THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Cloud control

Electrified sand. Exploding balloons. The long and colorful history of weather manipulation.

By Leon Neyfakh
February 6, 2011

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This brutal winter has made sure that no one forgets who’s in charge. The snow doesn’t fall so much as fly. Cars stay buried, and feet stay wet. Ice is invisible, and every puddle is deeper than it looks. On the eve of each new storm, the citizenry engages in diligent preparations, rearranging travel plans, lining up baby sitters in case the schools are closed, and packing comfortable shoes for work so they’re not forced to spend all day wearing their awful snow boots.

One can’t help but feel a little embarrassed on behalf of the species, to have been involved in all this fuss over something as trivial as the weather. Is the human race not mighty? How are we still allowing ourselves, in the year 2011, to be reduced to such indignities by a bunch of soggy clouds?

It is not for lack of trying. It’s just that over the last 200 years, the clouds have proven an improbably resilient adversary, and the weather in general has resisted numerous well-funded — and often quite imaginative — attempts at manipulation by meteorologists, physicists, and assorted hobbyists. Some have tried to make it rain, while others have tried to make it stop. Balloons full of explosives have been sent into the sky, and large quantities of electrically charged sand have been dropped from airplanes. One enduring scheme is to disrupt and weaken hurricanes by spreading oil on the surface of the ocean. Another is to drive away rain by shooting clouds with silver iodide or dry ice, a practice that was famously implemented at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and is frequently employed by farmers throughout the United States.

There’s something deeply and perennially appealing about the idea of controlling the weather, about deciding where rain should fall and when the sun should shine. But failing at it has been just as persistent a thread in the human experience. In a new book called “Fixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control,” Colby College historian of science James Rodger Fleming catalogs all the dreamers, fools, and pseudo-scientists who have devoted their lives to weather modification, tracing the delusions they shared and their remarkable range of motivations. Some wanted to create technology that would be of use to farmers, so that they would no longer have to operate at the mercy of unpredictable droughts. Others imagined scenarios in which the weather could be weaponized and used against foreign enemies. Still others had visions of utopia in which the world’s deserts were made fertile and every child was fed.

“Even some of the charlatans had meteorology books on their desks,” Fleming said last week. “Most had simple ideas: for instance, that hot air rises. These guys’ll have some sense of things, but they won’t have a complete theory of the weather system. They have a principle they fix on and then they try to build their scheme from there.”

What they underestimated, in Fleming’s view — what continues to stymie us all, whether we’re seeding clouds or just trying to plan for the next commute — is weather’s unfathomable complexity. And yet, the dream has stayed alive. Lately, the drive to fix the climate has taken the form of large-scale geoengineering projects designed to reverse the effects of global warming. Such projects — launching mirrors into space to reflect solar radiation away from the earth, for instance — are vastly more ambitious than anything a 19th-century rainmaker could have cooked up, and would employ much more sophisticated technology. What’s unclear, as one looks back at the history of weather modification research, is whether all that technology makes it any more likely that our ambitions will be realized, or if it just stands to make our failure that much more devastating.

The story of modern weather control in America, as Fleming tells it in “Fixing the Sky,” begins on a Wednesday morning in November of 1946, some 14,000 feet in the air above western Massachusetts. Sitting up there in a single-engine airplane was Vincent Schaefer, a 41-year-old scientist in the employ of the General Electric Research Laboratory, whose principal claim to fame up to that point was that he’d found a way to make plastic replicas of snowflakes. Prior to the flight, Schaefer had conducted an experiment that seemed to point toward a method for manipulating clouds using small bits of dry ice. If the technology could be exported from the lab and made to work in the real world, the potential applications would be limitless. With that in mind, flying over the Berkshires, Schaefer waited until his plane entered a suitable-looking cloud, then opened a window and let a total of six pounds of crushed dry ice out into the atmosphere. Before he knew it, “glinting crystals” of snow were falling obediently to the ground below.

GE announced the results of the demonstration the next day. “SNOWSTORM MANUFACTURED,” read the massive banner headline on the front page of The Boston Globe. The GE lab was deluged with letters and telegrams from people excited about the new technology for all sorts of reasons. One asked if it might be possible to get some artificial snow for use in an upcoming Christmas pageant. Another implored the company to aid a search-and-rescue effort at Mount Rainier by getting rid of some inconveniently located clouds. Hollywood producers inquired about doing up some blizzards for their movie sets. Separately, a state official from Kansas wrote to President Truman in hopes that GE’s snow-making technology could be used to help end a drought there. It seemed to be an all-purpose miracle, as though there was not a problem on earth it couldn’t fix.

Insofar as technological advancement in general is all about man’s triumph over his conditions, a victory over the weather is basically like beating the boss in a video game. And GE’s breakthrough came at a moment when the country was collectively keyed up on the transformative power of technology: World War II had just ended, and we suddenly had the bomb, radar, penicillin, and computers. But the results of Schaefer’s experiment would have inspired the same frenzied reaction in any era. “Think of it!” as one journalist wrote in a 1923 issue of Popular Science Monthly, about an earlier weather modification scheme, “Rain when you want it. Sunshine when you want it. Los Angeles weather in Pittsburgh and April showers for the arid deserts of the West. Man in control of the heavens — to turn on or shut them off as he wishes.”

