This hurricane season also sparked a wide range of conspiracy theories regarding the possibility that the U.S. government or some other government could be manipulating the weather to strengthen hurricanes.
The 2017 hurricane season has wrought more damage on the Caribbean and the Gulf Coast of the United States than any season in the last decade. Tropical Storm Harvey smashed into the Gulf, temporarily swallowing Houston and other low lying areas. Meanwhile, Hurricane Irma caused millions of dollars in damage to Florida, Puerto Rico, and other Caribbean islands, leaving millions without power and water.
Along with the gusts of wind, property damage, and loss of life, this hurricane season also sparked a wide range of conspiracy theories regarding the possibility that the U.S. government or some other government could be manipulating the weather to strengthen hurricanes. These theories range from the idea that planes were spraying before and during the storms in order to help them grow and/or direct them at specific targets to others who believe the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP), or a similar device, was used to heat up the ionosphere and “charge” the storms to cause more destruction.
There are dozens of YouTube channels where individuals focus specifically on weather manipulation and modification. They claim to have the expertise to study radar images and determine whether artificial elements were added to developing hurricanes. If you are interested in that type of research, see this. However, I will not be addressing the issue of whether or not the U.S. is currently manipulating hurricanes. I do not have the technical background to accurately report in that area. Instead, I will focus on the history of weather modification as it pertains to hurricanes. If you have limited knowledge on weather modification — or, perhaps, you even think it is a hoax — I encourage you to read on. If you are familiar with the history or science of weather modification, I also encourage you to read on, as I have included details I have not seen covered elsewhere.
The theories surrounding possible hurricane manipulation have grown to the point that the “mainstream” media has been forced to respond. In early September, Space.com released an article titled “No, We Can’t Control Hurricanes from Space,” which attempted to debunk these theories. “The short answer is that we can’t control weather at any scale, and hurricanes are no exception,” Space.com wrote. Nevertheless, if we go back to 2015, we find an article from Popular Mechanics matter-of-factly stating, “We Could Reduce the Number of Hurricanes By Injecting Particles Into the Atmosphere.” The article discusses research published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that concluded sulfates could be spread into the Earth’s stratosphere to “dampen” hurricanes over the next 50 years. The scientists do not claim to be able to “steer” or direct hurricanes, but they do say they have the power to slow them down by 50 percent.
A (Brief) History of Weather Modification
Despite these modest statements, the history of weather modification and the desire to manipulate hurricanes has a history stretching back at least 100 years to people often known as “rainmakers.” The rainmakers were men who studied “pluviculture,” or the act of attempting to artificially create rain, usually to fight drought. Most of these men were seen as scammers, traveling salesman pitching fantasy ideas to the gullible about creating rain. However, one of the most successful rainmakers was Charles Hatfield. Born in 1875, Hatfield migrated to Southern California and studied pluviculture, eventually creating a secret mixture of 23 chemicals he said could induce rain. Using his secret mixture, Hatfield successfully created storms several times and began to find work creating rain.
In 1915, Hatfield began working for the San Diego city council to produce enough rain to fill the Morena Dam reservoir. Hatfield was told he would receive $10,000 once the reservoir was filled. In early January 1915, rain began pouring down over the dam, growing heavier with each day that passed. On January 20, the dam broke, causing mass flooding that led to an estimated 20 deaths. Hatfield told the press he was not to blame, stating the city should have taken precautions. The city refused to pay Hatfield unless he also accepted liability for the damage and deaths. After legal battles ensued, Hatfield was absolved of any wrongdoing when the storm was officially ruled an act of God. However, due to the ruling, Hatfield’s work was seen as a failure, and he was (mostly) relegated to forgotten pages of history.
Beginning in 1947, General Electric, the U.S. Army Corps, the U.S. Air Force, and the Office of Naval Research began attempting to modify hurricanes. The main scientist behind the research was a Nobel Peace Prize-winning chemist named Irving Langmuir. While working as a chemist with GE, Langmuir began to hypothesize about manipulating hurricanes. In October 1947, the researchers decided to seed a hurricane with ice pellets. The hurricane had been drifting to the northeast into the Atlantic Ocean, but after being seeded, the hurricane grew stronger and crashed into Savannah, Georgia.
There was a public backlash and threats of lawsuits against Langmuir and the research team. Despite Langmuir claiming responsibility for affecting the storm, researchers concluded his work did not cause the change in direction. The lawsuits were dropped, but Langmuir continued to work on weather modification. It’s not hard to imagine the U.S. military and General Electric wanting to distance themselves from the destruction by calling their own project a failure. Interestingly, Wikipedia references a 1965 article from the Sun-Sentinel titled “Betsy’s Turnaround Stirs Big Question.” (Betsy was another hurricane reported to have been modified.) The article, written more than a decade later, apparently reports that a hurricane in 1947 “went whacky” and that “[t]welve years later it was admitted the storm had in fact been seeded.” Unfortunately, there is not a digital copy of the article available to verify the claims on Wikipedia.
