Written by Olivier Guiberteau
Throughout history, humans have long sought to control the weather, often with little to no success because, well, it’s the weather and we are but tiny insignificant specks in comparison.
Today we call it weather modification and it’s much closer than you might imagine, but for thousands of years, we desperately attempted to manipulate rain, temperatures, and even wind, through a wide variety of techniques that often included some kind of offering to whichever God you happened to pray to.
For millennia we placed our faith in the divine to help with drought, flooding, and other natural disasters, but just a couple of years after World War II, the United States, a nation dare I say a little amped up after victory, launched into its most ambitious, colossal crusade to date – an attempt to tame a hurricane.
Project Cirrus, later reformed into Project Stormfury, was the first major attempt to affect seasonal hurricanes by seeding them from aircraft with silver iodide. On 13th October 1947, a hurricane in the Atlantic, which was moving away from the United States mainland, was chosen as the first target.
What could possibly go wrong?
Human History & The Weather
Humans have been at the mercy of the weather ever since we stumbled to our feet as apes. While climate change in its more modern incarnation is primarily caused by carbon dioxide being pumped into the atmosphere, the weather has changed dramatically and naturally countless times.
Earth has seen ice ages come and go, the Sahara desert used to be a lush vegetative paradise, and believe it or not, Antarctica, around 40-50 million years ago, had weather more akin to the Californian coast, than the freezing white continent that we see today.
These sorts of changes can take thousands, perhaps even millions of years to occur, but humans have always remained intensely focused on the weather, and what they could do to affect it.
Weather rituals have long been common around the world, with some kind of rain dance found on every single continent, often done in times of drought when populations became threatened. It was this constant dance with catastrophe that drove humans forward in their attempts to control, or at least affect the weather in whatever way they could.
Earliest Weather Modification
As has often been the case throughout human history, it was the experience of war that provided the first breakthrough. In the 19th Century, a book called War and Weather was published in which it detailed veteran experiences during the Seven Years’ War, Napoleonic Wars, and the American Civil War. But what really sparked interest was the often-repeated statement that it always rained after a large battle.
It was assumed that something to do with gunpowder and explosives was affecting rain dispersal but at that stage, there was absolutely no evidence to back it up. But that didn’t stop the United States Department of War from purchasing $9,000 of gunpowder and explosives to detonate in Texas in the late 19th century in the hope of condensing water vapour into rain – with no substantial success.
There are sketchy reports of the UK government attempting to create artificial clouds at Orford Ness in Suffolk during World War I, in an attempt to hinder German pilots, but again, this attempt met little success.
It was clear that those researching weather modification were on to something, but they had so far failed to connect the dots.
Up to this point, efforts had been focused on stimulating rainfall but the first major breakthrough came not with simply producing rain, but directly affecting a hurricane.
Hurricanes have long devastated the Eastern seaboard of the United States as well as the Caribbean and Central America. The Great Hurricane of 1780, killed over 27,500 people as it sent winds as strong as 320 km/h (200 mph) crashing the area, while Hurricane Mitch killed nearly 12,000, mainly in Central America, in 1998.
These were long seen as uncontrollable brutes and publicly speaking of trying to control one would have likely landed you in a mental institution. But post World War II things began to change, with credible scientists now openly questioning whether you could seed a hurricane while it was out of the ocean, and so draining it of most of its fearsome power before it made landfall.
This technique was developed by Vincent Schaefer and Irving Langmuir, the latter of whom won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1932. The two Americans hypothesized that by seeding a hurricane as close to its eye as possible with dry ice, latent heat would be released which would create a second eye, even larger than the first.
While that might not sound good to the vast majority of viewers, the two men’s theory stated that this would mean a reduction in wind speed thanks to a reduced pressure gradient.
Considering how catastrophic the most destructive hurricanes could be, it was generally agreed that any reduction in wind speed would be beneficial to the communities that lay in their path. It’s important to remember that these were no pseudo-scientific charlatans and a lot of what Schaefer and Langmuir were suggesting had been backed up by preliminary research.
The first full-scale attempt came on 20th December 1946 when an aircraft carrying Schaefer and 1.3 kg (3 lbs) of dry ice (frozen carbon dioxide) passed over upstate New York. The ice was dumped out of the aircraft as it passed above a cloud, and hey presto, it began to snow.
This experiment had been done in conjunction with General Electrics and it wasn’t long until it was joined by the U.S military. Over the next year, the team worked on developing the process, which eventually involved replacing the dry ice with silver iodide – an inorganic compound used in photography and as an antiseptic in medicine.
