Explorations: Weather Control
The story of human attempts to control, or at least influence, the weather is long and fascinating, and it is far from ended. The mentions of human attempts to control the weather in the profile of Bob and Joanne Simpson (pages 18–19 in The AMS Weather Book) briefly describe the Simpsons’ roles in the long-running Project Stormfury, which aimed to find a way to weaken hurricanes, and Joanne Simpson’s 10 years as head of NOAA’s Experimental Meteorological Laboratory, which included both Stormfury and other cloud-seeding work.
The AMS Weather Book doesn’t cover human attempts to exercise control over the weather in more detail because few scientists or public officials are involved with or even talking about ways to influence the weather today. The need to cover many topics that are more relevant to today’s concerns pushed weather control out of the book.
The topic is far from dead, however, and possibly deserves a book that has yet to be written. The books, articles, and Web sites below will help you begin an exploration of the dream of really doing something about the weather.
- The Simpsons developed a hypothesis for a way to weaken hurricanes by seeding some of the storm’s clouds with silver iodide. This led to the U.S. government’s Project Stormfury, which lasted from 1961 to 1983, initially led by the Simpsons. The story of this project and the general scientific background that led to it is told in Bob Sheets and Jack Williams’s Hurricane Watch: Forecasting the Deadliest Storms on Earth (New York: Vintage, 2001), 157–178.
- More information on Project Stormfury can be found in the NOAA Hurricane Research Division’s Stormfury Era Web page in the History section. The Tropical Cyclone Modification and Myths section of NOAA’s Hurricane FAQ is a good introduction to the shortcomings of other ideas for weakening or controlling hurricanes.
- A good starting point for anyone interested in a wide examination of human attempts to influence the weather is Ronald B. Standler’s Web site History and Problems in Weather Modification. It is a good overview, which includes history, science, and ethical issues, a large bibliography, and a link to a PDF file of author’s essay “Weather Modification Law in the USA.”
- Serious weather modification research by scientists began after World War II, building on the scientific optimism engendered by accomplishments such as the development of the atomic bomb and radar. The original research was conduced at the General Electric Research Laboratory in Schenectady, New York, which was led by Irving Langmuir, winner of the 1932 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. One of the scientists there was Bernard Vonnegut, inventor of silver iodide cloud seeding and the older bother of the novelist Kurt Vonnegut. The State University of New York at Albany Web site has a biography of Bernard Vonnegut, with links to other sources of information on him and his work.
- Langmuir made claims that went far beyond the results of experiments conducted by the GE Laboratory. In fact, he and others began using the term “weather control.” Langmuir’s claims caught the fancy of newspaper and magazine writers for years. This is reflected in the fact that, from 1947 until 1973, the Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature had a listing for articles about weather control. These articles, even those with little scientific accuracy, give the social context of weather modification research, including the optimism about the promise of weather control.
- Much of the early research was part of Project Cirrus, which involved scientists, technicians, and others from General Electric and the U.S. Army, Navy, and Air Force from 1946 into 1951. The project included more than 200 research flights. The story of how World War II research into unrelated topics led to the invention of cloud seeding—and the creation of Project Cirrus—is told in Barrington S. Havens, James E. Jiusto, and Bernard Vonnegut, Early History of Cloud Seeding (Socorro, NM: Langmuir Laboratory, New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, 1978). While this 75-page booklet is not widely available, the WorldCat library search site shows that the U.S. Library of Congress and several university libraries have copies in their collections.
- The 1998 American Meteorological Society statement “Planned and Inadvertent Weather Modification” is the considered opinion of meteorologists about the topic at the time it was written.
- While little scientific research is being conducted today on weather modification, specifically, several companies contract with ski areas and water agencies—generally in the western United States—to enhance precipitation amounts. Their organization, The Weather Modification Association, is a good way to begin learning about these activities.
Ideas for Controlling Global Warming
Since the 1960s, a few scientists have been talking about using huge engineering projects—geoengineering—to control global warming. The links that follow are to a few descriptions of such ideas: