  Well, look at the above chart.  The last time there was an appreciable dip in solar activity - cycle 20 (October 1964 - June 1976), the smoothed SSN curve peaked at 110, more than 10 times as strong as cycle 25 is expected to be...and the entire world went through a "global cooling" scare.  In 1975, Newsweek published an article entitled “The Cooling World”, claiming, amongst other things, that “[t]he evidence in support of these predictions [of global cooling] has now begun to accumulate so massively that meteorologists are hard-pressed to keep up with it.”  The article's author had some grim advice for politicians struggling to come to grips with the impending cooling: “The longer the planners delay, the more difficult will they find it to cope with climatic change once the results become grim reality.” [Note E]

Sound familiar? 

That was 36 years ago.  Now here we are in solar cycle 24, which is looking to be a good 20% weaker than solar cycle 20, which prompted all the cooling panic.  Temperatures are once more measurably declining.  Models of solar activity (models based on observed data, remember, not hypothetical projections of mathematically-derived nonsense) project that the modern solar grand maximum that has driven Earth's climate for the last 80+ years is almost certainly over.  This means that, based on historical experience, the coming solar cycles will probably be weak, and the Earth's climate is probably going to cool measurably.  "Global warming" is done like dinner, and to anyone with the guts to look at the data and the brains to understand it, there is no correlation whatsoever between average global temperature and atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations (let alone the tiny proportion of atmospheric CO2 resulting from human activities).  The only questions left are (a) whether we are on our way to a Dalton-type Minimum, where temperatures drop a degree or two, or a much worse Maunder-type Minimum, where temperatures drop more than two degrees; and (b) whether we have the intelligence and common sense as a species to pull our heads out of our nether regions, look at the data, stop obsessing about things that are demonstrably not happening, and start preparing for the Big Chill. 

Based on observed data, I'm guessing we're definitely in for colder weather - but I'm doubtful that we have the mental capacity to recognize that fact and do something about it.  Like, for example, develop the energy resources that we're going to need if we're going to survive a multidecadal cold spell. 

Oh, and why is this relevant?  Well, because we live in Canada.  A new solar minimum - the Eddy Minimum, as some are beginning to call it - would severely impact Canada's agricultural capacity.  As David Archibald pointed out in a lecture last year (ref F), Canada's grain-growing belt is currently at a geographic maximum, thanks to the present warm period (the shaded area in the image below).  However, during the last cooling event (the one capped off by Solar Cycle 20, above), the grain belt shrank to the dotted line in the image.  A decline in average temperature of 1 degree - which would be consistent with a Dalton Minimum-type decline in temperatures - would shrink the grain belt to the solid black line; and a 2-degree drop in temperature would push that black line south, to the Canada-US border. 

In other words, if we were to experience a drop in temperatures similar to that experienced during the Maunder Minimum - which, if Solar Cycle 25 is as weak as Penn-Livingston suggest it might be, is a possibility - then it might not be possible to grow grain in Canada. 

This could be a problem for those of us who enjoy the simple things in life, like food.  And an economy.

So what we should be asking ourselves is this: What's a bigger threat to Canada's national security? 

·         A projected temperature increase of 4 degrees C over the next century that, according to all observed data, simply isn't happening - but that if it was, wouldn't improve our agricultural capacity one jot, because that shaded area is a soil-geomorphic limit, and sunshine doesn't turn muskeg or tundra into fertile earth no matter how warm it gets; [Note G]


·         A decline in temperatures of 1-2 degrees C over the next few decades that, according to all observed and historical data, could very well be on the way - and which, if it happens, might make it impossible to grow wheat in the Great White North?

You decide.  I'll be looking for farmland in Niagara.




27 January 2012 – Update to ‘Sunshine’, etc.


It figures that the same day I send out a TPI featuring a 6-month-old slide, the author of the slide would publish an update.[Note A]  I thought I'd send it along as the refinements to his arguments sort of emphasize the reason that we should be taking a closer look at the question of what might really be happening to climate, and why.

