Climate Engineers

Climate Engineers



46 Wilson Quarterly ¦ Spring 2007

James R. Fleming, a public policy scholar at the Wilson Center and
holder of the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s
Roger Revelle Fellowship in Global Environmental Stewardship, is a professor
of science, technology, and society at Colby College, Waterville,
Maine. His books includeMeteorology in America, 1800–1870 (1990), Historical
Perspectives on Climate Change (1998), and The Callendar Effect:
The Life and Work of Guy Stewart Callendar (2007).
As alarm over global warming spreads, a radical idea is gaining momentum.
Forget cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions, some scientists argue. Find a technological fix. Bounce sunlight
back into space by pumping reflective nanoparticles into the atmosphere. Launch mirrors into orbit
around the earth. Create a “planetary thermostat.” But what sounds like science fiction is actually an old
story. For more than a century, scientists, soldiers, and charlatans have hatched schemes to manipulate the
weather and climate. Like them, today’s aspiring climate engineers wildly exaggerate what is possible, and
they scarcely consider political, military, and ethical implications of attempting to manage the world’s
climate—with potential consequences far greater than any their predecessors were ever likely to face.
Beyond the security checkpoint at the
National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Ames
Research Center at the southern end of San Francisco
Bay, a small group gathered in November for a conference
on the innocuous subject of “managing solar radiation.”
The real subject was much bigger: how to save the
planet from the effects of global warming. There was little
talk among the two dozen scientists and other specialists
about carbon taxes, alternative energy sources, or
any of the other usual approaches. Many of the scientists
were impatient with such schemes. Some were simply
contemptuous of calls for international cooperation and
the policies and lifestyle changes needed to curb greenhouse-
gas emissions; others had concluded that the
world’s politicians and bureaucrats are not up to the job
of agreeing on such reforms or that global warming will
come more rapidly, and with more catastrophic consequences,
than many models predict. Now, they think, it
is time to consider radical steps to gain control of the climate.

The Climate
Spring 2007 ¦ Wilson Quarterly 47
Ridicule greeted a 1992 proposal to combat global warming by shooting reflective particles into the atmosphere. The response could be different today.
48 Wilson Quarterly ¦ Spring 2007
The Climate Engineers
mate directly—a technological quick fix for global
“Mitigation is not happening and is not going to happen,”
physicist Lowell Wood declared. Wood, the star of the
meeting, spent four decades at the University of California’s
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where
he served as one of the Pentagon’s chief weapon designers
and threat analysts. (He reportedly enjoys the “Dr. Evil”
nickname bestowed by his critics.) The time has come, he
said, for “an intelligent elimination of undesired heat
from the biosphere by technical ways and means,” which,
he asserted, could be achieved for a tiny fraction of the cost
of “the bureaucratic suppression of CO2.” He claimed
that his engineering approach would provide “instant climatic
Wood advanced several ideas to “fix” the earth’s climate,
including building up Arctic sea ice to make it function like
a planetary air conditioner to “suck heat in from the midlatitude
heat bath.” A “surprisingly practical” way of achieving
this, he said, would be to use large artillery pieces to
shoot as much as a million tons of highly reflective sulfate
aerosols or specially engineered nanoparticles into the Arctic
stratosphere to deflect the sun’s rays. Delivering up to
a million tons of material via artillery would require a constant
bombardment—basically declaring “war on the
stratosphere.” Alternatively, a fleet of B-747 “crop dusters”
could deliver the particles by flying continuously around
the Arctic Circle. Or a 25-mile-long “sky hose” could be
tethered to a military superblimp high above the planet’s
surface to pump reflective particles into the atmosphere.
Far fetched as Wood’s ideas may sound, his weren’t the
only Rube Goldberg proposals aired at the meeting. Even
as they joked about a NASA staffer’s apology for her inability
to control the temperature in the meeting room, they
spilled out their own schemes for manipulating earth’s climate.
Astronomer J. Roger Angel suggested placing a
huge fleet of mirrors in orbit to divert incoming solar
radiation, at a cost of “only” several trillion dollars. Atmospheric
scientist John Latham and engineer Stephen Salter
hawked their idea of making marine clouds thicker and
more reflective by whipping ocean water into a froth with
giant pumps and eggbeaters. Most frightening was the science-
fiction writer and astrophysicist Gregory Benford’s
announcement that he wanted to “cut through red tape
and demonstrate what could be done” by finding private
sponsors for his plan to inject diatomaceous earth—the
chalklike substance used in filtration systems and cat
litter—into the Arctic stratosphere. He, like his fellow
geoengineers, was largely silent on the possible unintended
consequences of his plan.
The inherent unknowability of what would happen
as a result of tinkering with the immensely complex
planetary climate system is one of the reasons why
climate engineering has until recently been spoken of only
sotto voce in the scientific community. It has been seen as
a bridge too far. And a certain wariness grows out of the
recognition that even the most brilliant scientists have a history
of blindness to the wider ramifications of their work.
Imagine, for example, that Wood’s scheme to thicken the
Arctic icecap did somehow become possible. While most of
the world may want to maintain or increase polar sea ice,
Russia and some other nations have historically desired an
ice-free Arctic ocean, which would liberate shipping and
open potentially vast oil and mineral deposits for exploita-
Physicist Lowell Wood wants to create a “global thermostat.”
