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Back in Time: Radioactive snowfall worried Schenectady residents in 1951

Back in Time: Radioactive snowfall worried Schenectady residents in 1951

On Friday, Feb. 2, 1951, Schenectady residents had something else to worry about — radioactive snowm

The Korean War, tension between the United States and Soviet Union and anti-communist suspicion were all in the news during early 1951.

On Friday, Feb. 2, 1951, Schenectady residents had something else to worry about — radioactive snowmen.

A batch of winter snowflakes that had fallen in Rochester in January had registered on the atomic scale. Experts blamed bomb tests in New Mexico — and drifting after-effects — for the souped-up snow. Scientists said kids would not have to exchange snowsuits for more protective gear; the level of radioactivity was too low to bother humans.

Still, the Atomic Energy Commission was on the job. “All necessary precautions, including radiological surveys and patrolling, are being undertaken to ensure that safety conditions are maintained,” read a commission report.

Two researchers from the University of Rochester — Dr. Henry Blair and Dr. Joe W. Howland — had decided to test the city’s snow crop after learning about radioactive dust found in Canada. Their findings gave other men who studied the atom something to do.

“Routine surveys have revealed a slight increase in atmospheric radioactivity, presumably due to the same source as those noted in Rochester,” said Dr. Kenneth H. Kingdon, technical manager of the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory in Niskayuna. Kingdon added the lab scheduled routine surveys as part of a regular procedure to monitor atmospheric radioactivity.

Teenagers were not going to annihilate each other in snowball fights.

“It should always be kept in mind that measuring instruments are thousands of times more sensitive to radioactivity than is the human body and that, therefore, the detection of radioactivity by sensitive instruments is not a cause for alarm,” Kingdon said.

“In fact, these instruments give a continuous record of the small amounts of radioactive materials which are always present in the atmosphere.”

People could have laughed off the discovery by decorating snow forts with black and yellow atomic symbols. They might have given the atomic revelations more serious consideration when they read January’s weather book a few days later.

City meteorologist Morris M. Cohn said the average daily temperature had been 26.3 degrees, 4.2 degrees warmer than expected . . . and the second warmest January in the past 14 years.

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