It’s a longstanding, international fantasy — one that goes all the way back to ancient Greece, where watchmen stood guard over the skies and alerted their countrymen at the first sign of hail so that they might try to hold off the storm by quickly sacrificing some animals. The American tradition begins in the early 19th century, when the nation’s first official meteorologist, James “the Storm King” Espy, developed a theory of rainmaking that involved cutting down large swaths of forest and lighting them on fire. Espy had observed that volcanic eruptions were often followed by rainfall. He thought these fires would work the same way, causing hot air to rise into the atmosphere, cool, and thus produce precipitation.

For years he unsuccessfully sought funding from the government so that he might test his theory, describing in an 1845 open letter “To the Friends of Science” a proposal wherein 40-acre fires would be set every seven days at regular intervals along a 600-mile stretch of the Rocky Mountains. The result, he promised, would be regular rainfall that would not only ease the lives of farmers and make the country more productive but also eradicate the spread of disease and make extreme temperatures a thing of the past. He did not convince the friends of science, however, and lived out his distinguished career without ever realizing his vision.

Others had better luck winning hearts and minds. In 1871, a civil engineer from Chicago named Edward Powers published a book called “War and the Weather, or, The Artificial Production of Rain,” in which he argued that rainstorms were caused by loud noises and could be induced using explosives. He found a sympathetic collaborator in a Texas rancher and former Confederate general by the name of Daniel Ruggles, who believed strongly that all one had to do to stimulate rain was send balloons full of dynamite and gunpowder up into the sky and detonate them. Another adherent of this point of view was Robert Dyrenforth, a patent lawyer who actually succeeded in securing a federal grant to conduct a series of spectacular, but finally inconclusive, pyrotechnic experiments during the summer and fall of 1891.

A few decades after Dyrenforth’s methods were roundly discredited, an inventor named L. Francis Warren emerged with a new kind of theory. Warren, an autodidact who claimed to be a Harvard professor, believed that the trick to rainmaking wasn’t heat or noise, but electrically charged sand, which if sprinkled from the sky could not only produce rain but also break up clouds. His endgame was a squad of airplanes equipped to stop droughts, clear fog, and put out fires. It was Warren’s scheme that inspired that breathless Popular Science article, but after multiple inconclusive tests — including some funded by the US military — it lost momentum and faded away.

For the next 50 years, charlatans and snake-oil salesmen inspired by Warren, Dyrenforth, and the rest of them went around the country hawking weather control technologies that had no basis whatsoever in science. It wasn’t until after World War II, with the emergence of GE’s apparent success dropping dry ice into clouds, that the American public once again had a credible weather control scheme to get excited about. Once that happened, though, it was off to the races, and by the 1950s, commercial cloud seeding — first with dry ice, then with silver iodide — was taking place over an estimated 10 percent of US land. By the end of the decade, it was conventional wisdom that achieving mastery over the weather would be a decisive factor in the outcome of the Cold War. In 1971, it was reported that the United States had secretly used cloud-seeding to induce rain over the Ho Chi Minh Trail in hopes of disrupting enemy troop movements. In 1986, the Soviet Union is said to have used it to protect Moscow from radioactivity emanating from the Chernobyl site by steering toxic clouds to Belarus and artificially bursting them. There’s no way to know whether the seeding operation actually accomplished anything, but people in Belarus to this day hold the Kremlin in contempt for its clandestine attempt to stick them with the fallout.

You’d think, given mankind’s record of unflappable ingenuity, we would have had weather figured out by now. But after decades of dedicated experimentation and untold millions of dollars invested, the world is still dealing with droughts, floods, and 18-foot urban snowbanks. What is making this so difficult? Why is it that the best we can do when we learn of an approaching snowstorm is brace ourselves and hope our street gets properly plowed?

The problem is that weather conditions in any given place at any given time are a function of far too many independent, interacting variables. Whether it’s raining or snowing is never determined by any one overpowering force in the atmosphere: It’s always a complicated and unpredictable combination of many. Until we have the capability to micromanage the whole system, we will not be calling any shots.

Fleming, for his part, doesn’t believe that a single one of the weather modification schemes he describes in his book ever truly worked. Even cloud-seeding, he says, as widespread as it is even today, has never been scientifically proven to be effective. Kristine Harper, an assistant professor at Florida State University who is writing a book about the US government’s forays into weather modification, says that doesn’t necessarily mean cloud-seeding is a total waste of time, just that there’s no way to scientifically measure its impact.

“You’d be hard-pressed to find evidence even at this point that there’s a statistically significant difference between what you would get from a seeded cloud and an unseeded cloud,” she said.

The good news for practitioners of weather control is that amid all this complexity, they can convince themselves and others that they deserve credit for weather patterns they have probably had no role whatsoever in conjuring. The bad news for anyone who’d like to prevent the next 2-foot snow dump — or the next 2 degrees of global warming — is that there’s just no way to know. As Fleming’s account of the last 200 years suggests, it may be possible to achieve a certain amount by intervention. But it’s a long way from anything you could call control. Those who insist on continuing to shake their fists at the sky should make sure they have some warm gloves.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. E-mail lneyfakh@globe.com.