Spring 2007 ¦ Wilson Quarterly 49
The Climate Engineers
tion. And an engineered Arctic ice sheet would likely produce
shorter growing seasons and harsher winters in Alaska,
Siberia, Greenland, and elsewhere, and could generate
super winter storms in the midlatitudes. Yet Wood calls his
brainstorm “the Global Climate Stabilization Plan,” and
hopes to create a sort of “planetary thermostat” to regulate
the global climate.
Who would control such a “thermostat,” making lifealtering
decisions for the planet’s billions? What is to prevent
other nations from undertaking unilateral climate
modification? The United States has no monopoly on
such dreams. In November 2005, for example, Yuri
Izrael, head of the Moscow-based Institute of Global Climate
and Ecology Studies, wrote to Russian president
Vladimir Putin to make the case for immediately burning
massive amounts of sulfur in the stratosphere to
lower the earth’s temperature “a degree or two”—a correction
greater than the total warming since preindustrial
There is, moreover, a troubling motif of militarization in
the history of weather and climate control. Military leaders
in the United States and other countries have pondered the
possibilities of weaponized weather
control for decades. Lowell Wood
himself embodies the overlap of civilian
and military interests. Now affiliated
with the Hoover Institution, a
think tank at Stanford University,
Wood was a protégé of the late
Edward Teller, the controversial
weapons scientist who was credited
with developing the hydrogen bomb
and was the architect of the Reaganera
Star Wars missile defense system
(which Wood worked on, too). Like
Wood, Teller was known for his advocacy
of controversial military and
technological solutions to complex
problems, including the chimerical
“peaceful use of nuclear weapons.”
Teller’s plan to excavate an artificial
harbor in Alaska using thermonuclear
explosives actually came close to
receiving government approval.
Before his death in 2003, Teller was
advocating a climate control scheme
similar to what Wood proposed at NASA Ames. In 1997 he
published an article called “The Planet Needs a Sunscreen.”
Climate engineering is now being widely discussed in the
scientific community and is taken seriously within the U.S.
government. The Bush administration has recommended
the addition of this “important strategy” to an upcoming
report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,
the UN-sponsored organization whose February study
seemed to persuade even the Bush White House to take
global warming more seriously. And the strategy’s advocates
are not confined to the small group that met in California.
Last year, for example, Paul J. Crutzen, an atmospheric
chemist and Nobel laureate, proposed a scheme similar to
Wood’s, and there is a long paper trail of climate and weather
modication studies by the Pentagon and other government
As the sole historian at the NASA conference, I may have
been alone in my appreciation of the irony that we were
meeting on the site of an old U.S. Navy airfield literally in the
shadow of the huge hangar that once housed the ill-starred
Navy dirigible U.S.S. Macon. The 785-foot-long Macon, a
technological wonder of its time, capable of cruising at 87
Nobel laureate Paul J. Crutzen favors a planetary “shade.”

50 Wilson Quarterly ¦ Spring 2007 The Climate Engineers miles per hour and launching five Navy biplanes, lies at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, brought down in 1935 by strong winds. The Navy’s entire rigid-airship program went down with it. Coming on the heels of the crash of its sister ship, the Akron, the Macon’s destruction showed that the design of these technological marvels was fundamentally flawed. The hangar, built by the Navy in 1932, is now both a historic site and a Superfund site, since it has been discovered that its “galbestos” siding is leaching PCBs into the
drains. As I reflected on the fate of the Navy dirigible program,
the geoengineers around the table were confidently
and enthusiastically promoting techniques of climate intervention
that were more than several steps beyond what
might be called state of the art, with implications not simply
for a handful of airship crewmen but for every one of the
6.5 billion inhabitants of the planet.
Ultimate control of the weather and climate excites
some of our wildest fantasies and our greatest fears.
Throughout history, we mortals have tried to protect ourselves
against harsh weather. But weather control was
reserved for the ancient sky gods. Now the power has seemingly
devolved to modern Titans: the climate engineers. We
are undoubtedly facing an uncertain climate future. With
rising temperatures, increasing emissions of greenhouse
gases, and a growing world population, we may be on the
verge of a worldwide climate crisis. What shall we do?
Doing nothing or too little is clearly wrong, but so is doing
too much.
Largely unaware of the long and checkered history of
weather and climate control and the political and ethical
challenges it poses, or somehow considering themselves
exempt, the new Titans consider themselves heroic pioneers,
the first generation capable of alleviating or averting natural
disasters. They are largely oblivious to the history of the
charlatans and sincere but deluded scientists and engineers
who preceded them. If we fail to heed the lessons of
Robert St. George Dyrenforth claimed success after his federally funded rainmaking mission to Texas in 1891, but in this cartoon from a local magazine
he is shown ordering his assistants to speed up: “Here’s a telegram announcing a storm. If we don’t hurry, it will be on before we raise our racket.”
Spring 2007 ¦ Wilson Quarterly 51
The Climate Engineers
that history, and fail to bring history’s perspectives to bear
in thinking about public policy, we risk repeating the mistakes
of the past, in a game with much higher stakes.
