Make It Rain: Interview with Kristine C. Harper

Make it Rain by Kristine C. Harper

In the 19th and 20th Centuries, both the federal and state governments of the United States explored ways to control the weather. Initially these were not particularly serious, but by the Cold War the United States was looking for any advantage it could find over the Soviet Union. Professor Kristine C. Harper's new book, Make It Rain: State Control of the Atmosphere in Twentieth-Century America, published by The University of Chicago Press explores the bizarre and ridiculous history of state-funded attempts to control the weather.

Kristine Harper is currently an Associate Professor of History at Florida State University. In addition to Make it Rain, Professor Harper also wrote the definitive history of meteorology Weather by the Numbers: The Genesis of Modern Meteorology.

Here is our interview:

In an episode of White Rabbit Project, the hosts describe how in 1915 the city of San Diego hired rainmaker Charles Hatfield to end a drought. Needless to say, it went horribly wrong. Soon after Hatfield was hired, San Diego experienced the largest and deadliest flood in its history. Hatfield was fairly notorious and even inspired the Burt Lancaster movie “The Rainmaker.” When did the state and federal governments begin to see rainmakers, such as Hatfield, as legitimate options?

While the federal government did not hire people like Hatfield, who generally used “secret” concoctions that were supposed to induce rain, it did finance rainmaking tests in the Texas Panhandle in 1891. These experiments did not mean that government scientists had accepted its efficacy, only that Illinois Senator James Farwell, who owned semi-arid land in Texas that would be more profitable with additional water, managed to slip in an appropriation for the US Department of Agriculture to conduct such experiments. Several individuals, including meteorologist James Pollard Espy, had been arguing for the possibility of using smoke from burning brush or exploding ordnance to create clouds that would ultimately provide needed rain. Even into the early twentieth century, when the City of San Diego hired Charles Hatfield, most self-described rainmakers were hired by agricultural interests and not by municipalities. Federal, state, and municipal interest did not ramp up until the late 1940s as the post-World War II idea that there was a technological fix for whatever ailed the country took hold.

Why did people believe that humans could control the weather? Who convinced the government that this was possible?

Since at least the time of Plutarch, a first century Greek biographer, people noticed that rain often followed battles, a connection that was revived in the nineteenth century. Mind you, first century battles did not involve explosives, which create all kinds of smoke and particulate matter that theoretically could be connected to cloud formation. By the time explosives appeared on the battlefield, people had become convinced that the sound of the explosives could dissipate thunderstorms, and from that point, church bells were used to ward them off. Any connection between battles and rain was strictly coincidental, but the idea of using loud sounds to divert storms remained in place until the early nineteenth century, when that idea was turned on its head and people began theorizing that battlefield smoke would induce cloudiness and resultant rain.

Two individuals—meteorologist James Pollard Espy and civil engineer Edward Powers—were the primary supporters of this idea in the United States. Espy had proposed accumulating large stashes of dried brush in the US West, torching them off, and then waiting for the rising smoke to create clouds and then rain out as they floated east, but Congress turned down that request in 1850. But when Powers argued in his book War and the Weather (1871) that explosives on the battlefield were responsible for the rain that inevitably—in his telling—followed battles, he ultimately found a more welcoming audience in the halls of Congress.

Professor Kristine C. Harper

Why did the United States government become interested in weather control? What did they hope to accomplish?

In this initial government attempt to control the weather, Senator Farwell, and the senators he convinced to support his appropriation, wanted to provide inexpensive water to the US West to expand agriculture in land that would be marginally or completely unproductive without extra water. They were looking for a way to make the desert bloom without the expense of large irrigation systems, thus increasing the value of the land. Since the results of these 1890s-era experiments were mixed at best, additional weather control efforts were almost exclusively undertaken by private agricultural interests who hired rainmakers like Hatfield.

However, by the 1920s, federal interest had shifted to possible military uses, in particular the ability to dissipate clouds to allow the pilots of early military aircraft—who depended upon having full sight of the airfield and the skies above them—to take off and land through dense layers of clouds. The technique had changed from explosives to using electrified sand, which was supposed to gather cloud droplets together (it takes almost a million of them to make a raindrop) until they became heavy enough to fall out.

Federal interest in all forms of weather control waned during the Dust Bowl years (when there was insufficient moisture to create clouds), only to reappear in the immediate aftermath of World War II. With the beginning of the Cold War, the focus turned to harnessing nature as a diplomatic and offensive/defensive tool in the international realm, and a national security tool, e.g., expanding agriculture, industrial, and municipal uses to strengthen the home front, domestically. The amount of money being set aside for a variety of these projects ballooned to meet the demand.

Was there anything useful that came out of any of these projects?

None of them worked really well. The bottom line: weather control efforts—primarily silver iodide seeding—worked best when it was going to rain anyway. However, all of these projects provided a wealth of information on cloud physics and precipitation processes. And while federal activity in weather control is much diminished, state and local governments have continued to pursue a variety of programs to boost rain- and snowfall, and to reduce hail damage.

