We have to realize that weather, in all its forms, has influenced and shaped humanity in every conceivable way. The weather and the surrounding environment (which is also shaped by weather) has influenced language in every part of the world, how people built the houses and shaped their societies, what they ate, and the way that they dressed for centuries. Whole religions were formed as a sort of answer to the meteorological events happening all around. And it’s not inconceivable that people throughout history have tried, or at least thought about, controlling the weather.
Only with the technological advancements brought on in recent decades did we actually begin to tap into this Bond villain-like superpower. However, we are still at the beginning of this journey and we have still more to discover. We still don’t know all the ins and outs of weather, let alone enough to control it. We can at best influence it. But regardless of this, people have tried on many occasions to do it to the best of their abilities. Here are ten such cases.
10. Fog Dispersal
With the advent of flight over the past century, fog began to be a serious problem for aircraft trying to take off or land safely. And in WWII, pilots no longer had the luxury to sit around and wait for the fog to lift on its own before taking off. That’s why in 1942 the Prime Minister of Britain, Winston Churchill, ordered the Petroleum Warfare Department to come up with an idea to solve this problem. The result was FIDO, or Fog Investigation and Dispersal Operation.
By burning petrol around the airfield at a rate of 100,000 gallons per hour, engineers were able to produce enough heat as to temporarily lift the fog, thus allowing the pilots to safely take off or land at a moment’s notice. According to the British RAF (Royal Air Force), 15 airfields were fitted with this capability in England, as well as a few others in the US and the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. Between 1943 and 1945, some 2,500 aircraft landed safely in otherwise dangerous conditions, thus ensuring the survival of over 10,000 soldiers. In 1959 the last FIDO installation at RAF Manston was dismantled.
Even today fog dispersal is done regularly at many airports around the world, but the technology has improved a bit since WWII. If temperatures are below freezing, CO2 or propane gas is released from the ground in order to lift the fog. If temperatures are higher, however, airports make use of helicopters or even burners to help with the problem.
9. Hail Cannons
In existence since the late 1890s, hail cannons came about after an Austrian wine grower named M. Albert Stiger conducted some experiments in his backyard. The result was an oversized, megaphone-shaped cannon that fired rings of smoke about 985 feet into the air. It was made out of a sheet of metal, mounted on a wooden frame. The concept was that a strong whirlwind of air and smoke, blasted into the sky by one such cannon, will disrupt the normal formation of hail in the overhead clouds. Hail was, and still is, a major issue and a serious threat to all crops, making the hail cannon a true scientific blessing for farmers. After a few seemingly successful tries, the number of hail cannons in the Italian province near Venice alone had skyrocketed from 466 to 1,630 in less than one year.
But as these cannons became more and more common throughout other parts of Europe, reports of inconsistencies began to surface. These were initially disregarded on the grounds of improper firing, shooting delays, or poor positioning. Then, in 1903 the Italian government arranged a two-year-long experiment involving 222 cannons. The regions involved in the experiment still experienced hail, the cannons were deemed a failure, and the whole concept was soon abandoned.
Perhaps surprisingly, these cannons are still in use today. One company that makes them says that their cannons work by creating a shockwave traveling at the speed of sound, disrupting the creation of hail and turning it into slush or rain. When a storm is close by, it begins firing every four seconds, tracking the storm via radar. In 2005 a car manufacturer in the US deployed such cannons, disturbing an entire community with its incredibly loud noise. At some point, even the guys at Mythbusters considered testing these hail cannons, but after some deliberation, they agreed against it, saying that “the methodology makes the machine completely untestable.”
8. Cloud Seeding
Besides hail, one other meteorological element that can considerably shrink any crop yield is drought. In 1946, a meteorologist by the name of Vincent Schaefer, together with a Nobel Prize laureate Irving Langmuir, discovered cloud seeding. This is a form of weather modification which supposedly increases the amount of rainfall. Rain is created when supercooled droplets of water come together and form ice crystals in a process known as nucleation. No longer able to stay suspended in the air, these ice crystals start falling to the ground and in the process begin to melt and turn back into rain drops.
The logic behind cloud seeding is that some particles like silver iodine or dry ice can kick start this process and enhance the raining capabilities in clouds. These particles can either be delivered by plane or sprayed from the ground. But like the hail cannons mentioned above, it is particularly difficult to prove their effectiveness. Even to this day, there is no sure way of knowing if any given cloud will actually produce rain or not. Nevertheless, cloud seeding has been reported as being a success in initial trials in countries like Australia, France, Spain, the US, the UAE, and China.
