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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
The idea won a good deal of attention in the popular press, and a bill setting up a commission to study it was introduced into Congress. Col. George Goethals, builder of the Panama Canal, came out in favor of its passage. So did the chief engineer of the Army and the Maritime Association of the Port of New York. However, scientists ridiculed the plan, and the bill was never acted upon.
The years between the two world wars were not fruitful ones for weather modification in the United States. Commercial rainmaking certainly continued to flourish. Its most famous practitioner, the Californian Charles Hatfield, had had his day of notoriety in 1916 when his experiments, undertaken at the request of the San Diego City Council, were followed by record rainfall, a dam failure, and a disastrous flood with numerous fatalities. But larger schemes for modifying the climate did not generate much interest in this period. In the United States such academic authorities as Robert DeCourcy Ward of Harvard and Ellsworth Huntington of Yale took far more interest in the climatic control of human activity than in the human control of climate. Huntington argued that a variable and fairly cold climate, such as already existed in the northern United States, best stimulated the mind and body to productive work.
One idea that did return for a time to popular favor was the belief that the presence of forests enhanced rainfall. The forester Raphael Zon had been preaching the doctrine for years when the return of drought to the Great Plains in the late 1920s and early 1930s finally assured him a receptive audience. Among the listeners was the new President of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, an enthusiastic advocate of reforestation. Their cooperation produced one of the New Deal programs, the Shelterbelt plan, which called for the planting of long rows of trees at numerous locations on the Plains. The plan’s goals were as much to slow the winds and break up dust storms as to increase rainfall. Attacked as pointless and wasteful by climatologists, Huntington among them, the program was as ardently defended by the administration and by Plains farmers. The verdict of history has been a mixed one.
Scientists argued that blocking off the southern arm of the Labrador Current would warm the Northeast.
In the years following the Second World War, interest in weather modification boomed. Scientific rainmaking, by cloud seeding, once more became a topic of serious discussion. Much of the interest was due to the work of two researchers at General Electric in Schenectady, New York: Irving Langmuir (a Nobel laureate in chemistry) and Vincent Schaefer. On November 13, 1946, came the first successful test of the new methods they had devised. From an airplane, Schaefer dropped dry ice into a super-cooled cloud over Mount Greylock in the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts. Snowflakes formed in the cloud and fell some two thousand feet before evaporating in a mass of warmer air. The scene makes an apt image. Subsequent work has confirmed that cloud seeding can indeed enhance precipitation. Yet the practical future of the technique remains undetermined.
For a brief time rainmaking took a backseat to the discussion of large-scale climate control, considered as a weapon in the aptly named Cold War. At the end of 1957 the President’s Advisory Committee on Weather Control issued its report after several years of study. The committee, with the support of such scientists as Edward Teller, warned that weather control could become a more important weapon than the atomic bomb. Newsweek ran an article on the new threat in January of 1958, under the title “The Weather Weapon: New Race with the Reds.” The question, it said, was “no longer, ‘Can man modify the weather and control the climate?’, but ‘Which nation will do it first, the United States or the Soviet Union?’ ” Several possible projects were discussed, including the melting of the polar ice caps, the use of H-bombs to level mountains and thereby redirect wind patterns, and the control of hurricanes through the burning underneath them of huge oil slicks.
These and other prophecies have not, so far, been fulfilled. While some degree of success has been achieved in cloud seeding and fog dispersal, major efforts in the near future seem unlikely. Rainmaking has met legal as well as scientific obstacles, for precipitation enticed from the clouds in one area is lost to another and is not necessarily welcome to all where it is produced. The consequences of larger tampering with the elements are difficult to calculate, but the side effects would surely be considerable. Man’s power to change the environment is no longer in question. Indeed, the increase in the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere, due to the burning of fossil fuels, is expected to have major, if inadvertent, consequences for the climates of the world. It is the desirability of weather and climate modification that is no longer taken for granted.