Posted by Discovery

The idea of weather control sounds like something out of a science-fiction or action movie; a manipulation created by either a superhero or science. The fact is, weather manipulation -- or attempts at it -- have been years in the making. Some of them are just as farfetched as something you’d expect to see in a movie. We spoke with James R. Fleming, the Charles A. Dana Professor of Science, Technology, and Society at Colby College and author of “Fixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control,” to find five examples from history that we can’t believe are actually true.

Turning Fire into Rain

Eighteenth Century meteorologist James Espy believed that rainfall could be generated by burning huge fires. He got the idea by considering testimonials that rainfalls often accompanied volcanic eruptions and large fires. He proposed burning 40 acres of land every 20 miles along 600 to 700 miles along the Rocky Mountains. He predicted the fires could create steady rainfall across the country, to the delight of farmers no doubt. His theory was never proven, but earned him an honorable mention in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Hall of Fantasy.”

Electrified Sand

Luke Francis Warren was an inventor and “rainmaker” who conducted trials from 1921-1923 to prove that electrified sand could be used to dissipate clouds and create rain. He partnered with a Harvard electrophysicist and the U.S. Army Air Service to conduct his experiments, which actually consisted of using an airplane to sprinkle sand charged with 10,000 volts above the clouds. The sand actually did seem to sometimes create openings within the clouds and even got rid of them completely (again sometimes). Alas, he was never actually able to produce rain on demand.

The War Against Fog

During World War II, it quickly became clear to the British that fog was a problem because it kept aviators grounded. The plan to combat that problem was taken on by the Petroleum Warfare Department, who decided to investigate the idea of burning oil to clear fogs over airfields. The method, called the Fog Investigation and Dispersal Operation, became their secret weapon. It worked by using a system of tanks, pipes, and burners to deliver petroleum that would raise the temperature by several degrees when ignited. Raising the temperature several degrees was enough to disperse fog and allow aircraft operations to continue. After several tests, FIDO was deemed a success. London’s Heathrow Airport was planned to have a FIDO system installed after the war, but it never materialized. It seems the cost, estimated in 1957 at 445,500 pounds an hour.

The Case of the Suspicious Hurricane

A year after 1962’s Cuban Missile Crisis, Fidel Castro accused the United States of using weather warfare to redirect the Category 4 Hurricane Flora to Cuba. The storm held steady in Cuba for four days, causing massive flooding and thousands of deaths with heavy crop damage.  Mexico alleged the same, saying that the United States caused a drought by cloud seeding. Incidentally, this happened as Project Stormfury, which started out as a collaboration between the weather bureau and the Navy, was underway. The early team’s goal was to weaken hurricanes by using military equipment to “seed” the eye of the storm. The Navy had other ideas, namely to be able to use fog to obscure their movements from the opposition, calm heavy seas and redirect storms to interfere with the enemy. Project Stormfury had nothing to do with the storm, but seemed to foreshadow the military’s actual plan to use the weather for wartime purposes.

The Law Against Weather Warfare

Let’s say the government had actually found and perfected a way to use the weather as a weapon, for example diverting storms or creating fog. If they were actually able to do such a thing, they’d be violating a United Nations treaty. The Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques -- was enacted after the discovery of a secret U.S. military operation that tested how the weather could be used during war.

During Project Popeye, and the actual Operation Motorpool, military equipment was used to seed the skies in Laos, Vietnam to increase the amount of rainfall and the length of the rainy season in an attempt to reduce the Viet Cong’s ability to travel. The operation went on from 1966 to 1972. The operation was finally revealed after the Nixon era, leading to the UN’s treaty.

(Don’t) Make it Rain

No one wants it to rain on the day of a big event. But the Chinese government wasn’t going to leave the prospect of it raining during the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics to chance. Instead, they fired more than 1,000 silver iodide rockets into the sky to ensure it wouldn’t rain on the roofless Olympic stadium. The Chinese held it as a success -- it didn’t rain -- but some experts, like Fleming contend that based on their reports, some of the claims can’t be independently supported. Doubts haven’t stopped them; like many other countries, China devotes a multi-million-dollar budget on its weather modification office.