In 1948 and 1949, Langmuir visited Honduras, Guatemala, and Costa Rica to study tropical cloud formations, and particularly to learn what was being done by Joe Silverthorne, a commercial cloud seeder, in seeding clouds for the United Fruit Company. The work was being
Conducted for the purpose of testing out the possibility of controlling rainfall, and particularly in the hope of stopping blow-downs that result from winds associated with thunderstorms, which occasionally destroy large stands of fruit trees.”
The GE report is well worth your time and attention. It details the contracts between the U.S. military and GE, as well as other historical details regarding GE’s attempts to modify weather.
More recent examples of attempts at weather modification involve programs known as Project Stormfury, Project Cirrus, and Operation Popeye. Project Stormfury was a U.S. government project aimed at weakening Tropical Cyclones by seeding them with silver iodide. From 1961 to 1971, researchers sprayed silver iodide into hurricanes, believing the supercooled water might disrupt the structure of the storm. Officially, the project has been ruled a failure, but it was not the only attempt to manipulate weather in this time period.
One example of seeding a hurricane that may have actually been successful was Hurricane Betsy in 1965. As the Sun-Sentinel reported in 1965:
Hurricane Betsy was building strength; it looked like it was aiming for South Carolina, posing no threat to South Florida. But on Saturday, Sept. 4, the storm whirled to a stop, about 350 miles east of Jacksonville. When Betsy started moving again on Sunday, she had changed directions. The storm plowed through the Bahamas Monday night, then mauled South Florida a day later.”
Officially, the U.S. government says Hurricane Betsy was designated to be seeded but that apparently, that decision was changed at the last moment. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recalled the event on the 50th anniversary:
Dr. Joanne Simpson, Project Director, had ordered the fleet of Navy and Weather Bureau research aircraft to deploy to Puerto Rico on August 28th. Over the next two days, the planes monitored the storm’s slow progress toward the designated part of the ocean where they could carry out their weather modification experiments. By August 31st, Betsy had just managed to crawl into the area as a hurricane, so a seeding experiment was scheduled for the next day. The first aircraft had already taken off from Roosevelt Roads Naval Air Station, PR the morning of September 1st when word came from the National Hurricane Center that overnight Betsy had completed a loop in its track and was now headed southward and out of the allowed seeding area. The seeding experiments were called off and the mission changed to a ‘dry run’, where the same patterns were flown but no silver iodide was released into the storm. Unfortunately, no one informed the press which had been alerted to STORMFURY’s seeding intentions the previous day.”
The press and the public blamed the researchers for the 138 mph winds and destruction from Betsy. Congress was skeptical of further programs until the researchers were able to smooth things over. “I was totally unaware of the level of emotion and hostility that was directed against anything that had to do with cloud seeding,” Joanne Simpson, one time head of Project Stormfury, told NASA. Simpson would go on to work on a cloud-seeding project called FACE (the Florida Area Cumulus Experiment).
With Hurricane Betsy and the 1947 hurricane, we have two situations where cloud-seeding was reportedly happening, and we have two disastrous outcomes. In both situations, the scientists claimed no responsibility, and no one was held accountable. Again, is it that hard to imagine a government official (or a scientist under government contract) lying about the nature of the work? Especially if that work resulted in millions of dollars in property damage and deaths?
The NOAA even acknowledges that “[s]ince no one at Project STORMFURY nor in the Weather Bureau had advised the public or the press that the actual seeding of the storm had been scrubbed, many people believed it had been carried out and the link to its odd path seemed plausible. Although attempts to clarify the facts about STORMFURY and Betsy were made after the fact, the notion of a link persists to the present.”
Weather as a Weapon of War
Operation Popeye was a now-declassified attempt by the U.S. military to modify the weather in Southeast Asia from 1967 to 1972. The U.S. military conducted cloud-seeding operations over the Ho-Chi Minh trail during the Vietnam War. Cloud-seeding typically involves planes flying overhead and spraying silver iodide into the air. The goal in Vietnam was to extend monsoon season and flood out the enemy. It was reported that the operations were “tightly controlled” by Henry Kissinger, who was serving as Secretary of State at the time. Operation Popeye is the first modern example (that we know of) where attempts were made to use weather as a weapon of war.
In April 1976, the New York Times wrote about the situation and the challenges weather modification created:
Can a nation that tampers with natural balances deny responsibility for what follows? This question, together with recognition that United States policy condemns warfare aimed at civilians, prompted Senator Claiborne Pell in 1973 to introduce a resolution calling for an international treaty to prohibit environmental warfare ‘or the carrying out of any research or experimentation directed thereto.’ The Senate voted 82 to 10 to approve the resolution, which lacks force of law.”
The international treaty referred to is the Environmental Modification Treaty implemented and signed by the United States and other nations to halt global weather modification in the wake of the bad publicity. The Times noted:
Unfortunately it is far weaker than the Senate resolution. For example, it fails to prohibit military research or development of environmental‐modification techniques, and allows all ‘peaceful’ work on such things.”
So as long as a nation claims they are conducting peaceful weather modification, they are not violating the treaty. Further, there is no international body to enforce and punish violations of the treaty.