David Archibald, who produced that grain-belt map I cited above, has refined his projection based on new high-resolution surface temperature studies from Norway, and on new solar activity data, including data on the cyclical "rush to the poles" of sunspot clusters, of which our understanding has improved considerably over the past five years.  Here's how one paper puts it:

“Cycle 24 began its migration at a rate 40% slower than the previous two solar cycles, thus indicating the possibility of a peculiar cycle. However, the onset of the “Rush to the Poles” of polar crown prominences and their associated coronal emission, which has been a precursor to solar maximum in recent cycles (cf. Altrock 2003), has  just been identified in the northern hemisphere. Peculiarly, this “rush” is leisurely, at only 50% of the rate in the previous two cycles.”

So what?  Well, it means that cycle 24 is likely to be a lot longer than normal.  And what are the consequences of that, you ask?

If Solar Cycle 24 is progressing at 60% of the rate of the previous two cycles, which averaged ten years long, then it is likely to be 16.6 years long.  This is supported by examining Altrock’s green corona diagram from mid-2011 above.  In the previous three cycles, solar minimum occurred when the bounding line of major activity (blue) intersects 10° latitude (red).  For Solar Cycle 24, that occurs in 2026, making it 17 years long.

The first solar cycle of the Maunder Minimum was 18 years long.  That's the last time the world saw solar cycles as long as the coming cycles are projected to be.

For humanity, that is going to be something quite significant, because it will make Solar Cycle 24 four years longer than Solar Cycle 23.  With a temperature – solar cycle length relationship for the North-eastern US of 0.7°C per year of solar cycle length, temperatures over Solar Cycle 25 starting in 2026 will be 2.8°C colder than over Solar Cycle 24, which in turn is going to be 2.1°C colder than Solar Cycle 23.

The total temperature shift will be 4.9°C for the major agricultural belt that stretches from New England to the Rockies straddling the US – Canadian border.  At the latitude of the US-Canadian border, a 1.0°C change in temperature shifts growing conditions 140 km – in this case, towards the Gulf of Mexico. The centre of the Corn Belt, now in Iowa, will move to Kansas.

Emphasis added.

Now remember, that's the center of the corn belt.  What about the northern fringes of it?  Here's Archibald's updated grain belt map.  Note the newly-added last line:

"All over."  That's 25-30 years from now - or as some folks around this building like to call it, "Horizon Three".  And here we are, still talking about melting sea ice, thawing permafrost, and building deep-water ports in the Arctic.  Maybe we should be talking about building greenhouses in Lethbridge and teaching beaver trapping in high school.

Just something to think about the next time somebody starts rattling on about how the science is settled and global warming is now inevitable.  We'd better hope they're right, because the alternative ain't pretty.

Cheers...I guess.




Notes (From original post)

A)    4th AR WG1, Chapter 2, 137.

E)    Peter Gwynne, “The Cooling World”, Newsweek, 28 April 1975, page 64. 

G)    H/T to Neil for the "sunshine doesn't turn muskeg into black earth" line.

[1][1] NASA, “Spotless Sun: Blankest Year of the Space Age”, NASA Press Release, 30 September 2008 [].
[2][2] “Deep Solar Minimum”,, 1 April 2009, [ 01apr_deepsolarminimum.htm].
[3][3] NASA, “Spotless Sun: Blankest Year of the Space Age”, ibid.  The Sun is also going through a 55-year low in radio emissions.
[4][4] Data obtained from the National Geophysical Data Centre of the NOAA Satellite and Information Service [].
[5][5] At time of writing the minimum for Solar Cycle 24 had not yet been established.  The longer Solar Cycle 23 continues, the more likely a prolonged period of cooling becomes.  For those wishing to perform their own calculations, all of the data on sunspot numbers (and much more) are available at the website of the National Geophysical Data Centre of the NOAA Satellite and Information Service [].

[6][6] Based on current science, the date for the solar minimum ending a prior cycle is generally determined from sunspot counts and is generally agreed by scientists post-facto, once the subsequent cycle is under way.  However, in addition to very low smoothed sunspot numbers, solar minima are also defined in terms of peaks in cosmic rays (neutrons) striking the Earth (because the Sun’s magnetic field, which shields the Earth from cosmic rays, is weakest during the solar minimum.  For more information on this point, see chapter 5).  Because the neutron counts, at time of writing, were still increasing, it is unlikely that the solar minimum separating solar cycles 23 and 24 has yet been reached.  See Anthony Watts, “Cosmic Ray Flux and Neutron monitors suggest we may not have hit solar minimum yet”,, 15 March 2009 [].  For anyone interesting in charting the neutron flux data for themselves, these can be obtained from the website of the University of Delaware Bartol Research Institute Neutron Monitor Program [].