Three stories (there are many more) capture the
recurring pathologies of weather and climate control
schemes. The first involves 19th-century proposals
by the U.S. government’s first meteorologist and
other “pluviculturalists” to make artificial rain and relieve
drought conditions in the American West. The second
begins in 1946 with promising discoveries in cloud seeding
that rapidly devolved into exaggerated claims and attempts
by cold warriors to weaponize the technique in the jungles
of Vietnam. The third story describes how computer modeling
raised hopes for perfect forecasting and ultimate control
of weather and climate—themes that continue to inform
and encourage present-day
planetary engineers.
James Pollard Espy
(1785–1860), the first meteorologist
employed by the
U.S. government, was a
frontier schoolmaster and
lawyer until he moved to
Philadelphia in 1817. There
he supported himself by
teaching mathematics and
classics part-time while
devoting himself to meteorological research. Working
through the American Philosophical Society and the
Franklin Institute, Espy gained the support of Pennsylvania’s
legislature to equip weather observers in each county in the
state with barometers, thermometers, and other standard
instruments to provide a larger, synoptic picture of the
weather, especially the passage of storms.
Espy viewed the atmosphere as a giant heat engine.
According to his thermal theory of storms, all atmospheric
disturbances, including thunderstorms, hurricanes, and
winter storms, are driven by “steam power.” Heated by the
sun, a column of air rises, allowing the surrounding air to
rush in. As the heated air ascends, it cools and its moisture
condenses, releasing its latent heat (this is the “steam”) and
producing rain, hail, or snow. The thermal theory is now an
accepted part of meteorology, and for this discovery Espy is
well regarded in the history of science.
His stature has been diminished, however, by his unbridled
enthusiasm for artificial rainmaking. Espy suggested
cutting and burning vast tracts of forest to create huge
columns of heated air, believing this would generate clouds
and trigger precipitation. “Magnificent Humbug” was one
contemporary assessment. Espy came to be known derisively
as the “Storm King,” but he was not deterred.
Seeking a larger stage for his storm studies and rainmaking
proposals, Espy moved in 1842 to Washington,
D.C., where he was funded by the Navy and employed as the
“national meteorologist” by the Army Medical Department.
This position afforded him access to the meteorological
reports of surgeons at Army posts around the country. He
also collaborated with Joseph Henry at the Smithsonian
Institution to establish and maintain a national network of
volunteer weather observers.
The year Espy moved to Washington, the popular magazine
writer Eliza Leslie published a short story in Godey’s
Lady’s Book called “The Rain King, or, A Glance at the
Next Century,” a fanciful account of rainmaking set in 1942
in Philadelphia, in which Espy’s great-great-grand-nephew
offers weather for the Delaware Valley on demand. Various
factions vie for the weather they desire. Three hundred
washerwomen petition the Rain King for fine weather forever,
while cabmen and umbrella makers want perpetual
rain. An equal number of applications come from both the
fair- and foul-weather factions, until the balance is tipped
by a late request from a winsome high-society matron desperately
seeking a hard rain to prevent a visit by her countrybumpkin
cousins that would spoil the lavish party she is
Of course, when the artificial rains come, they satisfy no
one and raise widespread suspicions. The Rain King, suddenly
unpopular because he lacks the miraculous power to
WEATHER CONTROL was a power once
reserved for the ancient sky gods, but has
seemingly devolved to modern Titans: the
climate engineers.
52 Wilson Quarterly ¦ Spring 2007
The Climate Engineers
please everybody, takes a steamboat to China, where he studies
magic in anticipation of returning someday. “Natural
rains had never occasioned anything worse than submissive
regret to those who suffered inconvenience from them, and
were always received more in sorrow than in anger,” Leslie
wrote. “But these artificial rains were taken more in anger
than in sorrow, by all who did not want them.”
Although Leslie had identified the fundamental political
pitfalls of manufactured weather, the enthusiasm for pluviculture
was just beginning. During the Civil War, some
began to suspect that the smoke and concussion of artillery
fire generated rain. After all, didn’t it tend to rain a day, or
two, or three following most battles? Skeptics wondered
whether generals simply preferred to fight under fair skies,
with rainy days therefore tending naturally to follow, and
some pointed out that Plutarch had noticed the correlation
between battles and rainfall long before the invention of gunpowder.
Nevertheless, in 1871 retired Civil War general
Edward Powers argued in favor of cannonading in his book
War and the Weather, or, The Artificial Production of Rain,
andCongress granted him $2,500 to test his plan under the
direction of the secretaries of war and the navy. The results
were inconclusive.
Two decades later, the publication of the second edition
of Powers’s book coincided with a severe and prolonged
western drought, prompting a congressional appropriation
of $10,000 for a new series of field experiments. Secretary
of Agriculture Jeremiah Rusk, nominally in charge
of both this project and the newly formed U.S. Weather
Bureau, chose as the lead investigator Robert St. George
Dyrenforth, a flamboyant patent lawyer from Washington,
D.C., who possessed no scientific or military experience.
Dyrenforth arrived in Texas in August during a severe
drought, but also conveniently at the traditional (and commonly
noted) onset of the Texas rainy season. He brought
an arsenal of explosives, including bombs, cannon, and
hydrogen balloons, to be detonated at various altitudes,
and engaged in what one observer called “a beautiful imitation
of a battle.” After several months of assaults on the
heavens, it did indeed rain. Dyrenforth claimed victory,
concluding that his practical skills, combined with his use
of special explosives “to keep the weather in an unsettled
condition,” could cause or at least enhance precipitation—
when conditions were favorable! Dyrenforth warned that
bombarding the sky in dry weather, however, would be
fruitless, since his technique could stimulate clouds and precipitation
but not create them.
