- Historic Sites
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
It seems, in fact, that the early years of settlement on the Plains were ones of unusually high rainfall. In the 187Os the geologist G. K. Gilbert noted the increase, but the moral he chose to draw was a dark and ominous one. “Such changes go in cycles,” he wrote, and if there was more rain now, it only meant drought in a few years. Gilbert’s friend J. W. Powell became the second director of the U.S. Geological Survey, in 1880, with Hayden his chief rival for the job. Scorning the “strange fallacy” that settlement could coax rain from the skies, Powell saw irrigation as the only hope for Western farming, and his tenure at the Survey was marked by exhausting battles against the oversettling of land that he thought—often quite wrongly—to be agriculturally useless.
The summer of 1887 was a hot and dry one on the Great Plains, the first of a string of drought years. As the earth cracked in the sun, as the crops died, many farmers gave up and returned east. Those who stayed could find little comfort in Wilber’s glib assertion. They looked for another, faster way to bring rain.
Thunder and lightning, and torrents of rain, had brought more than one battle in the Civil War to an end. Edward Powers, a civil engineer, thought that it had happened too often to be coincidental. In 1871 he gave the world his views on the subject, in a book entitled War and the Weather . Powers argued vigorously that the noise of battle had touched off rainstorms, by disrupting the “air currents” overhead. If that was so, then rain could be made artificially in peacetime by loud noises. Explosions seemed the easiest way for the time being, though Powers foresaw a rainmaking session of a “higher civilization of some age to come,” when “all the inhabitants of a city at a given time unite in creating an uproar with hands and voices.”
Powers reissued War and the Weather in 1890. By then, popular opinion had warmed to his idea. Farmers, their patience exhausted by the drought, were quite ready to try blasting rain out of the sky. In 1890–91, the so-called BillionDollar Congress gave the Department of Agriculture nine thousand dollars to conduct experiments with the Powers method. A government official and Union veteran, Robert Dyrenforth, was appointed to take charge.
Dyrenforth led an expedition to Texas in August of 1891 to begin the main set of experiments. Edward Powers himself came in that month to watch. Another observer, aloof and sardonic, was George E. Curtis, of the Weather Bureau. The noisemaking sessions began on the ninth. Hired hands exploded large quantities of gunpowder on the ground and sticks of dynamite attached to high-flying kites. Loudest of all were oxyhydrogen balloons, detonated at an altitude of several thousand feet. These nighttime explosions provided spectacles that would not be surpassed in the Southwest until the atom-bomb test at Alamogordo, New Mexico, some fifty years later: “At the touch of the electric discharge [one observer wrote], the balloon suddenly is transformed into a brilliant globe of fire, which instantly swells to monstrous size, casting a flash of light over every object within several miles, and then, after a few moments of darkness … the tremendous crash of the explosion comes rolling on and shakes the very ground by its concussion.”
The noise was impressive, but had it produced rain? Yes, said Dyrenforth. Rain had indeed fallen in the area during the weeks of experiments, and partisans of the theory were quick to inform the newspapers that precipitation could now be called at will. Not so, said George Curtis, the Weather Bureau observer. He drew a merciless picture of bungling and incompetence on the Texas expedition, and suggested that what rain had fallen had come from large storm systems obviously not created by the explosions. E. L. Godkin, editor of The Nation , saw “these ridiculous experiments” (as he saw much else) as a sign of national decay and inferiority.
Nonetheless, Dyrenforth’s report to Congress was sufficiently convincing to win him an appropriation for another year of experiments. The rainmakers from the Department of Agriculture returned to work. Late in the fall of 1892, they made the spectacularly inept choice of Fort Myer, Virginia, across the Potomac from Washington, D.C., as a place to conduct nighttime explosions. On the night of November 3 the residents of the capital were jarred out of their slumber by a series of loud blasts, apparently planned to allow everyone just enough time to doze off again before the next concussion, one reporter noted. A slight drizzle fell. This impressed no one with the science of rainmaking, for it had already been predicted by the Weather Bureau. It was dwarfed by the deluge of complaints, “profanity in seventeen different languages,” with which the experimenters were drenched the next morning. Abashed, they retreated to Texas.