However, cloud-seeding expert Arlen Huggins, a research scientist at the Desert Research Institute in Reno, Nevada, said in an interview that nobody can attribute any given storm solely to cloud seeding. In fact, the process works best not in periods of drought, but when there are normal or above normal periods of precipitation. At best, cloud seeding should increase the amount of rain or snow by up to 10%, and this excess water can be stored for later use.
7. Project Cirrus
As early as 1946, the US Armed Forces began testing cloud seeding, trying to discover its true potential and what other uses it might have to benefit the country. They made a total of 37 test flights in the first year and a half, flying over thunderstorms, line squalls, and even tornadoes. One big threat, as many of us know, are the annual tropical hurricanes coming in from the Atlantic Ocean. So, in October 1947, Project Cirrus expanded to test cloud seeding on a hurricane traveling east bound, 350 miles off the coast of Jacksonville, Florida. They dropped 80 lbs. of dry ice into the raging storm, only to realize that the hurricane suddenly changed direction and began traveling back towards the United States.
Savannah, Georgia was hit by record-breaking winds of up to 85 MPH, more than 1,400 people were left homeless, and at least two people died. The total damage was reported into the millions of dollars, and the project and its participants were blamed for what happened. Project Cirrus then relocated to New Mexico and the research continued. However, not long after their arrival to the area, local tourist attractions began blaming the team for the unusually wet weather they began experiencing soon after. Despite the seemingly positive results, by 1952 the project ran out of funding and was cancelled soon after.
6. Project Stormfury
Not wanting the research made in the previous decade to go to waste, another ambitious experimental program was launched in 1962, in order to see if it’s possible to use cloud seeding to lessen a hurricane’s destructive potential. Scientists were wishing to decrease the wind speeds of any hurricane by making use of silver iodine. Rocket canisters filled with the stuff were dropped into the storm’s eye from an airplane flying overhead, as well as making use of gun-like devices mounted on the wings, spraying silver iodine over the storm.
The hope was that these particles would counterbalance the normal convection within the eye of the storm, thus giving it a larger radius and in turn, reducing the overall wind speeds generated. The tests were carried out in four hurricanes over a period of eight days. Half the time wind speeds decreased by 10-to-30%, while the other half experienced no change. The lack of any response to these tests was initially attributed mostly to faulty execution and deployment.
However, later studies have indicated that hurricanes don’t contain nearly as much supercooled water for cloud seeding to be effective. Moreover, researchers discovered that some such storms can undergo similar processes naturally, just like seeded hurricanes would. It was then concluded that the initial successful tries were actually naturally occurring events, backed only by the very little knowledge in the behavior of hurricanes at the time. The last test fight took place in 1971, and in 1983 Project Stormfury was officially canceled. These experiments weren’t without merit, however, since they helped meteorologists better understand and forecast the movements and intensities of future hurricanes.
5. Project Skyfire
At every moment of the day, there are around 1,800 thunderstorms in progress all over the globe. And every 20 minutes, these storms produce somewhere around 60,000 lightning strikes. Unsurprisingly, some of these lightning strikes start fires. Every summer, 9,000 forest or grassland fires in the US are started this way, causing extensive loss of timber, wildlife, watersheds and recreation areas. Project Skyfire was initiated in 1955 by the US Forest Service in the hopes of better understanding the natural processes that initiate thunderstorms, and maybe decrease the frequency of lightning as much as possible.
For the first several years of the project, scientists gathered information and began using silver iodine in high concentrations, in the hopes of overseeding clouds and thus reduce the number of lightning strikes. Their results are hard to quantify, due to the lack of any controlled experiments, but it would seem that initial tests were somewhat successful. In any case, in 1960 and 1961, the US Army, under name Project Skyfire, attempted lightning suppression by using millions of tiny metallic pins in order to seed the clouds, instead of dry ice or silver iodine. These were actually small pieces of foil oppositely charged at each end. This material is used today as a form of countermeasure for aircraft trying to evade enemy missiles or radar.
4. Operation Popeye – Vietnam War
With the previous projects above, it’s no wonder that cloud seeding was intended for military purposes at some point or another. Operation Popeye, or Operation Compatriot, was a top secret military campaign waged in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. The goal of the operation was to flood the routes between North and South Vietnam during the monsoon season with as much rain as possible, in order to make roads inaccessible. The Ho Chí Minh trail was especially targeted due to its logistical importance for the Viet Cong. The whole operation lasted from 1966 up until 1972 and consisted of over 2,600 flights over the regions of Cambodia, Laos, South Vietnam and the previously mentioned trail. In total, some 47,000 units of cloud seeding material was dropped during this time, at a cost of over $21.6 million. If it actually worked or not is still a matter of debate, but it is believe that they were able to extend the monsoon season by 30 to 45 days.
