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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
In the spring of 1893 there was still money left over from the rainmaking appropriation, but those in charge declined to spend it. Their former agent, now known to the world as “Robert Dryhenceforth,” retired into obscurity. The Weather Bureau found, to its annoyance, that rainmaking companies, inspired by the government’s example, were sprouting up across the Plains states. For a time they did a thriving business, though none used the Powers method. The commercial rainmakers relied on “trade secrets,” on mysterious chemical vapors, and (surreptitiously) on official forecasts. As Jeremiah Rusk observed, the concussion theory had itself been exploded. Rusk, as secretary of agriculture from 1889 to 1893, had nominally presided over the Dyrenforth experiments, but disillusionment had set in. As he left office, Rusk predicted that it would not be long before Powers’s theory found its proper resting place “among the curiosities of so-called scientific investigation, in company with its twin absurdity, the flying machine.”
Rainmaking, except when conceived on the scale suggested by Espy, involved only local, temporary correction of the weather. So did some other projects of the time, such as the devices patented in the 188Os to destroy tornadoes, and the firing of cannon to break up hailstorms. There were those who scorned such piecemeal tinkering with the elements, who envisioned the transformation of the climate on a much grander scale. The agents of such basic change often were to be the ocean currents.
Matthew F. Maury, an officer in the U.S. Navy, won himself the nickname “Pathfinder of the Seas” in the 185Os with his detailed mapping of the major wind and current systems of the oceans. The volatile Virginian was an able enough technician, but he strayed into scientific debates for which he was ill-equipped. The Physical Geography of the Sea (1855) made Maury’s name among laymen. Though scientists found its arguments shallow, the book had great and lasting effects. That ocean currents existed and influenced climate had long been known, but Maury’s prose had the fevered quality of a vision. He gave the Gulf Stream its “earthly apotheosis,” a later critic noted, and made the warmth of its flow, which he likened to a vast river in the sea, entirely responsible for the habitability of northern Europe and the British Isles.
The staunch Yankee George Perkins Marsh detested the Pathfinder of the Seas, who joined the Confederate Navy upon secession. Maury’s scientific reputation, Marsh said sourly in 1864, “though fallen, has not quite sunk to the level of his patriotism.” Yet he could not escape the influence of the Virginian’s work. The final chapter of Marsh’s Man and Nature speculated on the possible effects of several large engineering projects then under discussion. One was the trans-Isthmian canal to link the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. If the canal were dug at sea level, Marsh suggested, the Gulf Stream might flow through it and be lost to Europe. The idea was not a new one. Indeed, Thomas Jefferson, writing to a friend in 1786, had speculated on a similar outcome. But while Jefferson had foreseen only positive results—the banishing of winter fogs from the New England coast, for example—Marsh, after Maury’s work, expected catastrophe if the Gulf Stream ceased to warm the North Atlantic. The result, he said, might even be a new ice age.
Marsh’s suggestion was echoed in 1872 by Capt. Silas Bent of Missouri, a onetime colleague of Maury’s in both the U.S. and Confederate navies. Bent claimed that America could at any time destroy the power and the livelihood of Europe simply by blocking the northward flow of the Gulf Stream. This occasioned some nervous ridicule in the British press before the whole question dropped out of sight. Yet even as late as the 188Os, a British scientist felt obliged to reassure readers that the digging of a sea-level canal through Central America would have no more effect on the European climate than a “teaspoonful of boiling water” in the Arctic would have on the climate of Greenland.
Others saw ways in which the ocean currents could be diverted to the general benefit. In the mid-1880s it was argued in the pages of Scientific American and of several New England newspapers that the Strait of Belle Isle, between Newfoundland and the American mainland, should be blocked so that the arm of the cold Labrador Current that came south through the strait would no longer chill the Northeast. A far grander suggestion came from Nathaniel Southgate Shaler, a young professor of geology at Harvard. Shaler, a transplanted Kentuckian, was an exceptionally facile writer, and early on he began a second career of popularizing science in the genteel periodicals of the day. The December 1877 issue of The Atlantic Monthly carried an article by him entitled “How to Change the North American Climate.” The European climate was pleasant because the warm Gulf Stream had an uninterrupted path to the North Atlantic, Shaler wrote. If the corresponding current in the Pacific, the Kurosivo, or Japanese Current, had as easy a path to the Arctic, America too would have a mild climate; but the water was blocked by the shallowness of the Bering Strait and the long reach of the Alaskan Peninsula, which caused “brutal exhibitions of unreasoning temperatures” in the United States.