The Nation, which criticized the government for wasting
tax dollars, observed that the effect of the explosion of
a 10-foot hydrogen balloon on aerial currents would be
less than “the effect of the jump of one vigorous flea upon a
thousand-ton steamship running at a speed of twenty
knots.” But if there is one lesson from the long history of
efforts to modify the weather and climate, it is that neither
common sense criticism nor flops deter geoengineers.
Just over 100 years after Espy arrived in Washington,
another seminal episode in the history of weather and
climate control began at the General Electric
Research Laboratory in Schenectady, New York. On a
warm, humid day in 1946, a laboratory technician named
Vincent Schaefer dropped some dry ice into a home freezer
unit he was using as a cloud chamber. To his surprise, he saw
the moisture in his breath instantly transform into millions
of tiny ice crystals. He had generated the ice cloud from
“supercooled” water droplets. As Schaefer recalled, “It was
a serendipitous event, and I was smart enough to figure out
just what happened. . . . I knew I had something pretty
important.” Soon after, another member of the GE team,
Bernard Vonnegut of MIT, discovered that silver iodide
smoke also “caused explosive ice growth” in supercooled
On November 14, 1946, Schaefer rented an airplane and
dropped six pounds of dry ice pellets into a cold cloud over
Mount Greylock in the nearby Berkshires, creating ice crystals
and streaks of snow along a three-mile path. According
to Schaefer’s laboratory notebook, “It seemed as though [the
cloud] almost exploded, the effect was so widespread and
rapid.” Schaefer’s boss was Nobel laureate Irving Langmuir,
a chemist who had worked on generating military
smoke screens and aircraft icing in World War II—and
who did not lack for media savvy. Langmuir watched the
experiment from the control tower of the airport, and he was
on the phone to the press before Schaefer landed. According
to an article in The New York Times the next day, “A single
pellet of dry ice, about the size of a pea . . . might produce
enough ice nuclei to develop several tons of snow,” or perhaps
eliminate clouds at airports that might cause dangerous
icing conditions, thus, in the words of the story’s headline,
“Opening Vista of Moisture Control by Man.” The
Boston Globe headline read “Snowstorm Manufactured.”

Spring 2007 ¦ Wilson Quarterly 53
The Climate Engineers
From this moment on, in the press and before the meteorological
community, Langmuir expounded his sensational
vision of large-scale weather control, including redirecting
hurricanes and changing the arid Southwest into
fertile farmland. His first paper on the subject used familiar
military terminology to explain how a small amount of
“nucleating” agent such as dry ice, silver iodide, or even water
could cause a “chain reaction” in cumulus clouds that potentially
could release as much energy as an atomic bomb, but
without radioactive fallout. The Department of Defense took
due note. It would take an intense interest in the military
possibilities of weather modification in the years ahead.
Ironically, in 1953, at the very same time Langmuir was
involved in making exaggerated and highly dubious claims
for the efficacy of weather and climate modification, he
presented a seminar at GE titled “Pathological Science,” or
Vincent Schaefer reenacts the chance 1946 discovery that sparked fresh weather-control experiments as Irving Langmuir (left) and Bernard Vonnegut watch.
54 Wilson Quarterly ¦ Spring 2007
The Climate Engineers
“the science of things that aren’t so.” Yet there is hardly any
scientific foundation for most claims about weather modification.
Cloud seeding apparently can augment “orographic”
precipitation (which falls on the windward side of
mountains) by up to 10 percent. It is also possible to clear
cold fogs and suppress frost with heaters in very small
areas. That is the extent of what has been proved. Nevertheless,
millions are still spent on cloud seeding today,
largely by local water and power companies.
About the time Langmuir was giving his seminar, the
great futurist and science-fiction writer H. G. Wells toured
the GE labs, and the young
publicist who escorted him
tried to interest the great
writer in its weather control
research. Wells gave a lukewarm
response. The young
man was Bernard Vonnegut’s
brother, Kurt, and he took up
the subject himself in the
novel Cat’s Cradle (1963), in
which a quirky and amoral
scientist named Felix
Hoenikker, loosely modeled
on both Irving Langmuir and
Edward Teller, invents a substance
called “ice-nine” that
instantly freezes water and
remains solid at room temperature.
Hoenikker’s intent
is to create a material that
would be useful to armies
bogged down in muddy battlefields,
but the result is an
unprecedented ecological
disaster. Ironically, Vonnegut
got the idea of ice-nine from
Langmuir, who suggested it
to Wells as a story idea.
Weather modification
technology seemed of such
great potential, especially to
military aviation, that Vannevar
Bush, a friend of Langmuir’s
who had served as
head of the Office of Scientific
Research and Development during World War II, brought
the issue to the attention of Secretary of Defense George C.
