Historian Kristine Harper tells the story of how scientists during the Cold War wanted to control the weather…with B52s, among other things.
ED: Charlie Hatfield learned the hard way that it’s dangerous to mess with mother nature. But that didn’t keep later generations of Americans from trying.
NATHAN: After World II the US government claimed it could control the weather with, wait for it, the atom bomb.
CHRISTINE HARPER: Right off the bat after the war is over you have this idea out there that you could use atomic energy for darn near anything that you wanted to.
NATHAN: This is historian and former meteorologist, Christine Harper. She says during the first decades of the Cold War some of the country’s scientists argued nuclear bombs could actually obliterate hurricanes.
CHRISTINE HARPER: So the idea that you could just, you know, take your b-52 out over the Atlantic and start bombing the arms of a hurricane and disrupting that and having the whole thing collapse is, pretty much, ludicrous on its face. But maybe you could find them when they were really tiny and just a tropical depression off of Africa, and you could send your b-52s over there with an atomic bomb and maybe that would be good enough to do it, right?
NATHAN: A butterfly’s wings, right?
CHRISTINE HARPER: Yeah. And nobody even says to themselves, geez, like, what about all the radiation that would get blown around? Wouldn’t that be a problem? Nobody mentions that. It’s like it doesn’t even exist. It’s just we’re going to use that energy, and we’re going to use that the way we want.
NATHAN: Are there documented tests of people physically launching bombs and missiles at weather to get it to change?
CHRISTINE HARPER: Well they talked about it. Now this is the amazing– this is the amazing thing. At one point we have the head of the weather bureau, who is Francis Reicherlderfer, talking to the National Press Club– this is in the early 1960s. And he had told them that man stood on the threshold of possible control of hurricanes, possibly by using an atomic or conventional explosives to break up the rotating arms.
And they wanted to get them while they were young so they could spoil them, right? And he emphasized the use of explosives was only in the quote, “gleam in the eye stage.” But they were hoping to be able to bomb a tropical storm within two or three years with conventional explosives. And that could lead to using a nuclear bomb in the one megaton range.
NATHAN: Chris, I have this image in my mind of people literally launching missiles at storm clouds. This can’t possibly be a good idea.
CHRISTINE HARPER: No, it was not a good idea.
NATHAN: And why not?
CHRISTINE HARPER: So it wasn’t a good idea for a couple of reasons. Number one, there’s not enough energy in a bomb to disrupt a storm to begin with, not even a little smidgen of a storm. But, of course, you have all of this fallout as a problem. Now they never did this. OK? But the point is they were thinking about it, and they did note that each bomb would cost about a million bucks, and that therefore it might be a little bit on the costly side, too.
NATHAN: And the idea that you can use bombs to control the weather might seem kind of shocking to folks today. But the fact that this was a pretty mainstream conversation in the 1960s, and what does it tell us about the influence of places like the Department of Defense, or even the military, and kind of policy life in Washington?
CHRISTINE HARPER: Well they were hugely influential. I mean at the time defense budget was just about, write me a check, you know? And they were looking for any kind of new technology that could be used as a weapon. And you had people were saying things like the country that can control the weather will control the world.
We knew that the Russians were working on this too. And if they were working on it then we had to work on it more. And so consequently you have these scientists who have huge reputations in the country who promoted this idea of being able to produce what might be called designer weather. In other words, the weather you wanted, where you wanted, when you wanted it. And that was extremely exciting to people in the Department of Defense and to congressmen.
NATHAN: So if people aren’t launching missiles at weather patterns and potential storms, how are they thinking about weather control? What forms of weather control are still being practiced in this late period of the 1960s? So what they’re doing is they’re using two different techniques. They can either use dry ice, which has been pulverized into little tiny particles. Or they can use what are called silver iodide seeds.
And so, essentially, silver iodide is mixed with other substances and then placed in what look like flares that you would put behind your car after an accident. And racks of those flares are then hung underneath an airplane wing. They seed the clouds with this smoke from the flares, and each one of those silver iodide seeds then absorbs enough water vapor particles from the cloud, and it takes a million of them in order to form a raindrop that is large enough to fall out of the cloud. OK, so that’s it that’s essentially how it’s done.