[7][7] Jeff Id, “Sunspot Lapse Exceeds 95% of Normal”, posting at, 15 January 2009 [].  Id’s data, and the data one which this chart is based, are drawn from official NASA figures.
[8][8] C. de Jaeger and S. Dunham, “Forecasting the parameters of sunspot cycle 24 and beyond”, Journal of Atmospheric and Solar-Terrestrial Physics 71 (2009), 239-245 [].
[9][9] Archibald (2006), 29-35.
[10][10] Archibald, ibid., 31.
[11][11] Christopher Monckton, “Great is Truth, and mighty above all things”; valedictory address to the International Conference on Climate Change, 10 March 2009, 3 [ Great_ Is_Truth_and_Mighty_Above_All_Things.html]

Monday, November 26, 2012

Silviu the Thief - DONE

Hello all,

I'm happy to announce that I've completed and submitted my novel to the National Novel Writing Month competition. That makes me a winner according to the contest rules. So, yay!

Of course, the real work comes next, formatting the book for publication at Amazon:Kindle and Smashwords (and its various affiliates).  I should have it done by next week.

And then on to the next book.  Not sure at this stage whether it'll be Book II of The Hero's Knot, or if I'll go back to the Chronicles of Anuru and finish off Book I of The Brotherhood of Wyrms. I think I might take some time off and get back to writing over Christmas.

Anyway, for the moment I think I'll just indulge in a little triumphalism and take a break. Yay again!

And as always, thanks for reading!


Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Hero's Knot

This year I decided to enter National Novel Writing Month.  I've outlined my entry, entitled The Hero's Knot, over at my author website. 

If you're interested in contemporary urban fantasy, please click on over and give it a look.  I'm about 40% of the way to the 50,000-word target after only 4 days of writing - but in the end I think the book's going to be a heck of a lot longer than that.

Anyway, NaNoWriMo operates by donations, so send a few bucks their way if you can.

And as always, thanks for reading!



Thursday, November 1, 2012

19 January 2012 – Going nuclear: Models vs. History

“I’m sure that in 1985 plutonium is available in every corner drugstore, but in 1955 it’s a little hard to come by!” - Dr. Emmet L. Brown


With Iran’s accelerating nuclear activities (and the periodic unfortunate demise of certain of its scientists) consuming all of our attention, a question of an historical bent seems pertinent:  Just how long does it take to build an atomic bomb?

It’s not an idle query, because there are no hard and fast rules.  Every historical case is unique.  The US Manhattan Project, for example, was launched in 1942 and achieved its first nuclear detonation on 16 July 1945, a delay of only three years.  While a great deal of the elementary physics of nuclear explosives had already been set out (including, in some cases, by scientists who later participated in the Project), the fact that two separate viable bomb designs (gun-type, used in the Little Boy weapon dropped on Hiroshima, and implosion-type, used in the Fat Man design that was tested at Alamogordo and subsequently dropped on Nagasaki), and more importantly two separate production processes for weapons-grade fissile material (highly enriched uranium for the gun-type weapons, and plutonium for the implosion weapons) were arrived at in only three years was a feat of defence-focussed R&D that wouldn’t be repeated until the Apollo Program.

(A note on weapon design.  Gun-type weapons function by slamming two sub-critical masses of fissile material together from opposite ends of a tube.  The speed of assembly is limited by the expansion of the combustion products for the propellant used, and runs at several hundred metres per second. Conventional propellant can create velocities of 500-800 metres per second. In an implosion type weapon, a sphere of fissile material is compressed by the controlled explosion of an outer shell of HE.  HE explodes at a speed of 7000-9000 metres per second, depending on the explosive compound (TNT is at the low end, with an explosive velocity of 6900 m/s, while Octol, which is a mix of 75% HMX and 25% TNT, is at the high end, around 8900 m/s.  Speed of assembly for an implosion type weapon is therefore in the range of tens of thousands of metres per second.  Why this is important will be explained later.)

