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Harvard College Library News: News from around the libraries

Cabot Exhibit Studies Weather Control

weather control

An image from Scientific American, November 27, 1880, which is captioned "Precipitating Rainfalls by Means of Explosives." The image is one of many which will be included in a new Cabot Science Library exhibition devoted to attempts to control the weather.

October 2, 2009 – What if we had the ability to “steer” hurricanes away from populated areas, or if clouds generated by a fleet of massive ocean-going ships could slow global warming? It may sound like science fiction, but these real proposals – and others like them – are reviving the century-old notion of weather control.

A new exhibition at Cabot Science Library, Weather Control: Pluviculture, Cloud Seeding and Climate Engineering, which opened September 25, explores “scientific” weather control techniques, which largely emerged in the middle part of the 19th century, said Reed Lowrie, Science Reference and Cartographic Librarian at Cabot and exhibition curator. The idea for the exhibit, however, grew out of a question fielded at the Cabot Reference Desk.

“A librarian at the American Meteorological Society had come in, and I was helping her track down a book about a Cuban meteorologist in Widener Library,” he explained. “She mentioned that he might have been involved in CIA plans to control the weather, and that put the idea in my mind. I came back to the idea last summer, before the Olympics, because the Chinese were claiming it wouldn’t rain during the opening ceremonies, because they knew how to make sure it wouldn’t.”

Among the items which will be included in the exhibit are many photos, books and journals which demonstrate early weather-control theories, and practitioners, including James Espy. Though now considered America’s first great meteorologist, Espy advanced one of the earliest weather control theories, that the rising heat from fires could provoke rain. Armed with his theory, Espy unsuccessfully tried to secure funding from the federal government for a plan to burn huge swatch of land once a week for an entire summer.

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Other parts of the exhibition will focus on alternate weather-control theories, particularly one proposed following the end of the Civil War. Spurred by soldiers convinced the cannons used in battle had caused it to rain, the new theory, euphemistically called the “Boom-Boom” school of rain-making, used cannons and other devices to create concussion waves in an attempt to bring rain. The new theory also marked the birth of the travelling rain-maker, Lowrie said, men who travelled from town to town in the arid West, offering to bring down the rain – for a price.

“They would say, if you pay me $1,000, I’ll shoot my cannons into the sky, and it will rain,” Lowrie said. “One person actually was able to get some funding from the government, in the early 1890s, for a project in Midland, Texas. It did rain, but skeptics later pointed out that there was a huge storm in the area, and it also rained 200 miles away.”

Other weather control theories, Lowrie said, revolved around the idea that bombarding the atmosphere with chemicals would produce rain. Dubbed “smell-makers” for the often foul-smelling chemical concoctions they used, practitioners dispersed their secret chemical formulas using smoke emitted from chimneys or large towers.

“Probably the most famous was Charles Hatfield,” Lowrie said. “He operated in the West for 20 or 25 years, but became well-known for an incident that occurred in San Diego. He entered into a contract to fill the city’s reservoir, and after releasing his chemicals, it rained so much the city flooded, and they ran him out of town.”

The exhibition will also feature excerpts from magazine articles touting rain-making success stories, and drawings of more modern attempts at weather control, including a system designed by Harvard physics professor E. Leon Chaffee, which was used to drop electrified sand particles into clouds in an attempt to produce rain. Images of modern cloud-seeding techniques – dropping or firing silver iodide crystals into clouds – will also be included, along with the details of a U.S. government effort, code-named Project Stormfury, which ran from the early 1960s through the mid-1980s and was aimed at dissipating hurricanes.

Weather Control: Pluviculture, Cloud Seeding and Climate Engineering will be on display in Cabot Library through January 29, 2010. Directions, Hours