Friday, March 15, 2013

Fixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control

Fixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate ControlFixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control by James Rodger Fleming
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Last Summer, I was driving with my oldest son down to what would become his chosen school for freshman orientation day. On the way from Madison to Ames, we encountered a monster of a Midwest thunderstorm, the sort of storm that might just drive you off the road and into a flooding ditch. It had been a few years since I had last experienced that kind of deluge and seen the sky turn so dark. I was keeping my eyes open for anything alarming and felt a palpable shock as I caught what looked like a tornado touching the ground not 100 yards off the highway. I told my son to keep his eyes on it while I slowed down so we could find a low spot. As I looked again, I saw something strange - there was a fire, a fire raging at the bottom of the spout. Then it hit me, this wasn't a tornado at all. Against all common sense, a farmer was burning a house-sized pile of brush in the midst of this maelstrom. Flames fought against sheets of rain, wind whipping a funnel-shaped smoke cloud into the black sky.

Had I been a very young child, I might have observed the situation and come to a very wrong conclusion: The fire sent black smoke clouds up into the sky and made them bigger, as a result, the enlarged clouds had to give up their rain. Sounds silly, doesn't it? Childish, even.

Believe it or not, this was the prevalent theory behind early attempts at rainmaking. Smoke up the sky, and it will give rain. Give the moisture in the atmosphere something to condense around, and water will fall from the sky, right? Well, no, not really. At least not without setting entire regions of a nation on fire. Even then, the results are unimpressive.

So smoking the rain out doesn't work. How about shooting it out? It stands to reason that if dense clouds are more likely to produce rain, one could simply push the clouds together, say, with torpedoes hung off a hydrogen balloon then detonated at the right height. That way we squeeze the water out of the clouds with concussions! Better yet, let's get entire batteries of artillery lined up (at taxpayer expense, of course) and let loose a barrage on the sky that will verily smash the rain out of the clouds and onto our crops!

And even if we know it doesn't work, let's convince a few naive people that it does and get a little money in our pockets.

That's essentially the first half of Fixing the Sky, a history of ill-informed suppositions about how to make (or prevent) rain and the methods employed to do so. Some did it with an honest desire to control the weather, others in a dishonest attempt to bilk people of their money. You'd be surprised how many were successful at this chicanery, who they were able to fool, and even when this happened. Some of it's recent history. Very recent. Scary how a lack of professional oversight can leave the uneducated or over-eager seeker of weather control to believe what they want to believe, individually or as governing bodies.

Even some of the scientists who should know better get caught up in what Nobel laureate Irving Langmuir dubbed "Pathological Science". This happens when those on the cutting edge of science make excessive claims for their results. They can convince themselves and colleagues about the truth of their suppositions, stretching observations beyond the bounds of experiment and creating theoretical constructs that justify these extrapolations. Fleming elaborates:

By attributing causation to events that are barely detectable or poorly understood, they may convince themselves and co-workers of their "discovery." If they persist, weaving theoretical justifications with claims of great accuracy and responding to criticisms with ad hoc excuses, they may cross the boundary into pathological science. If other researchers cannot reproduce any part of the alleged effect, or of (sic) the experiment fails repeatedly in the presence of an objective observer, the rules of good scientific practice are supposed to kick in, with support dropping off rapidly until nothing is left to salvage - according to Langmuir.

The sad irony is that Langmuir himself was caught up in pathological science when he repeatedly insisted on the benefits of large-scale weather control, particularly by jumping to a series of questionable, and some outright false, conclusions regarding military cloud-seeding experiments that took place in New Mexico in the late 1940s. Fellow scientists who questioned him were met with a condescending attitude and an implication that they weren't smart enough to see what he saw. Caught up in his own unsubstantiated claims, he was still regarded, when he passed on in 1957, as one of the world's greatest scientists in the popular press, while many of his colleagues were distraught at his entrapment by the very pathological science he had identified so many years before.

As one might expect, the military was heavily involved in weather control experiments from the beginning. My father served in the Air Force during the time of some of these experiments as an intelligence gatherer. Later, after international treaties forbade such dabbling in the weather, he became an Air Force meteorologist. This he did for most of his working career in the Air Force, as a Government Service employee, and as a civilian contractor - with one small exception. For one year, Dad went to Korea on a remote assignment (meaning my mom and brother and I didn't get to go with him). Years after he retired, I asked him what he did there, really. He was a War Planner. I recall saying something to him about planning a conventional war against North Korea, and he said: "Oh, not just conventional. Nuclear, biological, chemical, whatever. We planned everything." It's the "whatever" that makes me curious. Right smack in the middle of his career as a meteorologist, he's called to be a War Planner, helping to plan for future contingencies that involved invading North Korea. Was weather manipulation a part of it? I may never know. I've pressed my Dad a couple of times for details on what he knows, but, being the good soldier that he is, he remains vague. He's even told me "I'll take some secrets to the grave with me." Very mysterious, given what I've learned from Fleming's book.

So don't be surprised when you read about some of the crazy experiments the military has sponsored over the years. One of the strangest is Project Westford, begun in 1963, in which the Department of Defense, along with MIT, launched millions of tiny copper wires into an orbital ring around the earth. These were meant to serve as a giant radio antenna circling the globe. Of course, over time, the wires' orbit degraded. They are still falling from the sky.

Several other experiments are outlined in the book, but I won't spoil all the fun of discovery for you. Suffice it to say that the 19th century idea that man could shoot rain from the sky has morphed into the notion that global warming can be reversed by shooting aerosols into the atmosphere using naval cannons or even tank cannons - though there has been no proof-of-concept that might expose undesirable side effects of such an assault on the atmosphere. In fact, there are many proposals being floated now on how to battle global warming, all of them seemingly "crazy". The ultimate argument of Fleming's last chapters is that theories of extreme Geo-engineering (on a climatic scale) are being used to divert attention away from the middle road of mitigating damage, rather than ignoring the problem, on one hand, and endangering the human race by using untested large-scale methods of climate control, on the other. In essence, he's saying we need to cut emissions. Drive less. Use less fossil fuel. Plant more trees. The easy stuff that we find so hard to do.

If this review seems "scattered," it's because Fixing the Sky is itself scattered. For the life of me, I can't figure out why Fleming took an entire chapter at the beginning to point out science fictional stories about climate control. They had no place in his thesis and seemed "tacked on" to the beginning of the rest of the book. Speaking of theses, Fleming's minor theses and his major thesis are annoyingly found, respectively, at the end of chapters and at the end of the book. I would have much rather have had those right up front so that I could then judge the content of the book based on his theses. It felt like there was a bit of sleight-of-hand going on here, structurally speaking. Of course, this work was published by Columbia University Press, so you can bet it wallows in the worst sort of intentional academic editorial confusion. I found it, not merely annoying, but downright enraging. There were times I wanted to throw the book out the window. Throw away a chapter of the drivel and reverse the internal structure of each remaining chapter, and you've got an outstanding read. As it is, I found that the editing (or lack thereof) got in the way of the material, much to my disappointment.

Maybe a case of "Pathological Academic Editing"?

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