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Back in 1950s weather modification was mainly concerned with making rain for farmers, but that didn’t stop scientists from dreaming big about how to control earth’s climates. The thinking then was to use any means possible to tame nature, from spreading oil or other pollutants on vast areas of the ocean, to using nuclear heaters to warm the Arctic, spraying chemicals into the atmosphere, and mounting reflectors in the ionosphere to beam more of the sun’s heat to the earth. All these technologies would be used for the good of mankind if the United States was in charge, but what if the hated and feared Russians got to them first?
Russia Trumps the US with Sputnik
Russia’s designs on weather modification hadn’t been much of a concern until they surprised the world by being the first to launch a satellite, Sputnik, into space in 1957. Suddenly, using satellites to control climate became closer to possible, and also a potential threat to America.
President Eisenhower had formed the President’s Advisory Committee on Weather Control with retired Navy aerologist Capt. H.T. Orville at the helm. The committee’s focus was on artificial rainmaking, but after Sputnik, weather control began to be viewed in terms of national security.
“I shudder to think of the consequences of a prior Russian discovery of a feasible method of weather control,” Dr. Henry G. Houghton, chairman of the Department of Meteorology at MIT, said.
A year after Sputnik, Capt. Oroville wrote articles in several popular magazines about the need to fund a National Institute of Atmospheric Research so the U.S. could gain ground on controlling the climate. The tone of his articles fluctuates from stirring up fear and suspicions of the Russians to stimulating futuristic ideals of a better life for all. His articles are a great example of Military-Industrial-Complex propaganda.
“If an unfriendly nation solves the problem of weather control and gets into the position to control the large-scale weather patterns before we can, the results could be even more disastrous than nuclear warfare,” he warned in the Pasadena Star-News.
What Else Might Russia Do?
In an article that appeared in the Saturday Evening Post in 1958, Orville discussed Russia’s interests in weather modification and how it could spell disaster for major cities around the world. For example, a soviet representative had told the National Academy of Scientists that Russia was interested in modifying the climate of the Arctic and sub Arctic across Siberia to the Bering Strait. One method of moderating the weather in Siberia would be to dam the Ob and Yenisey Rivers and create a large inland sea. The dams were subsequently built, and according to Wikipedia, the Ob dam significantly influences local climate.
“But it is possible to do much better than that,” Capt. Orville wrote. “Thermocuclear plants can be built to act like giant furnaces and heat large bodies of water. Such plants would speed the evaporation of the water and cause the average temperature to rise even faster. In this manner, a very large area of snowy wasteland might be made habitable and productive.”
Productive or not, Orville noted, Siberia’s climate affects weather around the world and he suspected such modifications might cause higher temperatures and flooding in major population centers.
The main concern of the Americans was that whatever Russia did to improve its own situation could cause dire consequences for others. Dr. Edward Teller, father of the H-bomb, said Russian projects promoted as peaceful internal activities could cause us to “become a second class power without war if the Russians succeeded in controlling the weather to produce needed rain over their own territory and deprive us of necessary moisture.”
American Weather Modification is Okay
Meanwhile, the Americans were proposing all kinds of radical ideas that could negatively impact everyone else. The President’s Advisory Committee on Weather Control was not concerned with protecting the planet. They were looking into purposely warming up Alaska, Scotland, Norway, Siberia and other northern regions, realizing all the while that if the Arctic icecap melted, the lower floors of New York’s skyscraper might flood.
Capt. Orville’s article admitted that rockets were being used to change the upper atmosphere by spraying chemicals into it, which was expected to have far reaching climate modification possibilities that could stop droughts in the Plains States.
A technique for ground warming experimented with by the U.S. in Alaska, was to melt snow and ice by sprinkling coal dust or some other dark pigment over it. The Russians, it is said, used the same technique to grow vegetables, flowers and grasses on experimental farms north of the Arctic Circle.
While there was no regard for ecological impacts from such programs, other than flooding from melting ice caps, Capt. Oroville did recognize that global warming was being caused by the burning of fossil fuels, as noted by Dr. Joseph Kaplan, head of the United States Committee for the International Geophysical Year.
Nevertheless, his attitude is that weather can and should be modified, mainly to warm the globe for agriculture and to tame destructive storms. Any melting of Arctic ice was seen as a boon because it would open a valuable sea lane through the Arctic. He seemed happy that “nature and man made smog already are doing the job for us.”
Harnessing the Ionosphere
Capt. Oroville also mentions “highly important” research that was being conducted by Dr. Bernard Vonnegut and Charles B. Moore in New Mexico on atmospheric electricity with the aim of learning how to establish artificial electrostatic fields. “This is actually a matter of changing the composition of the atmosphere–a basic principle of future weather control,” he wrote.
One experiment that was conducted with the help of the Air Force involved the spraying of vaporized sodium and nitric oxide from rockets over White Sands, New Mexico, causing a glow of brilliant colors in the night sky. In addition, the release of nitric oxide created an artificial ionized layer of atmosphere which temporarily bounced back radio signals more efficiently than the natural ionosphere.
Banning the Night
Seeing the brilliant colors in the night sky made the scientists speculate about banning the darkness of night from the earth with a dozen or so satellites that could amplify the “airglow” of the chemicals with ultraviolet light. Back on earth this would appear as “a set of artificial suns, lighting up the darkness until we could see just about as well as on a dark, cloudy day.”
The question was not whether or not such artificial suns would be made, it was just a matter of when. The only thing holding back these so-called advancements was information, and the deficit should be tackled by establishing a National Institute of Atmospheric Research with a capital investment of $50 million and annual budget of $15 million, as a start.
“Just what it would cost to beat the Russians to weather control is problematical, but it would be cheap if it cost no more than we spent to develop the atomic bomb–$2 billion…failure to keep ahead might mean disaster,” Orville wrote.
To learn more about the history of climate engineering:
The Saturday Evening Post, Nov. 28, 1958
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