Marshall and General Omar Bradley, chairman of the Joint
Chiefs of Staff. The Pentagon immediately convened a committee
to study the development of a Cold War weather
weapon. It was hoped that cloud seeding could be used surreptitiously
to release the violence of the atmosphere against
an enemy, tame the winds in the service of an all-weather
air force, or, on a larger scale, perhaps disrupt (or improve)
the agricultural economy of nations and alter the global climate
for strategic purposes. Military planners generated
Experiments with cloud seeding during the Cold War inspired fantastic predictions about America’s ability
to control the weather, as in this 1954 article, and use it as a weapon against its communist adversaries.
Spring 2007 ¦ Wilson Quarterly 55
The Climate Engineers
strategic scenarios such as hindering the enemy’s military
campaigns by causing heavy rains or snows to fall along lines
of troop movement and on vital airfields, or using controlled
precipitation as a delivery system for biological and
radiological agents. Tactical possibilities included dissipating
cloud decks to enable visual bombing attacks on targets,
opening airfields closed by low clouds or fog, and relieving
aircraft icing.
Some in the military had already recognized the potential
uses of weather modification, and the subject has
remained on military minds
ever since. In the 1940s,
General George C. Kenney,
commander of the Strategic
Air Command, declared,
“The nation which first
learns to plot the paths of air
masses accurately and learns
to control the time and place
of precipitation will dominate
the globe.” His opinion was echoed in 1961 by the distinguished
aviator-engineer Rear Admiral Luis De Florez:
“With control of the weather the operations and economy
of an enemy could be disrupted. . . . [Such control] in a cold
war would provide a powerful and subtle weapon to injure
agricultural production, hinder commerce and slow down
industry.” He urged the government to “start now to make
control of weather equal in scope to the Manhattan . . . Project
which produced the first A-bomb.”
Pursuing this theme, Howard Orville, President Dwight
D. Eisenhower’s weather adviser, published an influential
1954 article in Collier’s that included scenarios for using
weather as a weapon of warfare. Planes would drop hundreds
of balloons containing seeding crystals into the jet
stream. Downstream, when the fuses on the balloons
exploded, the crystals would fall into the clouds, initiating
rain and miring enemy operations. The Army Ordnance
Corps was investigating another technique: loading silver
iodide and carbon dioxide into 50-caliber tracer bullets
that pilots could fire into clouds. A more insidious technique
would strike at an adversary’s food supply by seeding clouds
to rob them of moisture before they reached enemy agricultural
areas. Speculative and wildly optimistic ideas such
as these from official sources, together with threats that the
Soviets were aggressively pursuing weather control, triggered
what Newsweekcalled “ a weather race with the Russians,”
and helped fuel the rapid expansion of meteorological
research in all areas, including the creation of the
National Center for Atmospheric Research, which was
established in 1960.
Weather warfare took a macro-pathological turn
between 1967 and ’72 in the jungles over North
and South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.
Using technology developed at the naval weapons testing
center at China Lake, California, to seed clouds by means of
silver iodide flares, the military conducted secret operations
intended, among other goals, to “reduce trafficability” along
portions of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which Hanoi used to
move men and materiel to South Vietnam. Operating out
of Udorn Air Base, Thailand, without the knowledge of the
Thai government or almost anyone else, but with the full and
enthusiastic support of presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and
Richard M. Nixon, the Air Weather Service flew more than
2,600 cloud seeding sorties and expended 47,000 silver
iodide flares over a period of approximately five years at an
annual cost of some $3.6 million. The covert operation
had several names, including “POPEYE” and “Intermediary-
In March 1971, nationally syndicated columnist Jack
Anderson broke the story about Air Force rainmakers in
Southeast Asia in TheWashington Post, a story confirmed
several months later with the leaking of the Pentagon
Papers and splashed on the front page of The New York
Times in 1972 by Seymour Hersh. By 1973, despite
stonewalling by Nixon administration officials, the U.S.
Senate had adopted a resolution calling for an international
treaty “prohibiting the use of any environmental or
geophysical modification activity as a weapon of war.” The
following year, Senator Claiborne Pell (D.-R.I.), referring to
the field as a “Pandora’s box,” published the transcript of a
IN THE 1950s, the Pentagon convened a
committee to study the development of a
Cold War weather weapon.
56 Wilson Quarterly ¦ Spring 2007
The Climate Engineers
formerly top-secret briefing by the Defense Department on
the topic of weather warfare. Eventually, it was revealed that
the CIA had tried rainmaking in South Vietnam as early as
1963 in an attempt to disrupt the protests of Buddhist
monks, and that cloud seeding was probably used in Cuba
to disrupt the sugarcane harvest. Similar technology had
been employed, yet proved ineffective, in drought relief
efforts in India and Pakistan, the Philippines, Panama, Portugal,
and Okinawa. All of the programs were conducted
under military sponsorship and had the direct involvement
of the White House.
Operation POPEYE, made public as it was at the end of
the Nixon era, was dubbed the “Watergate of weather warfare.”
Some defended the use of environmental weapons,
arguing that they were more “humane” than nuclear
weapons. Others suggested that inducing rainfall to reduce
trafficability was preferable to dropping napalm. As one wag
put it, “Make mud, not war.” At a congressional briefing in
1974, military officials downplayed the impact of Operation
POPEYE, since the most that could be claimed were 10 percent
increases in local rainfall, and even that result was
“unverifiable.” Philip Handler, president of the National
Academy of Sciences, represented the mainstream of scientific
opinion when he observed, “It is grotesquely immoral
that scientific understanding and technological capabilities
developed for human welfare to protect the public health,
enhance agricultural productivity, and minimize the natural
violence of large storms should be so distorted as to
become weapons of war.”
