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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
Once the problem was understood, the remedy seemed obvious. Let a channel be dug through the Alaskan barrier, said Shaler, one deep enough to admit a steady flow of the current to the Arctic, and the results would be astonishing: the entire northern ice field “must at once melt away”; America’s “winter of killing frosts” and “summer of burning heats” would both disappear; indeed, the admission of the current to the Arctic “would give us in effect a new earth.” The cost would not be great, compared with the useless expense of “armies and prisons;” a portion of the nation’s coal reserves could furnish the needed power, and the labor could be provided by convicts.
Having made this plea, Shaler soon dropped it. Indeed, he eventually dropped the idea of modifying the American climate at all. By 1891 he was arguing that “the rigor of climate tends to breed vigorous … forethoughtful men.” His book of that year, Nature and Man in America , was one of a number of late-nineteenth-century works tracing the “northward course of progress” and praising the healthful harshness of a cold climate. Perhaps Shaler’s conversion was a purely intellectual experience. One cannot help thinking, however, that the Kentuckian had at last become accustomed to the New England winters.
Though Shaler abandoned his project, he had made at least one convert. His article of 1877 had been accepted by the Atlantic Monthly ’s editor, William Dean Howells. In 1894 Howells, by then one of America’s best-known writers, published a Utopian novel, A Traveller from Altruria . In it, the island nation of Altruria has improved its climate by cutting off a peninsula that blocked the passage of a warm ocean current. More details came in a sequel, Through the Eye of the Needle (1907). “Whole regions” of Altruria, once “sheeted with ice and snow … now have the climate of Italy”; “the mountains, which used to bear nothing but glaciers, are covered with olive orchards and plantations of the delicious coffee which they drink here.” The reader is told that the United States could work a similar miracle, as Shaler had suggested, “by cutting off the western shore of Alaska, and letting in the Japanese current.”
Howells’s novels were only two drops in a flood of Utopian works that poured from the presses in this period, following the phenomenal success of Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, 2000-1887 (1888). Before Bellamy, Americans had produced a slow, though steady, trickle of such forecasts. Most dealt with political reform. Few had given much of a role to weather modification, save for the versified vision of “A Century Hence,” offered by an obscure Missouri lawyer in 1880 (“She walked to a rod, that extended on high/ And touched it with magical craft/ The gathering vapors grew thick in the sky/ And poured out a copious draught”). Bellamy’s time-traveler protagonist, Julian West, found mainly political and economic change when he awoke in the classless Boston of A.D. 2000. Yet others would be more fortunate, for they would awake to find not only society perfected, but the weather improved as well.
The hero of Alvarado Fuller’s A.D. 2000 (1890), for example, awakening in the same year as Julian West, found the “severity of our Eastern winters” to have been ‘Vastly decreased.” It had been done, he was told, “by very hard and costly work, and very little science.” The Strait of Belle Isle had been dammed by granite blocks thrown into it, so that the cold current to which it had given passage no longer chilled the Northeast. There had been no diplomatic complications, for the defeat of the British army at the Battle of Ottawa in May 1917 had left the United States in possession of all the lands north to the pole.
In 1894 John Jacob Astor, wealthy dilettante, namesake and descendant of the great fur trader, produced a popular technological Utopia, A Journey in Other Worlds . It too opens in the year 2000. Rainmaking “has become an absolute science,” and the barriers have been removed from the northward path of the warm Japanese Current. As the novel begins, the Terrestrial Axis Straightening Company is seeking to abolish the earth’s tilt, and with it, the seasons.
The most widely publicized proposal for climate modification followed a major disaster, the sinking of the Titanic in April 1912. (One of the victims was John Jacob Astor; only in his fictional world had icebergs been banished from the seas.) In September a New York engineer named Carroll Livingston Riker proposed that the government should construct a jetty across the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, blocking the southerly flow of the cold Labrador Current and allowing the Gulf Stream to proceed with its full force into the Arctic. The expected results would more than justify the price tag of two hundred million dollars: the ice of Greenland and the Arctic would melt, fogs be banished from the coast, and the northern lands of America and Europe be made not only habitable but pleasant.