While the experiment in Upstate New York had certainly been a success, it was almost insignificant compared to what was eventually planned for Project Cirrus.
This began fairly innocuously with several more cloud seeding experiments around the country. It would be a stretch to say that everything was a success, but there were certainly enough positives that the program eventually gathered pace and those involved began to set their sights on a significantly bigger challenge.
On 12th October 1947, a hurricane, known as the Cape Sable Hurricane, but also informally as Hurricane King, had just clipped Cuba and Southern Florida without causing any major damage and was making its way eastward, away from the continental United States and out to sea. With no apparent immediate threat to the American East coast, it was seen as a perfect opportunity to take Project Cirrus to the next level and attempt to seed the massive hurricane.
The following day, three aircraft took off from MacDill Field in Florida, two B-17 bombers and one B-29. One of the B-17s carried 36 kg (80 lbs) of silver iodide, while the other was set up to record the entire operation. The B-29, carrying Schaefer, was the designated control aircraft where directives could be handed out.
The hurricane that had been targeted, according to eyewitnesses, was 48 km (30 miles) in diameter and 48-80 km (30-50 miles) thick, surrounded by a huge wall of clouds extending from about 240 metres (800 feet) up into the cirrus clouds to around 6,100 metres (20,000 feet). It was a swirling monster, but considering its projected path, no longer a danger to human life.
With the B-29 circling at a safe distance, the two B-17s pressed closed towards the hurricane, before the silver iodide was emptied along a 177km (110-mile) stretch. Almost immediately those onboard the B-29 could see the cloud seeding as it began to darken and for a brief moment, there must have been a tremendous sense of accomplishment – a hurricane had been successfully tamed.
Yet while humans may have discovered a way to affect the weather in fairly moderate ways, we remain powerless against the full force of mother nature and this was perfectly emphasised by what happened next.
In an act of almost vengeful timing, the hurricane, which at that point was 560 km (350 miles) east of Jacksonville, Florida, began turning. What had been heading safely away from land turned 130 degrees left and was now speeding back towards it.
But as they say, when it rains it pours. Not only was the hurricane now barreling towards the Eastern seaboard, but it had also gained in strength. On 15th October, the hurricane slammed into Savannah, Georgia, bringing with it tides of up 3.7 metres (12 feet) and causing significant damage to 1,500 structures across Georgia and South Carolina. One person died as a result and the cost of damage reached $3.26 million ($41.4 million today) across the two states.
Public outrage erupted once information about the seeding become widely known. Things were not helped when Dr Irving Langmuir, GE’s head of its Laboratories, stated that he was 99.9% sure the hurricane had changed directions because of human cloud seeding, even as the official government narrative was that it had nothing to do with it.
As the threat of lawsuits mounted, GE pulled their support of the project and attempted to steer well clear of the impending quagmire. It wasn’t until the National Weather Bureau became involved that things began to clear up a little.
Dr Francis Reichelderfer, Chief of the Weather Bureau, was convinced that something similar must have occurred before and had instructed his team to begin examining past hurricanes in the region. It wasn’t long until they had examples of hurricanes doing exactly what the Cape Sable Hurricane had done and these were published in national newspapers as a way of appeasing the furious mob.
It worked and soon news cycles and topics of conversation had moved on, but the damage to the public perception of cloud seeding had been immense and soon after it was announced that Project Cirrus would be cancelled.
While the cause for the sudden and dramatic shift in direction had been explained, the idea of weather modification remained on shaky foundations. The Cape Sable Hurricane may have followed similar paths to other hurricanes in the past, but the general public remained extremely wary about any further experiments.
So much so that the next cloud seeding experiment did not occur until 1961 when a United States Navy aircraft twice seeded Hurricane Esther, with mixed results. A lot had changed in the fourteen years since Project Cirrus, not least the horrendous 1954 Hurricane season, which killed over 1000 people and caused $751.6 million in damage around the Atlantic, the most costly hurricane season up till that point.
Once again, the question of modifying hurricanes came into fashion, and in 1955 the U.S set up the National Hurricane Research Project (NHRP). This was followed by small-scale silver iodide testing in 1958, before the much larger attempt in 1961.
The following year, Project Stormfury was formally commissioned, a joint venture between the United States Department of Commerce and the United States Navy, which was tasked with experimenting with weakening tropical storms.