At a time when the United States was already weakened
by the Watergate crisis, the Soviet Union caused considerable
embarrassment to the Ford administration by bringing
the issue of weather modification as a weapon of war to
the attention of the United Nations. The UN Convention on
the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental
Modification Techniques (ENMOD) was eventually
ratified by nearly 70 nations, including the United
States. Ironically, it entered into force when the Lao People’s
Democratic Republic, where the American military had
used weather modification technology in war only six years
earlier, became the 20th signatory in 1978.
The language of the
ENMOD Convention may
become relevant to future
weather and climate engineering,
especially if it is conducted
unilaterally or if
harm befalls a nation or
region. The Convention targets
those techniques having
“widespread, longlasting
or severe effects as the means
of destruction, damage or
injury to any other State Party.” It uses the term “environmental
modification” to mean “any technique for
changing—through the deliberate manipulation of natural
processes—the dynamics, composition or structure of the
Earth, including its biota, lithosphere, hydrosphere and
atmosphere, or of outer space.”
Avision of perfect forecasting ultimately leading to
weather and climate control was present at the
birth of modern computing, well before the GE
cloud seeding experiments. In 1945 Vladimir Zworykin, an
RCA engineer noted for his early work in television technology,
promoted the idea that electronic computers could
be used to process and analyze vast amounts of meteorological
data, issue timely and highly accurate forecasts,
study the sensitivity of weather systems to alterations of surface
conditions and energy inputs, and eventually, intervene
in and control the weather and climate. He wrote:
The eventual goal to be attained is the international
organization of means to study weather phenomena as
global phenomena and to channel the world’s weather,
as far as possible, in such a way as to minimize the
damage from catastrophic disturbances, and otherwise
to benefit the world to the greatest extent by
improved climatic conditions where possible.
force flew more than 2,600 cloud seeding
sorties over the Ho Chi Minh trail to, as one
wag put it, “Make mud, not war.”
Spring 2007 ¦ Wilson Quarterly 57
The Climate Engineers
Zworykin imagined that a perfectly accurate
machine forecast combined with a paramilitary rapid
deployment force able literally to pour oil on troubled
ocean waters or even set fires or detonate bombs might
someday provide the capacity to disrupt storms before
they formed, deflect them from populated areas, and
otherwise control the weather.
John von Neumann, the multi-talented mathematician
extraordinaire at the Institute for Advanced
Study in Princeton, New Jersey, endorsed Zworykin’s
view, writing to him, “I agree with you completely. . . .
This would provide a basis for scientific approach[es]
to influencing the weather.” Using computer-generated
predictions, von Neumann wrote, weather and climate
systems “could be controlled, or at least directed,
by the release of perfectly practical amounts of energy”
or by “altering the absorption and reflection properties
of the ground or the sea or the atmosphere.” It was a
project that neatly fit von Neumann’s overall philosophy:
“All stable processes we shall predict. All unstable
processes we shall control.” Zworykin’s proposal was
also endorsed by the noted oceanographer Athelstan
Spilhaus, then a U.S. Army major, who ended his letter
of November 6, 1945, with these words: “In weather
control, meteorology has a new goal worthy of its greatest
In a 1962 speech to meteorologists, “On the Possibilities
of Weather Control,” Harry Wexler, the MITtrained
head of meteorological research at the U.S.
Weather Bureau, reported on his analysis of early computer
climate models and additional possibilities
opened up by the space age. Reminding his audience
that humankind was inadvertently modifying the
weather and climate “whether we know it or not” by
changing the composition of the earth’s atmosphere,
Wexler demonstrated how the United States or the
Soviet Union, perhaps with hostile intent, could alter
the earth’s climate in several different ways. Either
nation could cool it by several degrees using a dust ring
launched into orbit, for example, or warm it using ice
crystals lofted into the polar atmosphere by the explosion
of hydrogen bombs. And while most practicing
atmospheric chemists today believe that the discovery
of ozone-destroying reactions dates to the early 1970s,
Wexler sketched out a scenario for destroying the
ozone layer using several hundred thousand tons of
chlorine or bromine in his 1962 speech.
“The subject of weather and climate control is now
becoming respectable to talk about,” Wexler claimed,
apparently hoping to reduce the prospects of a geophysical
arms race. He cited Soviet premier Nikita
Khrushchev’s mention of weather control in an address
to the Supreme Soviet and a 1961 speech to the United
Nations by President John F. Kennedy in which he proposed
“cooperative efforts between all nations in weather
prediction and eventually in weather control.” Wexler
was actually the source of Kennedy’s suggestions, and
had worked on it behind the scenes with the President’s
Scientific Advisory Committee and the U.S. State
Department. If weather control’s “respectability” was
not in question, its attainability—even using computers,
satellites, and 100-megaton bombs—certainly was.
In 1965, the President’s Science Advisory Committee
warned in a report called Restoring the
Quality of Our Environment that increases in
atmospheric CO2 due to the burning of fossil fuels
would modify the earth’s heat balance to such an
extent that harmful changes in climate could occur.