The US experience therefore serves as the benchmark.  All subsequent nuclear weapons programs benefitted from the success of the Manhattan Project, if only from the knowledge that building a nuclear explosive was possible (something that the Manhattan Project scientists couldn’t confirm empirically until the Trinity test).  More direct assistance was available in some cases; the Soviet atomic program, for example, benefitted from espionage by communist agents in the employ of the US government, while Pakistan’s bomb designs were provided by China.  Still, for the sake of historical comparison, it’s worth tracking the progress of nuclear weapons development by other states, if only to demonstrate the extent to which they differ. 

Progress rates of nuclear weapon programs*
Program Start
Fission wpn test
Fusion wpn test
∆to fission
∆to fusion

With the exception of a few outliers, though, the timelines don’t really differ all that much.  In fact, with only two exceptions the average time from program start to achieving a fission explosion seems to vary from 3 to 7 years, with the mode being 6.5 years; while the average time from program start to achieving a fusion (as opposed to simply a boosted fission) explosion seems to vary from 9 to 12 years, with the mode being 11 years.
Of course, those of us looking backward benefit from the existence of historical data points.  And of course there’s no guarantee that the next country to “go nuclear” will necessarily follow historical patterns; every case is different.  Some countries developed nuclear weapons under wartime pressures, while others did not; some had outside assistance, while others went it alone; and one - the US - pursued the project without knowing whether a nuclear weapon was even possible (or, on the other end of the scale, whether it would overperform, and end up setting the atmosphere on fire or destroying the world).  It’s important not to underestimate the value of knowing that something can be done before you set out to try and do it yourself.   It’s also important to bear in mind that at least one of the above countries - Pakistan - likely possessed a nuclear weapon long before testing it.
All of which brings me to the subject of this discussion, which was the attempt by the US Government 46 years ago to try and guesstimate how long it would take for the “next” country to develop a nuclear weapon. 
In May of 1964, the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory at the University of California Livermore (now known as Lawrence Livermore Labs) launched a highly classified, very small project.  Dubbed the “Nth Country Experiment”, the project brought together three post-graduate students, none of whom had any expertise in or specialized knowledge of nuclear weapons, and tasked them to design a workable nuclear explosive device.  The three participants were:

·         David A. Dobson, 27, Ph.D. (Physics, Berkley, 1964) - experimental atomic physics

·         David N. Pipkorn, 28, Ph.D. (Physics, University of Illinois, 1964) - experimental solid state physics

·         Robert W. Seldon, 28, Ph.D. (Physics, University of Wisconsin, 1964) - low temperature physics

Note that all were newly-graduated doctoral candidates.  The experiment was designed to simulate the challenges facing a putative “Nth Country”, one that had access to qualified academic personnel, but no outside assistance.  They were to work entirely from unclassified sources.  The trio were given a single point of contact at LRL - a physicist, A.J. Hudgins - and had to go through him for all information requests.  All communications were conducted in writing to minimize the chance of accidentally passing any helpful information to the team.  Hudgins, using the resources of the weapons designers at LRL and other Department of Energy facilities, took the questions, and - simulating the testing process that would be available to a real team of weapon designers - staffed them out to expert groups to develop answers.  In this way, the trio could propose design and fabrication features for a weapon, and subsequently receive “test data” (derived either from actual previous US nuclear weapon tests, or from simulations of how the proposed material designs might work) to help guide them in their work.
Based on what they were able to learn from unclassified sources (not a great deal, compared to what is available today), they made a number of interesting assumptions about how they should proceed.  I use the word “interesting” because they departed somewhat from their fields and took into consideration economic and political issues in addition to questions of pure physics.  For example, they dismissed U-233 as a fissile material because the cost of building a thorium breeder reactor to produce the element was deemed “prohibitive”.  They established that it would cost about the same to produce U-235 or Pu-239; but when they questioned “Nth Country Treasury Department”, they were informed that the country had the resources to produce one or the other, but not both.  Interestingly, they weighted Pu-239 higher, because it is isolated from uranium reactor waste (whereas U-235 is produced by enriching natural uranium).  This meant that building plutonium-fuelled bombs had economic advantages because it required the “Nth Country” to invest in nuclear reactor technology rather than simply in uranium enrichment technology.
The two other considerations they looked at were physics, and weapon design.  From a physics standpoint, plutonium has both a lower critical mass (meaning less fissile material would be required per bomb) and higher compressibility, which makes it easier than U-235 to use in an implosion type weapon. But plutonium cannot be produced without Pu-240 contamination, which has a high neutron background and a high spontaneous fission rate, making it impossible to use in gun-type weapons, because given their slow assembly speed, the high neutron flux would initiate fission before the core was assembled, causing a premature explosion and a poor yield (a “fizzle”).  U-235, on the other hand, has a low neutron background and a low spontaneous fission rate, meaning that it could be used in a gun-type weapon, which is by far the easier type of design to develop.
According to the trio,