Did these projects end? If so, what convinced the government to stop funding these projects?

The federal government funded numerous projects through the Departments of Defense (Navy and Air Force), Agriculture (US Forest Service), Interior (Bureau of Reclamation), and Commerce (Weather Bureau), and the National Science Foundation, none of which were overwhelmingly successful. The initial program, dubbed Project Cirrus, showed enough promise that weather control funding and supervision was handed to the National Science Foundation in 1957. The US Forest Service’s Project Skyfire attempted to suppress lightning and then to trigger rain to put out lightning fires if that failed; the Department of Interior’s Project Skywater attempted to trigger rainfall over its extant reservoirs to feed irrigation projects; and the Department of Defense/US Weather Bureau Project Stormfury attempted to snuff out hurricanes before they could hit the coastline with damaging winds and storm surges. The Department of Defense was also behind Project Popeye/Compatriot and Project GROMET—the former attempted to use weather control as a weapon in Vietnam and Laos during the Vietnam War, and the latter to relieve India’s Bihar drought in the late 1960s. All these programs were phased out by the 1970s, although the military has continued examinations of weather control options.

The domestic programs ended for a variety of reasons, but all were affected by cost-cutting measures. Skyfire, which had begun in the 1950s, had never been all that successful. Skywater was adversely affected by generally wetter conditions, which meant deliberately tapping atmospheric water vapor no longer made sense. And Stormfury was so constrained by operational requirements (seeding hurricanes outside of a small area in the Atlantic was prohibited) that it ceased due to a lack of tropical systems to treat with silver iodide seeds. On the international front, the secret Project GROMET in India was killed off before anyone could tie it to the weaponized version in Vietnam. The similarly top secret Popeye/Compatriot died after being exposed by an article in the New York Times by journalist Seymour Hersh, triggering numerous congressional hearings led by Senator Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island and considerable international embarrassment at having been caught using weather as a weapon.

How did you become interested in this topic? What attracted you to it?

I first stumbled over federal efforts in weather control while researching my dissertation (and first book, Weather by the Numbers: The Genesis of Modern Meteorology) on the development of numerical weather prediction. As it turns out, the selling point for numerical weather prediction funding was not just that more accurate forecasts of atmospheric conditions could be produced more quickly, but that once these techniques could be perfected, scientists would be able to create what we would now call virtual weather in a computer and then turn that vision into reality. Whoa! How cool was that? A few months later, while conducting an oral history interview, I stumbled across a code word (GROMET) for a project that had aimed to mitigate India’s Bihar drought in the late 1960s. I found all this fascinating because as a graduate student in meteorology, my professors had argued that any attempts to modify the weather were a waste of time, and here I was seeing large amounts of money being plunged into what the federal government called weather control at the behest of influential members of the US Congress. I just had to keep following the clues.

When did you realize that there were enough resources to turn the story into a book? What resources or archives did you use?

I realized I had enough archival resources to turn this story into a book after a trip to the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and then follow-up trips to the National Archives II in College Park, Maryland, and the Library of Congress manuscript room in Washington, DC. Ultimately, I used twenty-seven different collections from the above locations, the Eisenhower Presidential Library, the archives of five universities (Harvard, MIT, the University of Washington, the University at Albany, SUNY, and the American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming), the State of Washington Archives, and the private collection of the late Navy meteorologist, Captain Howard T. Orville. In addition, I made extensive use of articles from the New York Times, the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, and the Journal of Weather Modification, and dozens of government publications and congressional hearings. I then tied the story to existing historical writings addressing the history of science (advances in meteorology), the history of technology (advances in cloud seeding techniques), environmental history (the control of nature), and the state (how the American state has influenced advances in science and technology over time).

When you were working on this project, what surprised you the most?

This project on weather control was really the gift that just kept on giving. I had known about weather modification discussions from my days as an operational meteorologist from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s. What I had not realized was how much the federal government had been involved from the beginning, nor how many state and local governments had found themselves struggling to control it, nor how separated most of these attempts were from meteorologists who were struggling to understand precipitation processes. What I found most amazing were the political efforts to bring these projects to fruition based on arguments made by scholars who were not meteorologists in the face of scientifically based objections by expert meteorologists.

How would you recommend using this book in the classroom?

This book could be used in history and science policy courses that address 20th century uses of science and technology to fix man-made and naturally occurring problems. Because it clearly and simply explains the scientific and technological aspects of weather control, students can follow those developments while they examine the influence of politics, society, and culture on both scientific and technological developments and their applications, and also how science and technology influence politics, society, and culture. Considering current discussions of the potential hazards from climate change and the possibilities of geoengineering techniques to mitigate them, it is important to see how similar efforts have worked—or not—in the past.