This report is now widely cited as the first official
statement on “global warming.” But the committee
also recommended geoengineering options. “The possibilities
of deliberately bringing about countervailing
climatic changes . . . need to be thoroughly
explored,” it said. As an illustration, it pointed out
that, in a warming world, the earth’s solar reflectivity
could be increased by dispersing buoyant reflective
particles over large areas of the tropical sea at an
annual cost, not considered excessive, of about $500
million. This technology might also inhibit hurricane
formation. No one thought to consider the side
effects of particles washing up on tropical beaches or
choking marine life, or the negative consequences of
redirecting hurricanes, much less other effects
beyond our imagination. And no one thought to ask
if the local inhabitants would be in favor of such
schemes. The committee also speculated about modifying
high-altitude cirrus clouds to counteract the
effects of increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide. It
failed to mention the most obvious option: reducing
fossil fuel use.
58 Wilson Quarterly ¦ Spring 2007
The Climate Engineers
After the embarrassment of the 1978 ENMOD
Convention, federal funding for weather modification
research and development dried up, although freelance
rainmakers continued to ply their trade in the
American West with state and local funding. Until
recently, a 1992 National Academy of Sciences report,
Policy Implications of Greenhouse Warming, was the
only serious document in decades advocating climate
control. But the level of urgency and the number
of proposals have increased dramatically since the
turn of the new century
In September 2001, the U.S. Climate Change
Technology Program quietly held an invitational conference,
“Response Options to Rapid or Severe Climate
Change.” Sponsored by a White House that was
officially skeptical about greenhouse warming, the
meeting gave new status to the control fantasies of the
climate engineers. According to one participant, “If
they had broadcast that meeting live to people in
Europe, there would have been riots.”
Two years later, the Pentagon released a controversial
report titled An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario
and Its Implications for United States National
Security. The report explained how global warming
might lead to rapid and catastrophic global cooling
through mechanisms such as the slowing of North
Atlantic deep-water circulation—and recommended
that the government “explore geoengineering options
that control the climate.” Noting that it is easier to
warm than cool the climate, the report suggested
that it might be possible to add various gases, such as
hydrofluorocarbons, to the atmosphere to offset the
effects of cooling. Such actions would be studied
carefully, of course, given their potential to exacerbate
conflict among nations.
With greater gravitas, but no less speculation, the
National Research Council (NRC) issued a study,
Critical Issues in Weather Modification Research, in
2003. It cited looming social and environmental
challenges such as water shortages and drought,
property damage and loss of life from severe storms,
and the threat of “inadvertent” climate change as
justifications for investing in major new national and
international programs in weather modification
research. Although the NRC study included acknowledgment
that there is “no convincing scientific proof
of the efficacy of intentional weather modification
efforts,” its authors nonetheless believed that there
should be “a renewed commitment” in the field of
intentional and unintentional weather modification.
The absence of such proof after decades of efforts
has not deterred governments here and abroad
from a variety of ill-advised or simply fanciful
undertakings. The NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts,
for example, has provided $475,000 for atmospheric
scientist Ross Hoffman’s research on beaming
satellite-based microwaves at hurricanes as a means of
redirecting them—as if it were possible to know where
a storm was originally headed or that its new path
would not lead straight to calamity. In 2005, Senator
Kay Bailey Hutchison (R.-Texas) introduced legislation
“to develop and implement a comprehensive and coor-
In China’s active cloud-seeding efforts,anti-aircraft guns are used to shoot
silver iodide crystals into the atmosphere. Beijing promises an intensive
effort to clear the skies when the city hosts the Olympics in 2008.

Spring 2007 ¦ Wilson Quarterly 59
The Climate Engineers
dinated national weather modification research policy
and a national cooperative Federal and State program
of weather modification and development.” (Significantly,
the Texas Department of Agriculture already
supports weather modification programs covering onefifth
of the state.) And China has announced that its
Study Institute for Artificial Influence on the Weather
will attempt to manipulate Beijing’s weather by cloud
seeding in order to ensure optimum conditions for
the 2008 Olympics.
With great fanfare, atmospheric chemist Paul J.
Crutzen, winner of a 1995 Nobel Prize for his work on
the chemistry of ozone depletion, proposed to cool the
earth by injecting reflective aerosols or other substances
into the tropical stratosphere using balloons or
artillery. He estimated that more than five million
metric tons of sulfur per year would be needed to do the
job, at an annual cost of more than $125 billion. The
effect would emulate the 1991 eruption of Mount
Pinatubo in the Philippines, which covered the earth
with a cloud of sulfuric acid and other sulfates and
caused a drop in the planet’s average temperature of
about 0.5°C for about two years. Unfortunately, Mount
Pinatubo may also have contributed to the largest
ozone hole ever measured. The volcanic eruption was
also blamed for causing cool, wet summers, shortening
the growing season, and exacerbating the flooding of
the Mississippi River and the ongoing drought in the
Sahel region of Africa.
Overall, the cooling caused by Mount Pinatubo’s
eruption temporarily suppressed the greenhouse
warming effect and was stronger than the influence of
the El Niño event that occurred at the same time.
Crutzen merely noted that if a Mount Pinatubo-scale
eruption were emulated every year or two, undesired
side effects and ozone losses should not be “as large,”
but some whitening of the sky and colorful sunsets and
sunrises would occur. His “interesting alternative”
method would be to release soot particles to create
minor “nuclear winter” conditions.
