The Climate Engineers
by James R. Fleming
Beyond the security
checkpoint at the National Aeronautics and Space
“Mitigation is not
happening and is not going to happen,” physicist
several ideas to “fix” the earth’s climate, including building up Arctic sea
ice to make it function like a planetary air conditioner to “suck heat in from
the midlatitude heat bath.” A “surprisingly
practical” way of achieving this, he said, would be to use large artillery
pieces to shoot as much as a million tons of highly reflective sulfate aerosols
or specially engineered nanoparticles into the
Arctic stratosphere to deflect the sun’s rays. Delivering up to a million tons
of material via artillery would require a constant bombardment—basically
declaring war on the stratosphere. Alternatively, a fleet of B-747 “crop dusters” could deliver the particles by flying
continuously around the
Far-fetched as Wood’s ideas may sound, his weren’t the only Rube Goldberg proposals aired at the meeting. Even as they joked about a NASA staffer’s apology for her inability to control the temperature in the meeting room, others detailed their own schemes for manipulating earth’s climate. Astronomer J. Roger Angel suggested placing a huge fleet of mirrors in orbit to divert incoming solar radiation, at a cost of “only” several trillion dollars. Atmospheric scientist John Latham and engineer Stephen Salter hawked their idea of making marine clouds thicker and more reflective by whipping ocean water into a froth with giant pumps and eggbeaters. Most frightening was the science-fiction writer and astrophysicist Gregory Benford’s announcement that he wanted to “cut through red tape and demonstrate what could be done” by finding private sponsors for his plan to inject diatomaceous earth—the chalklike substance used in filtration systems and cat litter—into the Arctic stratosphere. He, like his fellow geoengineers, was largely silent on the possible unintended consequences of his plan.
The inherent unknowability
of what would happen if we tried to tinker with the immensely complex planetary
climate system is one reason why climate engineering has until recently been
spoken of only sotto voce in the scientific community. Many researchers
recognize that even the most brilliant scientists have a history of blindness to the wider ramifications of their work.
Imagine, for example, that Wood’s scheme to thicken the Arctic icecap did
somehow become possible. While most of the world may want to maintain or
increase polar sea ice,
Who would control
such a “thermostat,” making life-altering decisions for the planet’s
billions? What is to prevent other nations from undertaking unilateral climate
There is, moreover,
a troubling motif of militarization in the history of weather and climate
control. Military leaders in the
Despite the large,
unanswered questions about the implications of playing God with the elements,
climate engineering is now being widely discussed in the scientific community
and is taken seriously within the
As the sole
historian at the NASA conference, I may have been alone in my appreciation of
the irony that we were meeting on the site of an old U.S. Navy airfield
literally in the shadow of the huge hangar that once housed the ill-starred
Navy dirigible U.S.S. Macon. The 785-foot-long
Ultimate control of the weather and climate excites some of our wildest fantasies and our greatest fears. It is the stuff of age-old myths. Throughout history, we mortals have tried to protect ourselves against harsh weather. But weather control was reserved for the ancient sky gods. Now the power has seemingly devolved to modern Titans. We are undoubtedly facing an uncertain future. With rising temperatures, increasing emissions of greenhouse gases, and a growing world population, we may be on the verge of a worldwide climate crisis. What shall we do? Doing nothing or too little is clearly wrong, but so is doing too much.
Largely unaware of the long and checkered history of weather and climate control and the political and ethical challenges it poses, or somehow considering themselves exempt, the new Titans see themselves as heroic pioneers, the first generation capable of alleviating or averting natural disasters. They are largely oblivious to the history of the charlatans and sincere but deluded scientists and engineers who preceded them. If we fail to heed the lessons of that history, and fail to bring its perspectives to bear in thinking about public policy, we risk repeating the mistakes of the past, in a game with much higher stakes.
Three stories (there are many more) capture
the recurring pathologies of weather and climate control schemes. The first
involves 19th-century proposals by the
James Pollard Espy
(1785–1860), the first meteorologist employed by the
Espy viewed the atmosphere as a giant heat engine. According to his thermal theory of storms, all atmospheric disturbances, including thunderstorms, hurricanes, and winter storms, are driven by “steam power.” Heated by the sun, a column of air rises, allowing the surrounding air to rush in. As the heated air ascends, it cools and its moisture condenses, releasing its latent heat (this is the “steam”) and producing rain, hail, or snow. The thermal theory is now an accepted part of meteorology, and for this discovery Espy is well regarded in the history of science.