NATHAN: So the idea of, basically, weather made to order was pretty much a mainstream idea in the scientific community, at least?
CHRISTINE HARPER: Well it wasn’t amongst meteorologists, quite frankly. But it was among physics and chemistry type folks. And they had all kinds of plans. I mean, it wasn’t just about making it rain. It was about snuffing out tornadoes. It was about having thunderclouds collapse on themselves before they could produce hail and just having them rain out. So some of it wasn’t– It wasn’t like it was totally crazy. The nuclear part, bombing things, yeah, that was completely crazy. But they’re still going after this idea of controlling the weather.
NATHAN: That was not then a government secret, right? Senators could tell their constituents that this was actually an active part of the new scientific revolution of the post-war period, weather control?
CHRISTINE HARPER: Well, yes and no. So the domestic part of it, the part where you don’t have to build reservoirs an irrigation canals anymore because, you know, you can get the right kind of rain where you want it, and in the right amounts whenever you want it, that’s the public part. The not public, secret and top secret part, is about using it as a diplomatic tool, or using it as a weapon.
You know, it was really tempting to use that because who could prove– I mean, who could prove afterwards that you’d done it? I mean, you know what weather forecasting’s like. You know? We have no reason why they had all those pouring down rains up there and wiped all those people out. No idea at all. Couldn’t have been us, you know, there’s no way to trace those drops.
NATHAN: And how would you describe these ideas falling out of favor? What happened to these ideas?
CHRISTINE HARPER: Well they fell out of favor after Seymour Hersh broke his story in The New York Times in the early 1970s about the United States using weather control as a weapon in Vietnam and Laos. It was used primarily to enhance monsoonal rainfall over Ho Chi Minh trail. The idea being that if it were made muddy enough it would be impossible for both men and material coming down from North Vietnam.
And so people really didn’t support using weather as a weapon in general. It’s bad enough naturally, we don’t need to enhance it to be worse than it is. And the federal budget starts to– I wouldn’t say it would disintegrate, contract, let’s put it that way. Things that haven’t been terribly effective are the first to be axed. And so all these weather control programs basically get axed in the 1970s.
NATHAN: So if we think about the way people are considering technologies for controlling the weather, that’s different than a broader conversation in the 1950s about climate change. Was this a connected debate in people’s minds? Weather control on the one hand versus man-made impact on effecting the climate on the other?
CHRISTINE HARPER: So there are a couple of ways to look at that. The Department of Defense had found out in the late 1940s that glaciers were starting to recede and that there was a possibility that the Arctic would warm, and that had all kinds of implications for fighting a war with the Soviet Union. So they were really interested in that. But that was secret information. That wasn’t public information.
And so in the 1950s, people aren’t really concerned that the climate is going to change. What they’re concerned about is are people going to be able to produce the kind of weather we need right now when we’re going to need it, or can we use this as a way to stop bad weather? You know, like blow up tornadoes and hurricanes. But if you make the weather that you want that way long enough effectively, you have changed the climate, right?
NATHAN: Wow. So it sounds like, Chris, that the central conceit of the mid 20th century, or the Cold War period, was the notion that human beings could impact the climate, that they should try to shape the climate. And it seems at least now that it’s pretty clear that human beings have shaped the climate, but not in ways that they necessarily can control.
CHRISTINE HARPER: Well, that’s right. I mean, basically it was an unplanned experiment.
NATHAN: So what kinds of lessons can we take from the 1950s about climate change now?
CHRISTINE HARPER: I think one thing that’s kind of related between now and the 1950s, just in a slightly different way, is in the 1950s people were convinced that there was a technological fix for anything. Now what I see is you have some people who are convinced that we’ve actually influenced the climate, and the climate is warming. In other words, they go with the scientific consensus. And we need to do something about that.
And then you have another group of people who say, OK, well, that could happen, and yes the water could rise in the oceans, but we’ll be able to figure out a technological fix for that. It’s not going to be nuclear, but it will be something that we can figure out. So that same– that we can find a technological fix for any problem that ails us, that’s really not much different now than it was in the 1950s.
NATHAN: Christine Harper is a historian at Florida State University and author of Make it Rain, State Control of the Atmosphere in 20th Century America.