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Changeable Weather

The contested case of weather modification presents an interesting example of the interrelationship between science, pseudo-science and bad science.

Steve Matthewman

Deciphering elements of meteorological history can be difficult. The near total lack of literature on meteorology by sociologists and historians of science masks its laws of motion. Empirically, meteorology positioned itself alongside physics in the "hard sciences", yet theoretically it leans toward the "soft science" of geography. While meteorologists themselves have aspired to be on a pedestal alongside physics, the physicists have done their best to knock them back down into the sea of simmering mediocrity that is all other subjects. As a famous physicist once told us:

There is only physics -- all else is philately.

For a time, meteorology was precisely that -- a collection of weather data devoid of any coherent theory.

One possible way to overcome this was a foray into the experimental sphere. But if meteorology was a science without a practice, then rain-making was a practice without a science. The embryonic US meteorological establishment quickly distanced itself from the activities of soi-disant colonels and "perfessers". The earliest state funded rain-making experiments went ahead without their sanction.

Jeremiah Rusk, the Secretary of Agriculture (1889-93), had observed these government sponsored rain-making programmes in Texas and was underwhelmed. Upon leaving office he placed Edward Powers' theory of cloud concussion by cannon "among the curiosities of so-called scientific investigation, in company with its twin absurdity, the flying machine". However, in time the flying machine took off. And despite the best wishes of the Weather Bureau, "scientific" weather modification did too. Controversy clouds just when that happened. For meteorologist Horace Byers, the dry ice cloud-seeding flight of General Electric's Vincent Schaefer during November 1946 marks the time at which snake oil salesmen were seen off by real scientists in shimmering white lab coats. Rain-making would henceforth be called precipitation-augmentation, and its practitioners would be known as cloud physicists, not pluviculturalists. As Byers said in 1959:

Without belaboring the point as to whether or not this snow might just have happened to fall naturally at this particular time, and without giving credit to the rain-making quackery or pagan ritual practised by man since the stone age, we can set down [Schaefer's experiment] as the beginning of scientific weather modification.

So if we slight all who came before Schaefer, if we sidetrack the question of causation and if we suppress the scientific method, this episode marks the start of scientific weather control. Such strange arguments only make sense when we realise that pure and applied science did little to bring the subject to prominence. Legislation forced the meteorological mainstream to reconcile itself to "rain-making", and this legislation was itself precipitated by a mixture of drought, militarism, organisational expedience, private initiative and political pressure. Curiously, these pivotal factors go unmentioned in histories concerned with the science of planned precipitation.

To ignore the circumstances under which weather modification was first legitimised is foolish, since the recurrence of these material conditions could reinstate its scientific position, despite scanty evidence of its efficacy. In times of crisis, and with such a small cost-to-benefit ratio should cloud seeding work, powerbrokers frequently have few qualms using bad science to support good causes.

Far from being an interesting aside in meteorological history, weather modification lurks perpetually on the horizon, a subject which illustrates many key issues surrounding the relationships between and among science, technology and society. For the weather modification story tells us important things about the difficulties scientists encounter when working in politically charged atmospheres, and the problems that follow when such work intrudes upon the public domain.

In 1964, the American National Academy of Sciences had claimed that weather modification was akin to astrology. Meteorology had not been linked with astrology since the Middle Ages, and neither side particularly wanted to re-forge that relationship. For the past few centuries both had been far happier pursuing their own oracular agendas with respect to what tomorrow would bring -- with fairly similar levels of accuracy, cynics might add.

But the climate of opinion was to change two years later. In 1966, the NAS decided that weather modification was an appropriate area of meteorological study after all. What caused this turnaround? The pressures to give a scientific imprimatur to weather modification had been building for some time. Significant social actors -- the military, drought-plagued farmers, commercial cloud seeders, western politicians and sections of the federal bureaucracy -- entered proceedings amidst public enthusiasm whipped up by an ignorant press.

The Politics of Weather

With the return of drought to the American Southwest, many farmers were facing desperate times. Often that frustration focused on the Bureau of Reclamation, since its remit was to see that the west was watered.

Realising their precarious position and keen to overcome an outmoded water resources objective, staff in the Bureau were not slow to recognise cloud seeding's potential. Successful cloud seeding was consonant with that never-ending quest for bureaucratic aggrandisement: the US Weather Bureau and the National Science Foundation were cool towards weather modification, and certain senators were keen to have Reclamation as lead agency. This was a real opportunity to strengthen Reclamation against competing federal agencies.

Domestic developments alone were an insufficient fillip for weather modification's scientific validation. Another major catalyst came from the Cold War. Having discovered that the Russians were putting significant money and effort into weather modification, and producing more academic papers, the NAS reasoned that the Soviets must have stolen a march on the US. The consequences of which had already been imagined

Articles in popular magazines warned of dastardly Communist plots to impoverish freedom-loving peoples with dogmatic downpours and diabolical droughts, as in the 1958 article "The Weather Weapon: New Race With The Reds" in Newsweek. Though Senator McCarthy had reached his use-by date in 1954, his spirit survived in meteorological circles. In 1958 Dr Houghton of MIT's meteorology department said:

I shudder to think of the consequences of prior Russian discovery of a feasible method of weather control. An unfavorable modification of our climate in the guise of a peaceful effort to improve Russia's climate could seriously weaken our economy and our will to resist.

Of course the meteorological March of Intellect has always been partially propelled by military interests. Weather modification proved no exception. Captain Howard T. Orville chaired President Eisenhower's Advisory Committee On Weather Control. Many meteorologists regard the subsequent Orville Report as a turning point in weather modification's fortunes, since it legitimised the activity as an appropriate area of study. And the military could give projects the necessary financial backing. They had an experimental meteorological budget five times that of the Weather Bureau. But what had promised to be a panacea proved to be a Pandora's box.