After the public relations nightmare that was Project Cirrus, Project Stormfury came with clear guidelines. Only hurricanes with a 10% chance or less of making landfall within a day could be seeded, while only examples with a well-formed eye would be considered. It would prove to be extremely difficult to find appropriate candidates, meaning that even though Project Stormfury was active between 1962 and 1983, it involved remarkably few cloud seedings.
In August 1963, with Hurricane Beulah menacing nearby, cloud seeding failed when the aircraft involved dropped the silver iodide in the wrong location. The following day they got it right and the hurricane eye melted away to be replaced with something even bigger, with wind speed dropping by 20%.
It was six years, and numerous failed contenders, before the next serious cloud seeding attempt took place in 1969. Hurricane Debbie was seen as the perfect candidate. On 18th August, the hurricane was seeded multiple times leading to a 31% reduction in wind speed, and again on 20th August, this time seeing an 18% fall.
But the problem with Project Stormfury was that there were so few opportunities for testing and certainly little chance of duplication of success. While the cloud seeding in Hurricane Debbie had produced some positive results, it was some of the last of the entire project.
Eventually, the idea to move operations out to the Pacific where more suitable candidates could be found emerged, but this was faced with a wall of anger from nations around the Pacific, including China, Japan and Australia. This meant that next to no attempts were made throughout the 1970s and soon the U.S Navy lost interest and withdrew from the project. From there, Project Stormfury gradually shrank in size and ambition, until it was eventually cancelled in 1983.
Weather Modification in Warfare
When it came to serious grounded research it had become clear that cloud seeding a hurricane was like using a vacuum cleaner to blow away a tornado. While it did have some positive results in forming rain, the idea of weakening a massive hurricane with silver iodide was later found to be borderline ridiculous. The sheer size of these monsters meant that human influence was almost negligible.
However, this was a time when the two superpower juggernauts were willing to give just about anything a go to gain the upper hand. Throughout the Cold War, there were numerous whacky proposals from both sides, which included spraying coloured pigment on the ice caps so that they would melt, blowing enormous quantities of dust into the stratosphere to make it rain, and the Soviet idea to build numerous dams across the Bering Strait powered by nuclear reactors which would effectively blow water towards the U.S, causing water levels to rise.
Like many Cold War era, Bond villain-esque plans, none of these ever came to anything, and despite plenty of testing from both sides, there was little to no sign that humans could really control the weather to any great degree.
But that’s not to say nothing was learnt. During the Vietnam War, the United States implemented Operation Popeye in which planes seeded clouds in an attempt to hinder troop movements on the ground through increased rainfall. This program, which of course was a carefully guarded secret even from some in government, was conducted from bases in Thailand and targetted Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam.
Reportedly, the seeding increased rainfall in some regions by 30%, but when information about Operation Popeye appeared in the New York Times in 1972, things were cancelled shortly after. With events quickly spiralling out of control in South-East Asia, the U.S government obviously remained wary of another PR disaster.
Modern Cloud Seeding
The human desire to control the weather remains strong, despite the countless setbacks and inconclusive findings over the years. Modern cloud seeding is done in at least 50 different countries around the world, from California in the U.S, to China and the United Arab Emirates.
The Chinese famously launched 1,100 cloud seeding rockets into the clouds just before the 2008 Summer Olympics fearing that a washout opening ceremony would be a bit of a drab affair. How much of it had to do with the rockets we’ll never know, but the city experienced a warm, dry occasion for the big day.
In the UAE, they have been cloud seeding since 2010, with experts stating that they can increase rainfall in the region by 30-35%. The country saw 214 seeding missions in 2017, 184 in 2018, and 247 in 2019, with promising levels of success.
Modern cloud seeding now almost exclusively focuses on creating rain in arid areas of the world, with the idea of weakening hurricanes now long gone. There is certainly enough here to show plenty of promise, but it’s unclear just how widespread this practice will eventually become. We might be able to able to provide greater rainfall, but for many, playing god and messing with the weather, remains a dangerous proposition.
Cool Science: How Kurt Vonnegut’s Brother Tried To Break Up Hurricanes | GE News
Almost Science Fiction: Hurricane Modification and Project STORMFURY – National Weather Service Heritage – Virtual Lab (noaa.gov)
Will we ever… control the weather? – BBC Future
Is weather control a dream or nightmare? | Science News for Students
Weather modification – Wikipedia
Can the CIA weaponise the weather? | CIA | The Guardian
Weather Control as a Cold War Weapon | History| Smithsonian Magazine