June/July 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 4
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.
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.”
Such was the atmosphere in which James Pollard Espy of Pennsylvania carried on his lonely crusade in the 183Os and 184Os for human control of the weather. Espy was no crank (though John Quincy Adams found him “methodically monomaniac”), but a distinguished meteorologist. Rain showers, he had shown, occurred when air that had been warmed at ground level rose and the vapor in it condensed. It followed, then, that rain could be made artificially by building a fire on the ground. A small grass or forest fire would most likely suffice, Espy thought, and he drew upon a large store of anecdote and tradition to prove that such fires, set for other reasons, often triggered showers.
The idea itself, then, was not a new one. What was novel was the length to which Espy took it. Once a week, he proposed, let a string of small timber lots, stretching from the Great Lakes to the Gulf along the Western frontier, be set ablaze. On that chosen day, each week, a long line of rain showers would be formed and would make its way eastward across the states, until it broke over the Atlantic. The passage of this curtain would wring the moisture from the air, and the rest of the week would be clear. The plan, said Espy, would banish all the inconveniences of the fickle weather: drought, floods, “oppressive heats” and “injurious colds,” hail, tornadoes, and “violent wind.” It could be done at a cost of half a cent per citizen per year.
Espy implored a deaf Congress to listen, and never saw his plan tried. He had been born too early. For the halfcentury between 1865 and 1915 would prove to be, if not the Golden Age, at least (to use Mark Twain’s useful tag) the Gilded Age of American weather modification.
In 1864 George Perkins Marsh published a book entitled Man and Nature . He drew upon a lifetime’s store of reading and travel to create a classic of environmental literature—a picture of the havoc that human carelessness and ignorance had wrought on the natural world. Like many classics, the book had its ambiguities. While deploring the harm done to the earth by man’s actions, Marsh took a practical, not a romantic, view of nature and considered its subjugation for the benefit of humans to be the great goal of science. His very stress on the power of civilization to unwittingly damage the natural world suggested that man was more powerful in the face of the elements than had previously been thought. Until very recent times the main argument against weather modification was not that its results would be harmful, but rather that it lay beyond human ability to bring about. Man and Nature spoke to both concerns, but it was the réévaluation of man’s power that had the most influence in the nineteenth century.
Marsh found deforestation an especially disturbing problem. Trees, he argued, protected the soil from erosion, while forests regulated the flow of streams. Some of the quotations in the book argued for a still larger role for trees. Their presence, many believed, increased precipitation, and their removal would reduce it. Marsh made clear his doubts about this view, but when Ferdinand V. Hayden read Man and Nature , it was the pro-tree quotations, and not Marsh’s disavowals, that sparked his enthusiasm. Though still young, Hayden was already a distinguished geologist in the 186Os. In the following decade he would lead one of the great surveys of the western lands.
In a government report in 1867, Hayden urged that trees be planted on the Great Plains in order to increase the yearly rainfall. His advocacy, wrote the historian Henry Nash Smith, made the idea respectable: “Hayden had rationalized and had given pseudo-scientific status to what had originally been but a vague poetic expression of the massive optimism of the westward movement.” A hostile critic summed up the view, fairly enough: “the humidity and rainfall,” wrote the geologist John Wesley Powell, “is attributed to the lakes and forests, and the aridity is attributed to the plains and deserts,” rather than the other way around. The opinion of climate had come full circle from the Revolutionary days. Trees, once the villains, had become the heroes.
The nation was ready to take Hayden at his word. Settlement expanded rapidly over the area once known as the Great American Desert. The idea of tree planting, though, gradually receded. Hayden’s successors, in the 187Os, breezily waved aside this irksome duty. Cultivation alone, they said, would bring enough rain to water the crops. Charles Dana Wilber, a land promoter, coined the motto of this school of thought. “Rain,” he declared, “follows the plow.” Others argued that it followed the railroad, or the telegraph. As the movement grew, it left reality farther and farther behind and became basically a matter of faith.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Now we are drawing close to the year 2000, a year that Edward Bellamy and his fellow Utopian novelists have made a symbolic benchmark for human progress. On the first page of Looking Backward , Bellamy’s narrator observes that the cold north wind in the Boston of A.D. 2000 has the “same penetrating quality” that it possessed in his youth a century and a half earlier. Of all the forecasts of the future, that seems the one most likely to come true.