His stature has been diminished, however, by his unbridled enthusiasm for rainmaking. Espy suggested cutting and burning vast tracts of forest to create huge columns of heated air, believing this would generate clouds and trigger precipitation. “Magnificent Humbug” was one contemporary assessment of this scheme. Espy came to be known derisively as the “Storm King,” but he was not deterred.
Seeking a larger
stage for his storm studies and rainmaking proposals, Espy moved in 1842 to
The year Espy moved to Washington, the popular magazine writer Eliza Leslie published a short story in Godey’s Lady’s Book called “The Rain King, or, A Glance at the Next Century,” a fanciful account of rainmaking set in 1942 in Philadelphia, in which Espy’s great-great-grand-nephew offers weather for the Delaware Valley on demand. Various factions vie for the weather they desire. Three hundred washerwomen petition the Rain King for fine weather forever, while cabmen and umbrella makers want perpetual rain. An equal number of applications come from both the fair- and foul-weather camps, until the balance is tipped by a late request from a winsome high-society matron desperately seeking a hard rain to prevent a visit by her country-bumpkin cousins that would spoil the lavish party she is planning.
Of course, when the
artificial rains come, they satisfy no one and raise widespread suspicions. The
Rain King, suddenly unpopular because he lacks the miraculous power to please
everybody, takes a steamboat to
Leslie had identified the fundamental political pitfalls of manufactured weather that dog it to this day. But the enthusiasm for pluviculture was just beginning. During the Civil War, some began to suspect that the smoke and concussion of artillery fire generated rain. After all, didn’t it tend to rain a day, or two, or three following most battles? Skeptics wondered whether generals simply preferred to fight under fair skies, with rainy days therefore tending naturally to follow, and some pointed out that Plutarch had noticed the correlation between battles and rainfall long before the invention of gunpowder. Nevertheless, in 1871 retired Civil War general Edward Powers argued in favor of cannonading in his book War and the Weather, or, The Artificial Production of Rain.
Two decades later,
the publication of the second edition of Powers’s
book coincided with a severe and prolonged western drought, prompting a
congressional appropriation of $10,000 for a series of field experiments.
Secretary of Agriculture Jeremiah Rusk, nominally in charge of both this project and the newly formed U.S. Weather
Bureau, chose as the lead investigator Robert St. George Dyrenforth,
a flamboyant patent lawyer from Washington, D.C., who possessed no scientific
or military experience. Dyrenforth arrived in
After several months of assaults on the heavens, it did indeed rain. Dyrenforth claimed victory, concluding that his practical skills, combined with his use of special explosives “to keep the weather in an unsettled condition,” could cause or at least enhance precipitation—when conditions were favorable! He warned that bombarding the sky in dry weather, however, would be fruitless, since his technique could stimulate clouds and precipitation but not create them.
The Nation, which criticized the government for wasting tax dollars, observed that the effect of the explosion of a 10-foot hydrogen balloon on aerial currents would be less than “the effect of the jump of one vigorous flea upon a thousand-ton steamship running at a speed of twenty knots.” But if there is one lesson from the long history of efforts to modify the weather and climate, it is that neither commonsense criticism nor flops deter geoengineers.
Just over 100 years after Espy arrived in
From this moment on, in the press and before the meteorological community, Langmuir expounded his sensational vision of large-scale weather control, including redirecting hurricanes and changing the arid Southwest into fertile farmland. His first paper on the subject used familiar military terminology to explain how a small amount of “nucleating” agent such as dry ice, silver iodide, or even water could cause a “chain reaction” in cumulus clouds that potentially could release as much energy as an atomic bomb, but without radioactive fallout. The Department of Defense took due note. It would take an intense interest in the military possibilities of weather modification in the years ahead.
Ironically, in 1953, at the very same time Langmuir was involved in making exaggerated and highly dubious claims for the efficacy of weather and climate modification, he presented a seminar at GE titled “Pathological Science,” or “the science of things that aren’t so.” Yet there is hardly any scientific foundation for most claims about weather modification. Cloud seeding apparently can augment “orographic” precipitation (which falls on the windward side of mountains) by up to 10 percent. It is also possible to clear cold fogs and suppress frost with heaters in very small areas. That is the extent of what has been proved. Nevertheless, millions are still spent on cloud seeding today, largely by local water and power companies.