By the 1960s, scientists were looking back at the 1950s as an era of exaggeration and, in the 1970s, a rising number questioned the very notion of a workable weather experiment. Federal funding reached its apogee in 1977, and began to decline markedly thereafter. Ultimately the 1980s saw the promising body of evidence reduced to a twitching corpse. Even supposing it was achievable, weather modification posed profound philosophical questions, and its practice had equally significant social, economic, political and legal ramifications. The critical issues were simple. Who owns the weather? Which groups, regions or nations stand to benefit or suffer from its commodification and control?

Suppose for a moment that weather modification is feasible. Kenneth Burke pondered this very question. In his 1957 article for The Nation he cited the French film Generals Without Buttons where two adjoining towns wanting different types of weather each petition their local saints. One town wants it wet for cabbages, the other dry for grapes. Their rival processions clash to humorous effect. But if we substitute continents and hail canons for Hail Marys, then the issues -- and the consequences -- become more serious.

Who Wants What Weather?

While Burke was writing, wheat growers in Washington State were already employing the services of a rain-maker. Their timing alarmed orchardists, worried that rain could damage ripening cherries. To avoid this they employed a counter-seeder to work against any advances made by the wheat growers' man. These two fought a strange battle in the skies: precipitation augmentation slugged it out with precipitation cancellation. Simply put, there can be no widespread social consensus about what constitutes "good weather".

Downwind effects must also be considered. Honduras threatened to sue the United States for cloud rustling, and Washington State and Idaho brandished law suits over cloud control. Sometimes violence has ensued -- in the rain-related death threats made against Quebec's Minister of Natural Resources in 1965 and the explosive activities in Colorado's San Luis Valley during 1972, for example. Sometimes panics have proceeded just on the suspicion that seeding has taken place, as in France and Spain in the mid-eighties.

Clues to all of these incidents can be gained from asking which groups aim to use weather changing technology, and for what reasons. Technology is used by social groups to obtain specific ends, and its development and application are subject to the prevailing economic principles of each particular society. Under capitalism, weather modification has proceeded as a largely private activity undertaken at the behest of corporate farming concerns and water resource enterprises. In each case, significant social constituencies have been disenfranchised from the decision-making process.

Herbert Marcuse would not find this marginalisation surprising since he considered technology to be an oppressive tool used by power brokers in advanced industrial societies to preserve the status quo. In One Dimensional Man he wrote: "The scientific method which led to the ever-more-effective domination of nature thus came to provide the pure concepts as well as the instrumentalities for the ever-more-effective domination of man by man through the domination of nature."

These panics illuminate weather modification. Most of those outlined were reactions to the threat of drought, but in many cases new modes of capital-intensive mechanised farming were being introduced in affected areas. In consequence, cultural patterns and labour processes were disrupted, and replaced with entirely new sets of social relations. Weather modification can then become a scapegoat; though for weather-dependent farmers it would certainly be a pernicious threat should someone be able to both figuratively and literally steal your thunder.

How realistic is this fear? No study so far undertaken has been able to show results outside the range of natural variability. Clouds are not inert objects; they are dynamic systems which change dramatically over time. Understand this, and it becomes very difficult to prove weather modification works.

Even if we could accept that it did, how could we know that the weather had been changed for the better? Quite simply we could not. And how could we test the claims of commercial or scientific cloud seeders? You cannot seed half a cloud, and you cannot find two identical clouds, so huge problems loom concerning experimental replicability and falsifiability. Recalling Popper's assertion that the central axiom of science is that it should be open to falsification, "scientific" weather modification must be found wanting.

Conventional scientific judgement recognises only one adequate experiment, in Israel. But an article by Rangno and Hobbs in last year's Journal Of Applied Meteorology has demolished this case. The difficulties involved in evaluating field projects can be shown by work undertaken closer to home, by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) in Australia. The CSIRO stopped seeding after 30 years of experiments. Abandoned in the early 80s after results which could be ascribed to routine variation in naturally occurring weather patterns, the CSIRO currently is regaining its faith.

The turnaround came from Doctor Keith Bigg's revision of earlier results, taking stock of a wider range of meteorological processes. This reworking seems to show cloud seeding's viability in situations where it had been previously vilified. In particular, Bigg claims to demonstrate favourable triggering effects spatially, over regions as large as thousands of square kilometres, and temporally, over several months. Currently discarded principles from the 1940s are being dusted off, though if we wait long enough we may see these revised results fall out of favour in their turn. It is striking that his recalculations were done in the 1980s, but that they attracted attention only recently, in the context of prolonged Australian drought.

A hardy perennial since antiquity, within the space of a few decades this century, weather modification has lurched wildly from pseudo-science to orthodox science, then to bad science. Praised as a project with significant potential to benefit mankind and publicly reviled as the crime of the century in Pennsylvania, weather modification has elicited exaggerated praise and blame. It became meteorological orthodoxy through a coalition of interested actors, pursuing their agendas on the flimsiest of evidence. Once that coalition collapsed when weather modification's scientific basis disappeared, we are left with much more modest claims: that we can modify microphysical cloud properties, not relieve droughts.

But today one can still find newspapers in the western United States toasting the success of weather modification. More disturbingly, the practice is also being touted -- in the US and elsewhere -- as a last ditch solution to the depletion of natural aquifers through increased demand for water. Not only is this a waste of time and money, it postpones pressing decisions regarding water allocation and conservation, and annoys a lot of people in the process.

Steve Matthewman is with the Sociology Department at the University of Auckland