Also part of the operation were regular flights over the dense jungles, spraying them with various herbicides in order to provide less material and cover for the North Vietnamese. Operation Popeye reached the public consciousness when a columnist by the name of Jack Anderson revealed it in the Washington Post in March, 1971. The US Defense Secretary, Melvin Laird testified under oath in 1972 in front of the US Senate that they never actually used any weather modification techniques in Southeast Asia. Only two years later, one of Laird’s private letters was leaked where he admitted that he did lie in front of the Senate. This inevitably lead to the “Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques,” or ENMOD to be signed in 1976 by members of the UN.
3. Black Rain in Belarus
In April 1986, one of the biggest man-made disasters took place in the former Soviet Union, present-day Ukraine. Due to a faulty reactor design and inadequately trained personnel, one of the reactors at Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded, killing many and resulting in the complete evacuation of the nearby town of Pripyat. However, this was just the beginning and the worst of the disaster was still to come. The radioactive cloud that ensued was threatening many large cities in the Soviet Union like Moscow, Voronezh, Nizhny Novgorod and Yaroslavl.
In order to prevent such a catastrophe, the Soviet government quickly dispatched aircraft to fly over the radioactive cloud and spray it with cloud seeding material, in an area of about 60 miles surrounding Chernobyl. In the wake of the explosion, people in present-day South Belarus reported heavy, black-colored rain falling in and around the town of Gomel. And just before the hellish rain began, several aircraft had been spotted circling the city and surrounding area, ejecting some colored material. Moscow has never admitted to using cloud seeding in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster, but two Soviet pilots later admitted to it.
Alan Flowers, a British scientist and the first Westerner to examine the extent of the levels of radioactivity and fallout around Chernobyl, discovered that Byelorussians were exposed to levels 20 to 30 times higher than normal as a result of the nuclear rain, causing intense radiation poisoning in children. In 2004, he was expelled from the country for claiming that the Soviet Union used cloud seeding in 1986. He said, “The local population says there was no warning before these heavy rains and the radioactive fallout arrived.”
2. The Beijing Weather Modification Office
Today, 52 countries are involved in weather modification in one form or another, either to enhance precipitation or to suppress hail. But none are more involved in the process than the Chinese. The Weather Modification Office came into being sometime in the 1980s and has since grown to around 37,000 people strong; the largest in the world. These people operate throughout the entire country, but mostly in its northern and northeastern regions, which are more predisposed to droughts. They also try to counteract hail, or severe sandstorms.
The Weather office makes use of 4,000 rocket launchers, 7,000 anti-aircraft guns, and about 30 airplanes to achieve its goals. But besides working on increasing the amount of precipitation, or suppress the fall of hail, the Bureau also makes sure that national holidays or special events get the weather they deserve. In 1997, the technology was used on New Year’s Day to make it snow. Another of its high-profile operations was during the 2008 Summer Olympics held in Beijing. During the opening ceremony, some 1,100 rockets were fired into the clouds outside the city, ensuring a precipitation free evening by making it rain away from the event. Prior to every October 1, China’s National Day, the government uses cloud seeding over Beijing in order to make it rain, dissipating pollution and clearing the skies. Another future prospect for the Beijing Weather Modification Office is to lower summer temperatures, thus lowering the annual consumption of electricity.
1. Desert Rain
The weather is created and influenced by our own planet’s rotation, the sun’s rays, and the moisture coming in from the oceans. The most we can do, when compared to these natural forces, is minimal at best, and things should probably remain like that. But anyway, as the world’s population has increased to numbers never before seen, humans have moved in larger numbers to regions less hospitable for comfort. We are, of course, talking about the desert. Over the past several decades more and more people have begun inhabiting places like the United Arab Emirates in the Arabian Peninsula, one of the driest places on Earth. And it’s no surprise that people living there would want a rainfall now and again.
Thus, a Swiss company took advantage of the situation and began building 33-foot-high towers that produce negatively charged ions. These supposedly generate the formation of storm clouds. The theory of ionization has been around since the 1890, being first mentioned by Nikola Tesla. However, there was no evidence of it actually producing any rain in the various experiments conducted since. Moreover, the Swiss company is unwilling to share any proof or information regarding its technology and how it actually works, keeping it a closely guarded secret. There were a few rain storms since the installation was put in place, but scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology have said that these were part of an unusual weather pattern the Middle East was experiencing at the time.