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Part Iii What Can We Do About It?
For more than two hundred years, Americans have tried to change the weather by starting fires, setting off explosions, cutting trees, even planning to divert the Gulf Stream. The question now is not how to do it, but whether to do it at all.
June/July 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 4
Many believed in the 1860s that trees increased precipitation and that their removal would reduce it.
It hadn’t, of course. The experimenters’ lavish claims of 1891 would soon be discredited. And today, after more than two hundred years of theorizing and experiment, the weather is, for the most part, as uncontrolled as ever.
Complaining about the weather is as old an American tradition as Thanksgiving turkey. The earliest colonists found the seasons, particularly the winter, far harsher than they had expected. The notion was still current in the seventeenth century that the earth’s axis had been straight before the Fall, and that the seasons had been introduced as part of God’s punishment of man. Milton used this idea in Paradise Lost . When Adam sins, the axis is tilted, and where once ”… the Spring/ Perpetual smil’d on Earth with vernant Flowers,” the fallen planet is now afflicted with “cold and heat/ Scarce tolerable. …” This was bad enough in England, but the poet’s fellow Puritans across the Atlantic endured an even harsher climate. The curse, to all appearances, had fallen more heavily on the New World than on the Old.
A few voices spoke up for America, defending the extremes of weather as evidence of God’s benevolence, not His wrath, but most visitors were not convinced. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur thought Europe’s “gentleness of seasons” far preferable to a land where “one feels nothing but extremes.” In the 178Os the French naturalist Buffon took the argument to a new order of magnitude. The North American climate, he said, was unhealthy, and any animal transplanted into it must inevitably degenerate below the level of its European cousins.
Yet in America, even as Buffon was writing it off as hopeless, a more optimistic view was taking root. The climate, it seemed, was becoming less harsh, and less oppressively humid. Deforestation of the land, many believed, had eased the cold of winter, for trees shielded the ground and the snow from the heat of the sun. Benjamin Franklin suspected that settlement and clearing had caused a noticeable moderation in the climate. Dr. Benjamin Rush agreed. Thomas Jefferson, a friendly adversary of Buffon, gave the idea wider currency in 1785 in his Notes on the State of Virginia . “Both heats and colds,” he said, “are become much more moderate within the memory even of the middle-aged.” A New England scientist calculated that the average temperature had risen by some ten to twelve degrees Fahrenheit since the early years of settlement.
With its belief in progress and the benefits of civilization, this theory reflected the pride and confidence of the newly independent nation. The conquest of an unpleasant climate seemed a reasonable prediction of things to come. In 1807 the patriotic poet Joel Barlow portrayed an aging Columbus comforted by a glimpse of America’s coming greatness. Beyond the Revolution stretched a glorious future. One day, man, aided by science, would “Lay the proud storm submissive at his feet… .Walk under ocean, ride the buoyant air/ Brew the soft shower, the labor’d land repair.”
Not everyone, however, believed that man’s actions were responsible for any moderation in the climate. One of the skeptics was Noah Webster, whose interests ranged well beyond lexicography. Another was Barlow’s friend Timothy Dwight, president of Yale College. In 1810 Dwight set down a dissenting opinion to the general verdict. There were cycles of weather, he wrote, but no overall trend toward milder winters. “It is unquestionably true that very severe seasons existed in the early periods of New England, and it is equally certain that they exist now.” Deforestation, he warned, though it might open the land to the warmth of the sun, would also allow freer passage to the cold north winds, and the full effect might even be to “increase the severity of the climate.” These remarks were not published until 1821, four years after Dwight’s death. By then, few readers needed convincing. A long period of harsh winters, notably in 1816, the famous “year without a summer,” had done much to dispel the belief that man had tamed the North American climate.
During the next few decades there was little interest in the modification of the weather on a grand scale. Though realistic about it, Timothy Dwight had found the variability of the climate unpleasant. But Thomas Cole, in the 183Os, thought it a positive blessing. “As we have the temperature of every clime,” exclaimed the Romantic painter, “so we have the skies” of all the world. In the 183Os the Vermont scholar George Perkins Marsh hailed the “fierce extremes of cold and heat” as the reasons for the strong “character of New-England.”