Crutzen later said that he had only reluctantly proposed
his planetary “shade,” mostly to “startle” political
leaders enough to spur them to more serious efforts
to curb greenhouse-gas emissions. But he may well
have produced the opposite effect. The appeal of a
quick and seemingly painless technological “fix” for the
global climate dilemma should not be underestimated.
The more practical such dreams appear, the less likely
the world’s citizens and political leaders are to take on
the difficult and painful task of changing the destiny
that global climate models foretell.
These issues are not new. In 1956, F. W. Reichelderfer,
then chief of the U.S. Weather Bureau,
delivered an address to the National Academy
of Sciences, “Importance of New Concepts in Meteorology.”
Reacting to the widespread theorizing and
speculation on the possibilities of weather and climate
control at the time, he pointed out that the crucial
issue was “practicability” rather than “possibility.” In
1956 it was possible to modify a cloud with dry ice or
silver iodide, yet it was impossible to predict what the
cloud might do after seeding and impracticable to
claim any sense of control over the weather. This is still
true today. Yet thanks to remarkable advances in science
and technology, from satellite sensors to enormously
sophisticated global climate models, the fantasies
of the weather and climate engineers have only
grown. Today it is possible to tinker with possibilities
in computer climate models—manipulating the solar
inputs, for example, to demonstrate that artificially
increased solar reflectivity will generate a cooling trend
in the model.
But this is a far cry from conducting a practical
global field experiment or operational program with
proper data collection and analysis; full accounting for
possible liabilities, unintended consequences, and litigation;
and the necessary international support and
approval. Lowell Wood blithely declares that, if implemented,
his proposal to turn the polar icecap into a
planetary air conditioner could be halted after a few
years if it didn’t work according to plan. He doesn’t
mention what harm such a failure could cause in the
There are signs among the geoengineers of an overconfidence
in technology as a solution of first resort, in
an overly literal belief in progress leading to an
anything-is-possible mentality, abetted by a basic misunderstanding
of the nature of today’s climate models.
The global climate system is a “massive, staggering
beast,” as oceanographer Wallace Broecker describes it,
60 Wilson Quarterly ¦ Spring 2007
The Climate Engineers
with no simple set of controlling parameters. We are
more than a long way from understanding how it
works, much less the precise prediction and practical
“control” of global climate.
Assume, for just a moment, that climate control
were technically possible. Who would be given the
authority to manage it? Who would have the wisdom
to dispense drought, severe winters, or the effects of
storms to some so that the rest of the planet could prosper?
At what cost, economically, aesthetically, and in
our moral relationship to nature, would we manipulate
the climate?
These questions are never seriously contemplated
by self-proclaimed wizards of climate who dream of
mastery over nature. If, as history shows, fantasies of
weather and climate control have chiefly served commercial
and military interests, why should we expect
the future to be different? Have you noticed all the cannons?
From Dyrenforth’s cannonading in Texas to
Crutzen’s artillery barrage of the stratosphere, military
means and ends have been closely intertwined with
thinking about control of the weather and climate. In
1996 the U.S. Air Force resurrected the old Cold War
speculation about using weather modification for military
purposes, claiming that “in 2025, U.S. aerospace
forces can ‘own the weather’ by capitalizing on emerging
technologies and focusing development of those
technologies to war-fighting applications.” In addition
to conventional cloud seeding methods, the Air Force
visionaries proposed computer hacking to disrupt an
enemy’s weather monitors and models and the use of
nanotechnology to create clouds of particles that could
block an enemy’s optical sensors. Hurricanes were also
fair game for weaponization. The Air Force pointed out
that weather modification, unlike other approaches,
“makes what are otherwise the results of deliberate
actions appear to be the consequences of natural
weather phenomena.”
Given such mindsets, it is virtually impossible to
imagine that the world’s powers would resist the temptation
to explore the military uses of any potentially
climate-altering technology.
When Roger Angel was asked at the NASA
meeting last November how he intended to
get the massive amount of material
required for his space mirrors into orbit, he dryly suggested
a modern cannon
of the kind originally proposed
for the Strategic
Defense Initiative: a giant
electric rail gun firing a
ton or so of material into
space roughly every five
minutes. Asked where
such a device might be
sited, he suggested a high
mountain top on the
Equator. I was immediately
reminded of Jules Verne’s 1889 novel The Purchase
of the North Pole. For two cents per acre, a group
of American investors gain rights to the vast and incredibly
lucrative coal and mineral deposits under the North
Pole. To mine the region, they propose to melt the polar
ice. Initially the project captures the public imagination,
as the backers promise that their scheme will improve
the climate everywhere by reducing extremes of cold and
heat, making the earth a terrestrial heaven. But when it
is revealed that the investors are retired Civil War
artillerymen who intend to change the inclination of the
earth’s axis by building and firing the world’s largest
cannon, public enthusiasm gives way to fears that tidal
waves generated by the explosion will kill millions. In
secrecy and haste , the protagonists proceed with their
plan, building the cannon on Mount Kilimanjaro. The
scheme fails only when an error in calculation renders
the massive shot ineffective. Verne concludes, “The
world’s inhabitants could thus sleep in peace.” Perhaps
he spoke too soon. ¦

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