Playing Thor

By Jack Flanagan on September 19th, 2013

In 2008, China hosted the Olympic games. The country was determined to establish itself firmly as an economic and cultural powerhouse. Nothing was allowed to go wrong: $40 billion dollars had gone into the organisation of the games, with 15,000 performers drafted in for the opening ceremony alone. No stone was left unturned.

So desperate were the organisers to make sure the day went off without a hitch, they were even prepared to manipulate the weather.

Making it rain

The Chinese were not the first to dream of controlling the elements. In fact, man has always aspired to control them: Scottish witches were said to sell “wind” in bottles to sailors, to open on a troubled voyage, and having the weather at man (or God’s) command features in the literature of just about every belief system on the planet. But it has only been in the last 50 years we’ve had the technology available to affect weather systems.

Scottish witches were said to sell ‘wind’ in bottles to sailors, to open on a troubled voyage.

In 2008, China’s Beijing Weather Modification Office planned to (and did) use what’s known as “cloud seeding”. Rain and snow fall once droplets have become too large to be held within the cloud. The science of cloud seeding has shown that if you provide a “nucleus” for the water droplets, you can make it rain.

During the Olympic Games, the Office did this with rocket launchers: they fired silver iodide, a powdery yellow metal compound, into the clouds outside the city. Rain collects around the powder, becoming heavy and falling as rain. Beijing used this technique in surrounding areas to ensure that the city and the Olympic stadia were not rained on.

There are other methods of cloud seeding, but they all centre on this idea of creating a nucleus for water droplets. It’s not a new idea: the use of powders as nuclei, has been around since the 1940s – the science of which Kurt Vonnegut’s brother, Bernard, played no small part in developing.

Back then the technique was in its infancy, and the resources didn’t exist to use it on a scale that mattered – for example, to prevent drought or create energy for hydropower. Now, the US, China and Australia, to name a few, use this technology for agriculture and to create sustainable energy, manipulating the time and volume of rainfall.

This month, China “boosted” its weather intervention program. Their plan is: for the North, Central and Southeastern provinces, to guarantee the wheat crop and protect drought-affected areas. Rain or snow can also be recycled for hydropower. Plus, the weather can be tinkered with the prevent the damage wrought by rainstorms, hail and fog.

A similar strategy is being deployed in Tasmania, collecting rain for hydropower and quenching Tasmania’s notorious thirst for water. The results of these initiatives are being waited upon, but it the prognosis is good given prior successes in the US.

Cloud seeding has its fair share of detractors. First of all, the main seeding compound, silver iodide, is slightly toxic. The amount of powder dispersed is so small that it’s unlikely – in the short term – to have any effect. But it is a concern, on that has been raised by Greenpeace and other green lobbies, what the long-term effects of weather modification might be.

These problems are of major concern to researchers – although real world economic pressures, like successful crop harvests, generally outweigh theoretical dangers, which may never materialise. Especially when the rewards are as crucial as better food yields and more sustainable energy.

But if manipulating rain makes some people concerned, imagine how they feel about man’s attempts to snuff out hurricanes and tornadoes.

Eye of the storm

Not surprisingly: you don’t have to imagine. In the 1960s, the US Government launched a scientific panel on just this subject, giving it the code name “Stormfury”. Stormfury’s mandate was to experiment with storms and find the best ways to neutralise a hurricane. It was a field operation: they flew aircraft towards forming storms and hurricanes (where available), and they used the same method as cloud seeding: they released silver iodide particles into forming clouds.

Stormfury’s mandate was to experiment with storms and find the best ways to neutralise a hurricane.

A hurricane’s ferocity comes in large part from the heat released when water vapour condenses over the cold water in the ocean. It was thought that if that process was sped up – i.e. water condenses, clouds form and it begins to rain – the resulting hurricane would be less intense.

It wasn’t very successful, probably due to a lack of understanding of storm formations, and where best to deploy the powder. So new ideas for “disrupting” hurricanes focuses on creating computer simulations of how a hurricane will behave, and acting on those, once again with our old friend silver iodide.

The simulations obviously have a great theoretical use in understanding storm systems and how we can affect them: a team at AER (Atmospheric and Environmental Research) found that the starting temperature and the way the wind is blowing are big determiners of how a hurricane will later behave.