About the time Langmuir was giving his seminar, the great futurist and science-fiction writer H. G. Wells toured the GE labs, and the young publicist who escorted him tried to interest the writer in its weather control research. Wells gave a lukewarm response. The young man was Bernard Vonnegut’s brother, Kurt, and he took up the subject himself in the novel Cat’s Cradle (1963), in which a quirky and amoral scientist named Felix Hoenikker, loosely modeled on both Irving Langmuir and Edward Teller, invents a substance called “ice-nine” that instantly freezes water and remains solid at room temperature. Hoenikker’s intent is to create a material that would be useful to armies bogged down in muddy battlefields, but the result is an unprecedented ecological disaster. Vonnegut got the idea of ice-nine from Langmuir, who suggested it to Wells as a story line.
Weather modification technology seemed of such great potential, especially to military aviation, that Vannevar Bush, a friend of Langmuir’s who had served as head of the Office of Scientific Research and Development during World War II, brought the issue to the attention of Secretary of Defense George C. Marshall and General Omar Bradley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The Pentagon immediately convened a committee to study the development of a Cold War weather weapon. It was hoped that cloud seeding could be used surreptitiously to release the violence of the atmosphere against an enemy, tame the winds in the service of an all-weather air force, or, on a larger scale, perhaps disrupt (or improve) the agricultural economy of nations and alter the global climate for strategic purposes. Military planners generated strategic scenarios such as hindering the enemy’s military campaigns by causing heavy rains or snows to fall along lines of troop movement and on vital airfields, or using controlled precipitation as a delivery system for biological and radiological agents. Tactical possibilities included dissipating cloud decks to enable visual bombing attacks on targets, opening airfields closed by low clouds or fog, and relieving aircraft icing.
Some in the
military had already recognized the potential uses of weather modification, and
the subject has remained on military minds ever since. In the 1940s, General
George C. Kenney, commander of the Strategic Air Command, declared, “The nation
which first learns to plot the paths of air masses accurately and learns to
control the time and place of precipitation will dominate the globe.” His
opinion was echoed in 1961 by the distinguished aviator-engineer Rear Admiral
Luis de Florez: “With control of the weather the
operations and economy of an enemy could be disrupted. . . . [Such control] in
a cold war would provide a powerful and subtle weapon to injure agricultural
production, hinder commerce, and slow down industry.” He urged the government to
“start now to make control of weather equal in scope to the
Howard T. Orville, President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s weather adviser, published an influential 1954 article in Collier’s that included a variety of scenarios for using weather as a weapon of warfare. Planes would drop hundreds of balloons containing seeding crystals into the jet stream. Downstream, when the fuses on the balloons exploded, the crystals would fall into the clouds, initiating rain and miring enemy operations. The Army Ordnance Corps was investigating another technique: loading silver iodide and carbon dioxide into 50-caliber tracer bullets that pilots could fire into clouds. A more insidious technique would strike at an adversary’s food supply by seeding clouds to rob them of moisture before they reached enemy agricultural areas. Speculative and wildly optimistic ideas such as these from official sources, together with threats that the Soviets were aggressively pursuing weather control, triggered what Newsweek called “a weather race with the Russians,” and helped fuel the rapid expansion of meteorological research in all areas, including the creation of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, which was established in 1960.
Weather warfare took a macro-pathological
turn between 1967 and ’72 in the jungles over North and
In March 1971,
nationally syndicated columnist Jack Anderson broke the story about Air Force
rainmakers in Southeast Asia in The Washington Post, a story confirmed several months later with
the leaking of the Pentagon Papers and splashed on the front
page of The
New York Times in
1972 by Seymour Hersh. By 1973, despite stonewalling
by Nixon administration officials, the
Operation POPEYE, made public as it was at the end of the Nixon era, was dubbed the “Watergate of weather warfare.” Some defended the use of environmental weapons, arguing that they were more “humane” than nuclear weapons. Others suggested that inducing rainfall to reduce trafficability was preferable to dropping napalm. As one wag put it, “Make mud, not war.” At a congressional briefing in 1974, military officials downplayed the impact of Operation POPEYE, since the most that could be claimed were 10 percent increases in local rainfall, and even that result was “unverifiable.” Philip Handler, president of the National Academy of Sciences, represented the mainstream of scientific opinion when he observed, “It is grotesquely immoral that scientific understanding and technological capabilities developed for human welfare to protect the public health, enhance agricultural productivity, and minimize the natural violence of large storms should be so distorted as to become weapons of war.”