So there was a certain amount of scientific hubris involved in the selection process - which I suppose means that the trio were behaving like normal scientists.  In any event, by December 1964, the three ersatz weaponeers had settled on a plutonium-based implosion type weapon.
The trio attacked the problem in three phases.  Phase I was achieving an understanding of the basic concepts and design considerations required to begin the design process.  Phase II extended the basic physics of the design problem through quantitative neutronics calculations looking at compression characteristics of the materials in question, the design of converging explosive lenses, and the development or selection of detonators and a neutron initiator (an “initiator” provides an initial burst of neutrons to kick-start a fission chain reaction).  The second phase also looked at optimizing the mass of the plutonium core, and establishing the required thickness of the tamper (a metallic layer outside the core that serves both as a solid mass to provide the compressive impulse when struck by the explosive shock wave, and as a neutron reflector to intensify the building neutron flux in the compressed core).  Phase III of the project extended Phase II into final calculations of the implosion physics and the “iterative fission expansion” (i.e., the production of sufficient neutrons at the correct rate to sustain and multiply the fission reaction).  Once these calculations were complete, the bomb design would be “proved” to the maximum theoretical extent possible short of an actual build-and-test.
The trio submitted their design in September 1966.  The final report was submitted in December of that year and was assessed by experienced weapon designers at LRL and elsewhere.  Each of the elements of the design - the core, the tamper, the initiator, the explosives, the detonators, and all of the physics calculations - was individually critiqued.  The final report, which was published in March of 1967, was classified SECRET (ATOMIC WEAPON CATEGORY SIGMA 1), and the version which was released 30 years later in 1995 is so heavily redacted that it does not show whether, in the opinion of the assessors, the design would have worked or not.  The physicists who critiqued the design disagreed with some of the numbers and calculations in the trio’s report, and opined that the designers offered very little firm information about the criticality of the proposed system; they state that “confidence in the expected yield is unwarranted.”  This was not a crushing comment; the US nuclear testing program experienced many extreme variances between expected and actual yields, ranging from numerous complete “fizzles” that achieved no criticality, to the infamous Castle Bravo test shot on 1 March1954, which was expected to produce a yield of 4-6 Mt, but which actually produced a yield of 15 Mt, completely obliterating Bikini Atoll and resulting in a 280-mile fallout plume that contaminated the Marshall Islands and the crew of a Japanese fishing vessel. Sometimes you don't know what you don't know until you "go empirical", and find out the hard way.
One of the interesting things about the report of the Nth Country Experiment is that while the redactors severed anything that might assist an actual Nth Country in building a bomb, they left in a good many very interesting observations made by the project trio and by the experts that assessed their work.  The trio, for example, rejected a priori any comparison between their work and the work at Los Alamos by the Manhattan Project scientists, noting that that prior group contained “some of the world’s outstanding physicists”, and acknowledging the “motivational climate in which they worked.”  The trio, by contrast “had the advantage of knowing that a bomb could be built”.  They also acknowledged the importance of having access to a library containing “a large quantity of literature on shock waves, explosives, nuclear physics and reactor technology” that had been published since 1945.  They noted that the project rules slowed them down somewhat; they spent “a good deal of time preparing requests which presented enough information about our understanding of what was being requested so that a suitable reply could be obtained”; such procedures would not necessarily obtain if a real Nth Country was racing to build a bomb.  There were no artificial firewalls or stovepipes between the physicists, engineers and technicians working at Los Alamos.
They also noted that they could have designed a U-235-based gun type bomb, and that had they done so, they would have been able to submit a working design much earlier.  They also made two very interesting observations about thermonuclear weapons, stating first that while they believed that their implosion weapon would be credible without a test, they could see no way of designing a thermonuclear weapon without testing.  In that context, they made the following observation:

That report was submitted on 14 December 1966.  Exactly six months later, on 17 June 1967, China tested its first thermonuclear weapon, a 3.3 Mt radiation implosion (Teller-Ulam) style device, at Lop Nor.  Obviously the trio knew what they were talking about.
The assessment team also made a number of very interesting observations about the assumptions made by the trio in designing their approach to the experiment:
In other words, an Nth Country might be less interested in long-term economic benefits and challenging scientific problems than getting their hands on a workable bomb NOW.  Such a country might opt for uranium enrichment and a simple, reliable gun-type weapon over building a plutonium production complex and designing a complicated implosion type weapon.
It would certainly explain why, for example, a country with immense oil and gas reserves might be building an enormous uranium enrichment complex (<cough> IRAN <cough>). Hint: it's not for nuclear power plants.
Would a new bomb project work out the same way today?  A lot of things are different from 1966.  There’s a lot more information out there about nuclear weapons design, it’s a lot easier to find thanks to the Innerwebz; and it’s an AWFUL lot easier to do the kinds of calculations necessary to design explosives, cores and shock waves.  One of the anecdotes recounted by Robert Seldon during an interview for the final report details just how much computing technology changed from 1945 to 1965:

An average laptop today has orders of magnitude more computing power than the LRL mainframe did in 1965, and that mainframe was orders of magnitude more powerful than "a room full of girls with desk-calculators".  What took months of data manipulation for the Trinity scientists and weeks of programming for the Nth Country trio would take at most hours for a modern computing setup. Maybe seconds.
So what’s the point of all of this?  Well, I find it interesting that the Nth Country trio managed to get from nothing to what was likely a workable bomb design in about two and a half years of desultory effort (only one of the members was full-time; the others were part-time), all while working from unclassified sources.  That matches pretty closely to the low end of the “delta to fission” timeline that history demonstrates seems to be the average to get to a working bomb.  If you factor in having to build a reactor and produce and refine plutonium from the reactor waste (which admittedly would probably be done concurrently to the bomb design effort), you might add another year or two to that, still falling comfortably into the mid-range of the average time it takes for a country to go from nothing to its first fission test.  So here we have a case where the output of an experimental model seems to line up fairly well with historical experience.
Suppose we apply that model and experience to Iran...what do we get?  Well, it’s a little hard to nail down the beginning of Iran’s nuclear weapons program, as they’ve had a reactor program for quite some time.  The existence of concealed uranium enrichment facilities was revealed in 2002, launching the ongoing IAEA investigation process and leading to seven successive UNSC resolutions demanding cessation of enrichment and imposing sanctions.  Iran has since “doubled down”, building more enrichment capacity and declaring itself a “nuclear state” in 2010.  The point is that we are at the very least well past the decade mark in Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons.  Only North Korea took longer to go from “mission” to “fission” - and Iran isn’t North Korea.  We won’t be able to put Iran on the chart until they actually detonate a nuclear weapon - but if history and the Nth Country Experiment are any guide, statistically speaking there’s a pretty solid chance that they’ve already got one.
But as I said above - “of course there’s no guarantee that the next country to 'go nuclear' will necessarily follow historical patterns; every case is different.”  Some countries - like South Africa, Brazil, and Argentina - stop short of testing.  Others might be stopped short of testing.  I hate to say “we’ll have to wait and see what happens”, but everything, in one way or another, is an experiment, whether it’s leaving 3 guys alone in a room for a couple of years and waiting to see what they come up with...or leaving a bunch of folks like Khomeini and Ahmadinejad alone in a resource-rich country for three decades, and waiting to see what they come up with.
Some experiments go well.  Some don’t.  I guess we’ll have to wait and see how this one goes.
While we're waiting, if you'd like to read the (expurgated) summary report of the Nth Country Experiment, it's available here:


A) I left Israel off the list because the alleged start date for their nuclear weapon program is unconfirmed, and there has been no confirmed test.  Although if that data were entered, it would be a start date in the “late 1950s” with a first weapon built in the “late 1960s”, and a possible test (in conjunction with South Africa) in 1979.  This would give a “delta to fission” of about 20 years.  Deployment-before-testing is historically unusual, but not surprising in an undeclared nuclear power that likely received outside assistance with, and therefore had high confidence in, its bomb design.  Pakistan almost certainly fits this mould as well; it received bomb design assistance from China, and almost certainly had a deployed nuclear weapon long before conducting its first test in 1998 in response to India’s wave of nuclear tests.