When it comes to handling a hurricane, however, there are quite a few practical difficulties. As you might imagine, inside a hurricane is pure chaos, and the radio waves used to predict how it will behave are affected by all the particles of grit and hail in the tempest.

Also, storm systems are incredibly complex and interconnected, as is true of most weather, so any error at the beginning of a storm cycle will magnify very quickly. If you’re wrong, chances are you’ll become very wrong within a short space of time. This, perhaps, is a difficulty that will impede our ability to control storms: how unpredictable they are.

The nuclear option

Another idea some have toyed with, for hurricanes as well as tornados, is a targeted nuclear warhead strike.

That is true, at least, for the relatively small-scale ideas like cloud seeding. For the truly imaginative: there have been a host of larger-scale plans put forward. For example, using aircraft or satellites to heat the air inside or just in front of a hurricane with radio waves. In effect, microwaving the hurricane, to disrupt the air currents. Another idea some have toyed with, for hurricanes as well as tornados, is a targeted nuclear warhead strike.

Nuking a tornado, one of the more eccentric and potentially controversial suggestions, provides a segue to the social and political tensions that have arisen from weather control. Uncertainties, like the toxicity of silver iodide, or how speeding up rainfall affects other areas, surround these projects. It’s not just the actual technology: the systems are incredibly large.

The water cycle – the movement of water through soil, the atmosphere and everything in between – moves very slowly. This means if we’re doing damage by tampering with it, the effects may not be felt immediately. Furthermore, the complexity of these systems is unfathomable. Struggles to assess the speed, human impact on and even veracity of climate change show how little man understands these processes.

Weather as a weapon

The world’s governments have been considering a future in which weather modification is a daily reality, especially as it relates to warfare. Altering a country’s weather can impair technology, affect the terrain (turning soil to mud) and can create ground and air conditions soldiers aren’t trained for.

During the Vietnam War, Operation Popeye was launched using a specialist squadron, tasked with “making mud, not war”. The intention was to turn the Vietcong’s supply routes into an unnavigable quagmire. The mission was a success. But another operation, named Ivory Coast, occurring at the same time, was intended to rescue PoWs in a nearby camp.

The heavy rain from Popeye prompted the Vietcong to move the prisoners from the affected camp to a drier area, botching Coast’s objectives. Although the science was young back in those days, this small example suggests at the potential for naive use of a very powerful technology.

Weather modification in warfare, incidentally, is now forbidden by the United Nations Convention.

Agitators

Most of the complaints made about research into weather modification come from conspiracy theorists. These are often more unintentionally comic than disturbingly critical.

You can’t help but smile at a mother pleased with herself for dispersing – with vinegar – the “chemtrails” that haunt her and her son’s back yard vista. Chemtrails, the white lines left in an aeroplane’s wake, can be left by any flying craft, and although they can come after a cloud seeding operation, there’s nothing to say they cause damage, give you headaches or cause any paranoia that wasn’t already there.

The criticisms from conspiracy theorists, however, are relevant in one way to weather modification. The science and technology are still very new, but the concepts themselves are old. Perhaps it’s the awe-inspiring promise of controlling the elements or the idea of playing God.

Either way, much of the real research in weather control has been mixed with futurism and wishful thinking: for example, nuke blasts to disrupt air currents. The feverish imaginings of military top brass can sometimes give the impression of a sci-fi adventure, not a scientific or technological endeavour.

Still, it has provided drought-affected areas with significant successes: the US, whose technology in this field is at the cutting edge, has seen sizeable increases in crop yields since weather remodelling began. But it is China, who have put the most money into weather modification and who are just starting to deploy it on a national scale, who may prove to be the greatest testing ground for the real-world effectiveness of this awe-inspiring technology.

As incredible as this science is, and as far as we’ve come in understanding the weather and how to manipulate it, we’re left with a lot of questions. It isn’t, for example, the science of brewing better coffee or improve muscle tone: it’s how we can change the direction of a vast global system which we may never fully understand.

Who decides what the weather will be, and who doesn’t get a say? Will we ever really know what we’re doing? And, if China had already spent $40 billion on the Olympic games, would a roof have been that vast an additional expense?