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Dubious efforts to control the weather reveal the pitfalls of policy-led science

Make It Rain: State Control of the Atmosphere in Twentieth-Century America

Kristine C. Harper
University of Chicago Press
2017
327 pp.
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Clouds are notoriously unruly. Constant shapeshifters, they emerge only when conditions are just right to allow tiny water droplets to form around even smaller bits of dust, sea salt, or ice. The physics that governs their evanescent lives remains remarkably little understood, and much of the uncertainty in global climate- and weather-prediction models is due to the difficulty of reducing their bedeviling behavior to simple equations.

Make It Rain, Kristine Harper’s detailed history of weather control in the United States, reminds us that clouds have been objects of desire and frustration for some time. Her story of the messy interface between science and government policy unfolds across the 20th century, but it reaches its emotional crest in the 1950s. In that decade, fears of Soviet domination and dreams of drought-busting rain catalyzed government weather control projects motivated by utopian, if not Promethean, desires to use science and technology to benefit the American people.

Although she includes colorful details of cloud-seeding experiments, Harper’s story is not so much about attempts to control the weather as it is about the political battles waged over the harnessing of the atmosphere: the control of weather control itself. This makes the book heavy going at times, with government committees and departments appearing and disappearing like so many scudding clouds.

WHITESON/ISTOCKPHOTO

Cold War–era weather control experiments reverberate for today’s would-be climate engineers.

But Harper’s focus on government policy is what makes this study so worthwhile. Scientific facts, she demonstrates, were never central to weather control policies. When meteorologists were consulted, they usually replied that our basic physical understanding still fell far short of what was required to intervene in the weather in responsible or effective ways. More research, they argued, was needed before action could be taken.

Officials in the Departments of Interior and Defense, unfazed by these meteorological demurrals, looked elsewhere for scientific support. They found a few key figures willing to play the role of experts, including the mathematician and computer architect John von Neumann and Irving Langmuir, a Nobel laureate chemist employed by General Electric (GE).

Langmuir, who used supercooled GE freezers to simulate clouds, assumed that what worked in the laboratory would work in the atmosphere itself. After inconclusive field experiments in New Mexico, he made giddy reports that just a few pounds of dry ice or silver iodide could generate precipitation over thousands of square miles.

The truth was more complex and the prospects for actual control much less favorable. It was sometimes possible to coax water out of clouds that already existed. It was not possible to generate water—and clouds—where none existed. Yet such details, and the physical facts behind them, did remarkably little damage to government plans for harnessing the awesome power of the atmosphere.

Rather than revealing a history of what we might today call evidence-led policy, here is a rogue’s gallery of policy-led evidence. Drawing on the work of Brian Balogh, Harper calls such programs the workings of a “proministrative state,” in which a governing body sells the people services that the people have not, in fact, demanded and that the state cannot, in fact, provide.

After a series of relatively benign (and frequently unsuccessful) domestic projects during the 1950s, the United States debuted its weather control efforts on the world stage. Some interventions were peaceful, such as an attempt to mitigate drought in the Bihar region of India in 1967. Others were not. By the 1960s, militant uses for the weather were being undertaken, including a series of cloud-seeding operations used to generate landslides and flooding in Vietnam and Laos.

When these clandestine programs came to light in the early 1970s, the tide of public opinion turned decisively against weather control. Like nuclear energy, it had come to be seen as an unnatural use of nature’s power, which—like the evils in Pandora’s box—once released, could not be put back.
That was, more or less, the end of weather control in the 20th century, but we are far from finished grappling with this issue. The promise and peril of manipulating the climate—often called geoengineering—has recently become a critical subject of debate.

Harper rightly distinguishes the local applications of weather control from the global issues that geoengineering seeks to address. Much can nevertheless be learned from this endeavour, particularly with regard to how science can be used as a tool of the state.

About the author

The reviewer is the author of The Newton Papers: The Strange and True Odyssey of Isaac Newton’s Manuscripts (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2014).