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Fixing the Sky

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

Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 344
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  • Book Info
    Fixing the Sky
    Book Description:

    As alarm over global warming spreads, a radical idea is gaining momentum. Forget cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, some scientists argue. Instead, bounce sunlight back into space by pumping reflective nanoparticles into the atmosphere. Launch mirrors into orbit around the Earth. Make clouds thicker and brighter to create a "planetary thermostat."

    These ideas might sound like science fiction, but in fact they are part of a very old story. For more than a century, scientists, soldiers, and charlatans have tried to manipulate weather and climate, and like them, today's climate engineers wildly exaggerate what is possible. Scarcely considering the political, military, and ethical implications of managing the world's climate, these individuals hatch schemes with potential consequences that far outweigh anything their predecessors might have faced.

    Showing what can happen when fixing the sky becomes a dangerous experiment in pseudoscience, James Rodger Fleming traces the tragicomic history of the rainmakers, rain fakers, weather warriors, and climate engineers who have been both full of ideas and full of themselves. Weaving together stories from elite science, cutting-edge technology, and popular culture, Fleming examines issues of health and navigation in the 1830s, drought in the 1890s, aircraft safety in the 1930s, and world conflict since the 1940s. Killer hurricanes, ozone depletion, and global warming fuel the fantasies of today. Based on archival and primary research, Fleming's original story speaks to anyone who has a stake in sustaining the planet.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-51306-7
    Subjects: General Science, Technology, Environmental Science, Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
    (pp. 1-14)

    As alarm over global warming spreads, some climate engineers are engaging in wild speculation and are advancing increasingly urgent proposals about how to “control” the Earth’s climate. They are stalking the hallways of power, hyping their proposals, and seeking support for their ideas about fixing the sky. The figures they scribble on the backs of envelopes and the results of their simple (yet somehow portrayed as complex) climate models have convinced them, but very few others, that they are planetary saviors, lifeboat builders on a sinking Titanic, visionaries who are taking action in the face of a looming crisis. They...

    (pp. 15-48)

    Throughout history and across cultures, civilizations have told stories about gods and heroes who have attempted to control that which may be largely uncontrollable, including phenomena both above and below the horizon. There are many sources for such stories. Myth, religion, and traditional practices form the foundations of culture and are often invoked when people seek group solidarity—for example, when the expected rains fail to arrive or a violent storm rages. Stories drawn from Greek mythology, the Western canon, Native American rainmaking, and recent fiction are presented here, followed by examples of geo-science fiction before about 1960—drawn from...

    (pp. 49-76)

    The quest to control nature, including the sky, is deeply rooted in the history of Western science. In the dedication to The Great Instauration (1620), Sir Francis Bacon (1561–1626) encouraged his “wisest and most learned” patron, James I, to regenerate and restore the sciences. Bacon’s program involved “collecting and perfecting” natural and experimental histories to ground philosophy and the sciences “on the solid foundation of experience of every kind.”¹ His wide-ranging catalog of particular histories included aerial and oceanic topics that are relevant here: lightning, wind, clouds, showers, snow, fog, floods, heat, drought, ebb and flow of the sea....

    (pp. 77-108)

    It is not in human nature to suffer from a prolonged or repeated evil without seeking for a remedy”¹—so wrote Daniel Hering in 1924 regarding weather control. In the struggle of the agriculturalist against hail and drought, that “remedy” was to seek new techniques for altering the weather. When the rainmaker mixed his proprietary chemicals and a sprinkle of rain touched the parched prairie, it was hard to dissuade the relieved farmers from believing that they had witnessed a miracle. Hering called this charlatanism an “old, familiar form of delusion”—post hoc, ergo propter hoc—and a weather control,...

    (pp. 109-136)

    For most of human history, at least until 1944, people were at a loss to know what to do about the fogs and vapors obscuring their view. Natural fog, seen from afar, is quite beautiful as it pools in the river valleys or burns off on a sunny morning, but those enshrouded by it may not fully welcome the whiteout conditions it brings. Of course, such obscuration can be a good thing, as in Virgil’s Aeneid when Venus cloaks her son and his companion in a thick fog to protect them on their journey, or when, following a massive artillery...

    (pp. 137-164)

    Irving Langmuir (1881–1957), Nobel laureate in chemistry, quintessential industrial scientist, and associate director of research at the General Electric Corporation in Schenectady, New York, was both a rain king and a friend of weather warriors. He was also the leader of a research team that included Vincent Schaefer (1906–1993), “the snowflake scientist,” who developed dry ice seeding, and Bernard Vonnegut (1914–1997), who identified the chemical silver iodide as a cloud-seeding agent. Langmuir’s work in surface chemistry was solid, even brilliant, and his scientific intuition was usually quite sound. By some measures he was considered to be a...

    (pp. 165-188)

    In an interview conducted in 2008, Colonel Don Berchoff, chief of U.S. Air Force Weather Resources and Programs, denied knowledge, interest, or involvement in techniques for controlling the weather: “I personally don’t believe weather modification is a good thing, and I don’t think the military believes in it. . . . The military does not conduct any kind of experimentation, that I understand, to control the environment to become more advantageous on the battlefield against our enemies. . . . We don’t do that. . . . As far as I know.”¹ We might take this at face value, or...

    (pp. 189-224)

    Climate fears, fantasies, and the possibility of global climate control were widely discussed by scientists and in the popular press in the third quarter of the twentieth century. Some chemists, physicists, mathematicians, and, yes, meteorologists tried to “interfere” with natural processes, not with dry ice or silver iodide but with new Promethean possibilities of climate tinkering opened up by the technologies of digital computing, satellite remote sensing, nuclear power, and atmospheric nuclear testing. Aspects of this story involve engineers’ pipe dreams of mega-construction projects that would result in an ice-free Arctic ocean, a well-regulated Mediterranean Sea, or an electrified and...

    (pp. 225-268)

    During the unusually hot summer of 1988, with a major heat wave in the American Midwest, Yellowstone National Park in flames, and issues such as ozone depletion in the headlines, climate modeler James Hansen of NASA announced to the world that “global warming has begun.”¹ Hansen reported that he was “99 percent certain that the warming trend was not a natural variation but was caused by a buildup of carbon dioxide and other artificial gases in the atmosphere” and that anthropogenic greenhouse warming “is already happening now.” He predicted more-frequent episodes of very high temperatures and drought in the next...

  14. NOTES
    (pp. 269-286)
    (pp. 287-310)
  16. INDEX
    (pp. 311-328)