At a time when the
The language of the ENMOD Convention may become relevant to future weather and climate engineering, especially if such efforts are conducted unilaterally or if harm befalls a nation or region. The convention targets those techniques having “widespread, longlasting or severe effects as the means of destruction, damage, or injury to any other State Party.” It uses the term “environmental modification” to mean “any technique for changing—through the deliberate manipulation of natural processes—the dynamics, composition, or structure of the Earth, including its biota, lithosphere, hydrosphere, and atmosphere, or of outer space.”
A vision of perfect forecasting ultimately leading to weather and climate control was present at the birth of modern computing, well before the GE cloud seeding experiments. In 1945 Vladimir Zworykin, an RCA engineer noted for his early work in television technology, promoted the idea that electronic computers could be used to process and analyze vast amounts of meteorological data, issue timely and highly accurate forecasts, study the sensitivity of weather systems to alterations of surface conditions and energy inputs, and eventually intervene in and control the weather and climate. He wrote:
The eventual goal to be attained is the international organization of means to study weather phenomena as global phenomena and to channel the world’s weather, as far as possible, in such a way as to minimize the damage from catastrophic disturbances, and otherwise to benefit the world to the greatest extent by improved climatic conditions where possible. Zworykin imagined that a perfectly accurate machine forecast combined with a paramilitary rapid deployment force able literally to pour oil on troubled ocean waters or even set fires or detonate bombs might someday provide the capacity to disrupt storms before they formed, deflect them from populated areas, and otherwise control the weather. John von Neumann, the multi-talented mathematician extraordinaire at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, endorsed Zworykin’s view, writing to him, “I agree with you completely. . . . This would provide a basis for scientific approach[es] to influencing the weather.” Using computer-generated predictions, von Neumann wrote, weather and climate systems “could be controlled, or at least directed, by the release of perfectly practical amounts of energy” or by “altering the absorption and reflection properties of the ground or the sea or the atmosphere.” It was a project that neatly fit von Neumann’s overall philosophy: “All stable processes we shall predict. All unstable processes we shall control.” Zworykin’s proposal was also endorsed by the noted oceanographer Athelstan Spilhaus, then a U.S. Army major, who ended his In weather control meteorology has a new goal worthy of its greatest efforts.”
In a 1962 speech to
meteorologists, “On the Possibilities of Weather Control,” Harry Wexler, the MIT-trained
head of meteorological research at the
“The subject of weather and climate control is now becoming respectable to talk about,” Wexler claimed, apparently hoping to reduce the prospects of a geophysical arms race. He cited Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev’s mention of weather control in an address to the Supreme Soviet and a 1961 speech to the United Nations by John F. Kennedy in which the president proposed “cooperative efforts between all nations in weather prediction and eventually in weather control.” Wexler was actually the source of Kennedy’s suggestions, and had worked on them behind the scenes with the President’s Science Advisory Committee and the State Department. But if weather control’s “respectability” was not in question, its attainability—even using computers, satellites, and 100-megaton bombs—certainly was.
In 1965, the President’s Science Advisory Committee warned in a report called Restoring the Quality of Our Environment that increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide due to the burning of fossil fuels would modify the earth’s heat balance to such an extent that harmful changes in climate could occur. This report is now widely cited as the first official statement on “global warming.” But the committee also recommended geoengineering options. “The possibilities of deliberately bringing about countervailing climatic changes . . . need to be thoroughly explored,” it said. As an illustration, it pointed out that, in a warming world, the earth’s solar reflectivity could be increased by dispersing buoyant reflective particles over large areas of the tropical sea at an annual cost, not considered excessive, of about $500 million. This technology might also inhibit hurricane formation. No one thought to consider the side effects of particles washing up on tropical beaches or choking marine life, or the negative consequences of redirecting hurricanes, much less other effects beyond our imagination. And no one thought to ask if the local inhabitants would be in favor of such schemes. The committee also speculated about modifying high-altitude cirrus clouds to counteract the effects of increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide. It failed to mention the most obvious option: reducing fossil fuel use.
embarrassment of the 1978 ENMOD Convention, federal funding for weather
modification research and development dried up, although freelance rainmakers
continued to ply their trade in the American West with state and local funding.
