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Can We Control the Weather? 200 Years of Attempts
The News - Climate-Environment
June 18, 2013
control the weather
Humans have dreamed of taking control of the weather long before Superman and James Bond villains plotted world domination. Growing concerns over climate change and major disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and the deadly tornado outbreaks in Oklahoma have only increased our desire to stop severe weather in its tracks. We've put vehicles on Mars and invented the Internet — why can't we alter the weather?

It hasn't been for lack of trying. In the last 200 years, the clouds have proven a resilient adversary, according to the Boston Globe, resisting well-funded and imaginative attempts at manipulation by meteorologists, physicists and hobbyists.

Ideas have ranged from building massive rain towers to alleviate drought to using anti-aircraft guns loaded with silver iodide to keep rain away from the Beijing Olympics.

Here's a look at some of these ideas and technologies, and the colorful history behind weather control attempts:

Flying Supersonic Jets into Hurricanes


Hurricanes can wreak major havoc when they hit populated areas, but one researcher believes these storms could be broken up by F-4 jet fighters.

University of Akron at Ohio professor Arkadii Leonov and his colleagues applied for the patent for this method in 2008, as New Scientist reported.

In a nutshell, a pilot would fly a supersonic jet aircraft in concentric circles around the eye of the hurricane. The jets would generate a sonic boom that would disrupt the upward flow of warm air that creates the hurricane. Because sonic booms spread out as they travel away from the aircraft, even a small number of jets could do the job, Leonov explained to i09.

A former director of NOAA's Hurricane Research division, Hugh Willoughby, told i09 he wasn't keen on the idea.

"The shock wave is like a very intense sound wave that passes through the meteorological motions without affecting them much," he said. "The metaphor of shouting in the wind is apt."

Lasers the New Rainmakers?


The rain dance had a 21st century revamp when physicists shot lasers into the sky to trigger the formation of water droplets, which could eventually grow into raindrops.

The experiments were headed by Jerome Kasparian, a physicist at the University of Geneva in Switzerland, whose team tested infrared lasers over the Rhone River in 2010.

Such lasers could act as tomorrow's rainmakers by making "cloud seed" chemicals to form in the atmosphere. However, the water droplets formed by the early experiments would need to grow in size by 10 to 100 times in order to actually make it rain, Kasparian told Live Science.

Rain Skyscrapers


A farmer and his two sons during a dust storm in Cimarron County, Oklahoma, 1936.

In the 1930s, French meteorologist Bernard Dubos pitched an idea to provide much-needed rain to crops during the Dust Bowl: weather-modification towers taller than the Empire State Building.


Could the Dust Bowl Happen Again?

The process was supposed to work by drawing warm water at a pumping station at ground level to the hollow, Bugle-shaped concrete and steel tower, according to Gizmodo. The rising air in the tower would be cooled and produce condensation.

The idea wasn't cheap. Dubos predicted his rain towers would cost about $10 million each, or $135.6 million today, adjusted for inflation.

A few years later, Dubos also told the Virgin Islands Daily News he had a plan to "hide all of Paris under a blanket of clouds one mile thick" by pumping air, heavily laden with water, through a flue as tall as the Eiffel Tower (975 feet). With five or six of these machines placed at different points along loops of the Seine, engineers at the time believed he could create enough clouds to quickly hide the whole Paris region from enemy aviators.

Needless to say, neither of these massive projects was ever built.

Anti-Hail Cannon


A hailstorm can ruin a year's worth of crops in a matter of minutes, but a machine has emerged to help farmers (literally) combat this problem.


Raw: See giant hail shatter windshield

Hail cannons are devices that fire shockwaves up into thunderclouds to prevent hailstones from forming. The theory dates back to the 14th century, when people in Europe attempted to ward off hail by ringing church bells and firing cannons. Anti-hail cannons were especially popular in wine-producing regions of Europe during the 19th century, and modern versions of them are still used in Italy.

In the U.S., hail cannons have been marketed through events like Tulare County's World Ag Expo, billed as the largest farm equipment show in the world, and farmers in states such as Colorado, Nebraska and Michigan have bought them in recent years, USA Today reports.

However, scientists say there's little evidence for its effectiveness. "It'd have to be something pretty major to upset hail," Charles Knight, a senior scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research, told USA Today. "If you exploded an atomic bomb in a cloud, that might do something."

The cannons can also cause clashes between farmers and neighbors. When used, they are repeatedly fired every 1 to 10 seconds while a storm is approaching and until it has passed through the area.



A modern-day cloudbuster, which consists of an array of parallel hollow metal tubes.

Among the ideas proposed for weather control, few have been quite as peculiar as Wilhelm Reich's cloudbuster. The device manipulates Orgone Energy, a cosmic life force that also happens to hold clouds together. It resembles the chi of traditional Chinese belief and is yet to be detected by orthodox science, according to the Guardian.


Wilhelm Reich with one of his cloudbusters.

The cloudbuster was intended to be used in the same way as a lightning rod. An operator focuses the machine on a location in the sky and grounds it to a material that is presumed to be Orgone, such as a body of water. This would draw the Orgone out of the atmosphere and cause the formation of clouds or rain.

His theory attracted major media attention in 1953, when farmers in Maine paid the Austrian psychiatrist to use the cloudbuster to end a drought. He operated it for just over an hour and it rained the next morning. Skeptics suggest it was a coincidence.

You can find instructions online about how to build your own cloudbuster today, which is said to be safer than the original. Reich warned his cloudbuster could drill holes in the sky or cause tornadoes if used by an unskilled operator.


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