THE HISTORY
OF WEATHER
CONTROL

Posted by Discovery

As humans, it’s one of our most primal urges; the need for control. So it’s no wonder that we have sought to control one of nature’s most erratic and uncontrollable events: The weather.

“Human Hubris is almost universal,” says James R. Fleming, Colby College’s Charles A. Dana Professor of Science, Technology, and Science. “There’s this perennial desire to control.” And Fleming should know -- he wrote the book on weather manipulation, literally. His 2010 book, “Fixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control” is an oft-quoted text on the history -- and future -- of climate control.

Fleming starts his exploration into weather manipulation with Greek folklore. The story goes that Phaethon, the son of Helios, lost control attempting to steer the Chariot of the Sun. His failed attempt led to the scorching of the earth, and ultimately, his demise as the god Zeus struck him down with a thunderbolt in order to prevent additional destruction. Although the story of Phaethon is a myth, attempts at controlling or manipulating the weather are as old as time itself. Thankfully, real-life attempts at controlling the weather haven’t been nearly as fraught.

The Early Years

It’s hard to track down when one of the earliest attempts at weather manipulation, rainmaking, began. Many cultures tried their hands at using rituals and various concoctions to create rain. Fleming documents cases as early as the mid-1500s in which scientists began researching whether they could, in fact produce and control the weather. In Medieval times, hail archers shot arrows into the sky in an attempt to produce rain. Until the 1750s, sacrifices, prayers and the ringing of consecrated storm bells were most often used in attempts to conjure rain.

Mid 1800s

North America experienced at least three major droughts between the 1850s and the 1890s. So it’s no wonder that there was much experimenting with producing and sustaining rain. During this time period, James Espy proposed his theory that burning large fires could produce rain. Espy claimed that anecdotal evidence, like that of reports from citizens of Coudersport, Pennsylvania, proved his theory.

Late 1800s

Congress appropriated funds in 1890 to test a theory that gunpowder explosions could cause rain. Although that attempt was unsuccessful, it signaled a new industry -- rainmaking. By 1892, there were two major rainmaking companies. And just a year later, there were five. In Austria, a     vine grower named Albert Stiger tired of hail damaging his grapes, reportedly produced a gentle rain and diverted dangerous hailstorms after shooting the clouds with mortar fire.

1900-1916

Charles Hatfield, who called himself a “moisture accelerator” began experimenting with rainmaking and in 1902 created a secret mixture that he claimed attracted rain. Business quickly picked up for him and he was hired by Los Angeles and the Yukon Territory to produce rain. Results were mixed, but his attempt in LA was deemed successful. In 1915, the San Diego city council contracted Hatfield to fill the Morena Dam reservoir. In January 1916, the rains began. The heavy rains flooded dry river beds and two dams overflowed, causing at least 20 deaths and millions of dollars in damages. Hatfield contended that he’d produced rain and that the damages weren’t his fault. The city refused to pay him unless he would accept liability for the damages. Eventually, Hatfield sued the city, and courts decided the rain was an “Act of God,” which meant he couldn’t be held responsible for the damages, but was also unable to receive his fee. Still, his fame would continue to grow. Hatfield took his secret mixture to the grave when he died in 1958.

1946

Vincent Schaefer sparked new interest in weather control after discovering the principle of cloud seeding. Cloud seeding is a form of weather modification typically used to create rain by dispersing chemicals into the air. Soon after Schaefer’s discovery, Dr. Bernard Vonnegut discovered that silver iodide could be used to seed clouds.

1960s

By this time, the idea of using weather manipulation for military purposes was well underway. That idea led to high-profile military operations throughout the ’60s. One such attempt was Project Stormfury, which was run by the U.S. government from 1962 to 1983. Project Stormfury sought to weaken tropical storms by flying aircraft into them and seeding them with silver iodide. The idea was that the silver iodide would cause the super-cooled water in the storm to freeze, thereby disrupting the hurricane. Although the success of Project Stormfury is unclear, the project did generate research that helped improve the ability to forecast hurricane movements and gauge their intensity.

Another such project was Project Popeye, a classified program that ran from 1967 to 1972 in Southeast Asia. The operation was an attempt to use cloud seeding to extend monsoon season, creating rain that could be used disrupt enemy forces. Project Popeye was the field trial; the name of the actual operation was Operation Motorpool.

1970s

Incidentally, the secret military weather missions, along with Fidel Castro’s unfounded thought that the U.S. manipulated the weather actually led to the United Nation’s intervening in the use of weather manipulation. When the missions became public after the Nixon era, controversy ensued. The Soviet Union took the opportunity to bring the idea of weather warfare to the United Nations, which eventually enacted a treaty against it. The final treaty was called the Environmental Modification Convention.

Although the talk of weather manipulation has largely died down in the public, by no means does that mean the topic or research surrounding it has dampened. According to Fleming, a lot of past successes in weather manipulation are unfounded, and those that do have some degree of success aren’t necessarily worthwhile.

“You can intervene in a cloud, but you can’t control it,” he said. “If you started to move hurricanes around by changing the weather, you change the climate. It’s completely indiscriminate.” That means that if scientists could somehow change the course of a storm, there’s no way to predict where it would actually end up.

Major Moments In

Weather
Modification

1844

Coudersport, Pennsylvania citizens claim that the burning of unsown farmland produced both clouds and rain.

1902

Charles Hatfield creates his secret chemical mixture he uses to attract rain.

1916

Hatfield “produces” rain in San Diego, causing flooding that led to about 20 deaths and millions of dollars in damages.

1946

Vincent Schaefer discovers the principle of cloud seeding. His colleague, Dr. Bernard Vonnegut is credited with using silver iodide for cloud seeding.

1964

The U.S. initiates Project Popeye, an attempt by military to use weather to interfere with truck traffic in Vietnam.

1978

The U.N.’s Environmental Modification Convention goes into effect.

1996

The term “geo-engineering” is introduced.

2008

China shoots artillery into the sky in order to prevent rain during the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

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