The Times also mentions the Department of Defense’s “Climate Dynamics” program, formerly known as Project Nile Blue. A 1976 report from Milton Leitenberg for the Federation of Scientists elaborates on the origins of Nile Blue. “Beginning in 1969, ARPA, the Advanced Research Projects Agency in the U.S. Department of Defense, began funding a project called “Nile Blue (Climate Modification Research),” Leitenberg wrote.
The Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) was the predecessor to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), a secretive agency within the Department of Defense. DARPA is known for developing exotic and emerging technologies for the military. These reports listed above indicated that Project STORMFURY and Project Nile Blue were some of the earliest known military operations conducted in the name of manipulating the weather, including hurricanes.
Leitenberg also noted two examples of times the U.S. has been accused of using weather modification on other nations. The was first related to alleged cloud seeding over Cuba in 1969 and 1970 in an alleged effort to destroy the sugar crops. In the second case, the director of the geographical research center of the University of Mexico implied that the United States was to blame for the effects of Hurricane Fifi over Honduras in 1974. A story from The Naples Daily News on July 15, 1975, expanded upon this claim:
Dr. Jorge Vivo, director of the Geographic Research Center of the University of Mexico, said Monday the United States ‘artificially detoured’ the hurricane to Honduras to save Florida’s tourist industry. But Neil Frank, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami, said Monday night U.S. officials did nothing to alter the hurricane’s path. Vivo told the newspaper El Sol de Mexico he held the United States responsible for 10,000 deaths and millions of dollars in damage caused by Fifi in the Central American nation. He said he believed U.S. weather authorities used silver iodide against Fifi as part of what he called ‘a systematic action’ to change its course.”
More recently, we have seen accusations that the CIA is manipulating the weather. In February 2015, while speaking at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Jose, California, Professor Alan Robock discussed the possibility that the CIA is using the weather as a weapon of war. Robock has conducted research for the intergovernmental panel on climate change (IPCC) in the past. Robock said he was phoned by two men claiming to be from the CIA and asking whether or not it was possible for hostile governments to use geoengineering against the United States. Geoengineering is another form of weather modification that involves a range of different proposals for combatting climate change.
Despite a lack of concrete evidence to back these claims, we know the military has a history of testing weather modification and has specifically mentioned using the weather as a weapon. For example, In a 1996 document entitled “Weather as a Force Multiplier: Owning the Weather by 2025” the U.S. Air Force discussed a number of proposals for using the weather as a weapon.
Whatever view you take of these projects, the fact remains that they helped spur the movement towards using computer models to attempt to predict the weather. Quite simply, the history of computer model weather prediction is intertwined with the military’s attempts to modify the weather. Weather historian James Fleming writes that the two men largely responsible for computer modeling are Vladimir Zworykin, an RCA engineer noted for his early work in television technology, and John von Neumann, a mathematician with the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. In 1945, Zworykin was promoting the idea that electronic computers could process and analyze mass amounts of meteorological data and issue accurate forecasts.
“The eventual goal to be attained is the international organization of means to study weather phenomena as global phenomena and to channel the world’s weather, as far as possible, in such a way as to minimize the damage from catastrophic disturbances, and otherwise to benefit the world to the greatest extent by improved climatic conditions where possible,” Zworykin wrote. According to Fleming, Neumann agreed with this outlook, stating, “I agree with you completely. This would provide a basis for scientific approach[es] to influencing the weather.”
Modern Hurricane Modification
In 2005, following the destruction left by Hurricane Katrina, USA Today wrote:
In fact, military officials and weather modification experts could be on the verge of joining forces to better gauge, react to, and possibly nullify future hostile forces churned out by Mother Nature.”
On November 10, 2005, Dr. Joseph Golden, former manager of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and veteran of Project STORMFURY, testified before the Senate Subcommittee on Disaster Prediction & Prevention, warning about the need for hurricane modification.
“After the horrendous devastation and loss of life from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, I have been asked several times about the possibility of hurricane modification,” Golden stated. “I firmly believe that we are in a much better position, both with the science and the undergirding technology, than we were when Project STORMFURY was terminated. The need for a renewed national commitment and funding for weather modification research has become more urgent.”
Golden is also involved the Hurricane Aerosol and Microphysics Program (HAMP). In 2010, he gave a presentation discussing how the Department of Homeland Security asked the NOAA to organize a workshop on possible new scientific theory and approaches to hurricane modification in February 2008.
It seems likely that various agencies of the U.S. government began heavily investing in studying weather modification following the destructive hurricane seasons of 2005 and 2008. The idea that the U.S. government could be experimenting with controlling or steering hurricanes may sound like fantasy, but the fact of the matter is the government continues to invest in hurricane modification research. Is it possible that the U.S. government, under the direction of the CIA or the DOD, is working with private industries like General Electric to continue experimenting with weather modification technology? Should the public trust that government officials would fess up to secret experiments?
Top photo | Scott Bryant pushes his plane into a hangar at the Lakin, Kan., airport after flying a cloud seeding mission for the Western Kansas Weather Modification program, Aug. 28, 2007. The program aims to reduce crop damage from hail by saturating storm clouds with silver iodide particles. (AP/Charlie Riedel)
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