Until recently, a 1991
In September 2001,
Two years later,
the Pentagon released a controversial report titled An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and Its
Implications for United States National Security. The report explained how global warming
might lead to rapid and catastrophic global cooling through mechanisms such as
the slowing of
With greater gravitas, but no less speculation, the National Research Council issued a study, Critical Issues in Weather Modification Research, in 2003. It cited looming social and environmental challenges such as water shortages and drought, property damage and loss of life from severe storms, and the threat of “inadvertent” climate change as justifications for investing in major new national and international programs in weather modification research. Although the NRC study included an acknowledgment that there is “no convincing scientific proof of the efficacy of intentional weather modification efforts,” its authors nonetheless argued that there should be “a renewed commitment” to research in the field of intentional and unintentional weather modification.
The absence of such proof after decades of
efforts has not deterred governments here and abroad from a variety of ill-advised
or simply fanciful undertakings. The NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts, for
example, has provided $475,000 for atmospheric scientist Ross Hoffman’s
research on beaming satellite-based microwaves at hurricanes as a means of
redirecting them—as if it were possible to know where a storm was originally
headed or that its new path would not lead straight to calamity. In 2005,
Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R.-Texas) introduced legislation “to develop and
implement a comprehensive and coordinated national weather modification
research policy and a national cooperative Federal and State program of weather
modification and development.” (Significantly, the Texas Department of
Agriculture already supports weather modification programs covering one-fifth
of the state.) And
With great fanfare,
atmospheric chemist Paul J. Crutzen, winner of a 1995
Nobel Prize for his work on the chemistry of ozone depletion, recently proposed
to cool the earth by injecting reflective aerosols or other substances into the
tropical stratosphere using balloons or artillery. He estimated that more than
five million metric tons of sulfur per year would be needed to do the job, at
an annual cost of more than $125 billion. The effect would emulate the 1991
cooling caused by
Crutzen later said that he had only reluctantly proposed his planetary “shade,” mostly to “startle” political leaders enough to spur them to more serious efforts to curb greenhouse-gas emissions. But he may well have produced the opposite effect. The appeal of a quick and seemingly painless technological “fix” for the global climate dilemma should not be underestimated. The more practical such dreams appear, the less likely the world’s citizens and political leaders are to take on the difficult and painful task of changing the destiny that global climate models foretell.
These issues are not new. In 1956, F. W. Reichelderfer, then chief of the
But this is a far
cry from conducting a practical global field experiment or operational program
with proper data collection and analysis; full accounting for possible
liabilities, unintended consequences, and litigation; and the necessary
international support and approval.
Assume, for just a moment, that climate control were technically possible. Who would be given the authority to manage it? Who would have the wisdom to dispense drought, severe winters, or the effects of storms to some so that the rest of the planet could prosper? At what cost, economically, aesthetically, and in our moral relationship to nature, would we manipulate the climate?
These questions are
never seriously contemplated by the climate wizards who dream of mastery over
nature. If, as history shows, fantasies of weather and climate control have
chiefly served commercial and military interests, why should we expect the
future to be different? Have you noticed all the cannons? From Dyrenforth’s cannonading in
Given such mindsets, it is virtually impossible to imagine governments resisting the temptation to explore military uses of any potentially climate-altering technology.
When Roger Angel was asked at the NASA meeting last November how he intended to get the massive amount of material required for his space mirrors into orbit, he dryly suggested a modern cannon of the kind originally proposed for the Strategic Defense Initiative: a giant electric rail gun firing a ton or so of material into space roughly every five minutes. Asked where such a device might be located, he suggested a high mountaintop on the Equator.
I was immediately reminded of Jules Verne’s 1889 novel The Purchase of the North Pole. For two cents per acre, a group of American investors gains rights to the vast and incredibly lucrative coal and mineral deposits under the North Pole. To mine the region, they propose to melt the polar ice. Initially the project captures the public imagination, as the backers promise that their scheme will improve the climate everywhere by reducing extremes of cold and heat, making the earth a terrestrial heaven. But when it is revealed that the investors are retired Civil War artillerymen who intend to change the inclination of the earth’s axis by building and firing the world’s largest cannon, public enthusiasm gives way to fears that tidal waves generated by the explosion will kill millions. In secrecy and haste, the protagonists proceed with their plan, building the cannon on
James R. Fleming, a public policy
scholar at the
Reprinted from Spring 2007 Wilson Quarterly
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