Manufacturing the Weather

Cover of 1954 Collier's magazine on climate engineering.

An image of a technocrat pulling the world's weather levers appeared on the cover of Collier's magazine in 1954. Courtesy estate of Frederick Siebel.

In 1946 Nobel laureate Irving Langmuir believed he and his team at the General Electric Corporation had discovered means of controlling the weather with such cloud-seeding agents as dry ice and silver iodide. A year later, in conjunction with the U.S. military, they sought to deflect a hurricane from its path. After seeding (but not because of seeding) the hurricane veered onshore, owing to what were later determined to be natural steering currents, and devastated Savannah, Georgia. The planned press conference was canceled, but Langmuir continued to claim he could control hurricanes and influence the nation’s weather. He even proposed seeding the entire Pacific basin in a mega-scale experiment intended to generate climate-scale effects.

An image of a technocrat pulling the levers of weather control appeared on the cover of Collier’s in 1954. The United States was in a weather-control race with the U.S.S.R., and a Strategic Air Command general had just announced in the press that the nation that controlled the weather would control the world. The accompanying article, by President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s weather adviser Harold Orville, included ways of conducting weather warfare. A year later Fortune published a prominent article by John von Neumann: “Can We Survive Technology?” referred to climate control through managing solar radiation or changing the earth’s heat budget as a thoroughly “abnormal” industry that could have “rather fantastic effects” on a scale difficult to imagine. Von Neumann, a noted mathematician and pioneer in computerized weather forecasts and climate models, pointed out that altering the surface reflectivity of specific regions or redirecting air masses in an attempt to trigger a new ice age were not necessarily rational undertakings. Tinkering with the earth’s heat budget or the atmosphere’s general circulation, he claimed, “will merge each nation’s affairs with those of every other more thoroughly than the threat of a nuclear or any other war may already have done.” In his opinion climate control could lend itself to unprecedented destruction and to forms of warfare as yet unimagined. It could alter the entire globe and shatter the existing political order. He made the Janus-faced nature of weather and climate control clear. The central question was not “What can we do?” but “What should we do?” This was the “maturing crisis of technology” for von Neumann, in which technological realities and possibilities—from nuclear warfare to climate engineering—might undermine the very existence of nation states and the treaties and ties that bind them.

Harry Wexler

Harry Wexler. 
Wexler Papers, Library of Congress, Permission granted by the heirs of Harry Wexler.

Taking this up several notches—to the stratosphere and above—was Harry Wexler, head of research at the U.S. Weather Bureau. In 1962 Wexler warned that a hostile power could detonate a chlorine or bromine bomb that would rip a giant hole in the earth’s ozone layer. He had in effect identified catalytic ozone-depleting reactions that would later result in Nobel prizes in chemistry. Wexler also warned that space spectaculars might go awry: “Even in this day of global experiments, such as the world-wide Argus electron seeding of the earth’s magnetic field at 300 miles height, man and machinery orbiting the earth at 100 miles 17 times in one day, and 100 megaton bombs—are we any closer to some idea of the approaches which could lead to an eventual ‘solution’ [to the problem of climate control]?” He noted “a growing anxiety” in the public, pronouncing, “Man, in applying his growing energies and facilities against the power of the winds and storms, may do so with more enthusiasm than knowledge and so cause more harm than good.” Ironically, Operation Argus, a 1958 military experiment that disrupted the magnetosphere and generated an artificial radiation belt (via high-altitude nuclear-weapons detonations), was planned and conducted the very same year James van Allen announced his discovery of the earth’s natural radiation belts.

All this activity was supported at the top levels of government by then-Senator Lyndon Johnson’s proclamation that the very future of the United States depended on its first seizing ownership of space and controlling it for military purposes. In the cold-war era the military sought to control clouds and storms as weapons. As part of the “weather race,” secret cloud seeding occurred during the Vietnam War. This seeding resulted in the 1978 United Nations Convention on the Prohibition of Military or any other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques (ENMOD), a landmark treaty that may have to be revisited soon to avoid or at least try to mitigate possible hostile use of climate control.