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The Discovery of Global Warming
A hypertext history of how scientists came to (partly) understand what people are doing to cause climate change.

by Spencer Weart
Climate Modification Schemes

If human activities could change climate, why not change it on purpose, to suit us better? From 1945 into the 1970s, much effort went into studies of weather modification. American entrepreneurs tried cloud-seeding to enhance local rainfall, Russian scientists offered fabulous schemes of planetary engineering, and military agencies secretly explored "climatological warfare." The hopes and fears promoted basic research on climate change by raising large sums of government money and a few provocative ideas. In the mid 1970s the visionary projects were abandoned. Research turned instead to schemes for technological interventions that might restrain global warming if it started to become unbearable.

"The history of weather modification is one of painfully slow progress."
— H.R. Byers(1)

At the close of the Second World War, a few American scientists brought up a troublesome idea. If it were true, as some claimed, that humans were inadvertently changing their local weather by cutting down forests and emitting pollution, why not try to modify the weather on purpose? For generations there had been proposals for rainmaking, based on folklore like the story that cannonades from big battles brought rain. Now top experts began to take the question seriously. Perhaps they were inspired by the almost unimaginable technical powers demonstrated in the war's gigantic bomber fleets and the advent of nuclear weapons. Whatever the impulse, at the end of 1945 a brilliant mathematician, John von Neumann, called other leading scientists to a meeting in Princeton, where they agreed that modifying weather deliberately might be possible. They expected that could make a great difference in the next war. Soviet harvests, for example, might be ruined by creating a drought. Some scientists suspected that alongside the race with the Soviet Union for ever more terrible nuclear weapons, they were entering an equally fateful race to control the weather.

As the Cold War got underway, U.S. military agencies devoted significant funds to research on what came to be called "climatological warfare."(2) Much of this lay behind a curtain of secrecy, although enough hints were published for attentive members of the public to see that human manipulation of climate could become a serious issue. =>Models (GCMs) For scientists like von Neumann, the main research thrust was plain: the nation needed computer modeling of weather systems. For the chief difficulty in figuring out how to change climate lay in predicting just how the atmosphere might respond to a given type of intervention. The only hope for answering that (aside from trying it out) was with computer models.

Meanwhile, far more visibly, the famous scientist Irving Langmuir and his associates at the General Electric company were exploring a new proposal for rainmaking. Their idea was to "seed" clouds with a smoke of particles, such as silver iodide crystals, that could act as nuclei for the formation of raindrops. Langmuir quickly won support from military agencies, and claimed success in field experiments. A small but energetic industry of commercial "cloud seeders" sprang up with even more optimistic claims. Controversy followed, polarizing scientists, exciting the public and catching the attention of politicians. As soon as some community attempted to bring rain on themselves, people downwind would hire lawyers to argue that they had been robbed of their own precipitation. Concern climbed to high levels of government, and in 1953 a President's Advisory Committee on Weather Control was established to pursue the idea. In 1958, the U.S. Congress acted directly to fund expanded rainmaking research. Large-scale experimentation was also underway, less openly, in the Soviet Union.(3)

Military agencies in the U.S. (and presumably in the Soviet Union) supported research not only on cloud seeding but on other ways injecting materials into the atmosphere might alter that weather. =>Government, <=>Aerosols Although much of this was buried in secrecy, the public learned that climatological warfare might become possible. In a 1955 Fortune magazine article, von Neumann himself explained that "Microscopic layers of colored matter spread on an icy surface, or in the atmosphere above one, could inhibit the reflection-radiation process, melt the ice, and change the local climate." The effects could be far-reaching, even world-wide. "What power over our environment, over all nature, is implied!" he exclaimed. Von Neumann foresaw "forms of climatic warfare as yet unimagined," perhaps more dangerous than nuclear war itself. He hoped it would force humanity to take a new, global approach to its political problems.(4) =>Public opinion

Through the 1960s, plans for cloud seeding and other interventions remained active and controversial. A review by the National Academy of Sciences tentatively supported some claims of success, government agencies launched competing programs and conducted several large-scale field trials. The costly research programs were perpetually on the brink of proving something, but never got truly convincing results.<=>Aerosols Many academic meteorologists came to disdain the whole subject, infested as it was with unfulfilled promises and commercial hucksters.(5) Despite these misgivings, the U.S. government spent more than twenty million dollars a year on weather modification research in the early 1970s.

The Soviet Union was determined not to be left behind in any grandiose technology. Little is known of what studies the Soviets undertook on climatological warfare, but some novel ideas did become public. One starting-point was a Russian legacy of hydraulic engineering fantasies, notably an old scheme to divert Siberian rivers. Why not take the water flowing uselessly into the Arctic Ocean, and send it south to turn the parched soils of central Asia into farmlands? The plans were reported in the early 1950s, catching the attention of the public and scientists in the West, although a decade would pass before Soviet scientists examined the details in open publications. These scientists pointed out that the diversion of fresh water would make the surface layers of the Arctic Ocean more salty. Therefore much of the icepack might not form in winter.=>Simple models Wouldn't that mean increased warmth, a boon to Siberians? A few Russian meteorologists questioned the scheme, even though Communist authorities frowned upon anyone who cast doubt over potential engineering triumphs. O.A. Drozdov, in particular, used weather records to empirically check what could happen around the Arctic in years of less ice, and reported there had been serious changes in precipitation.

An even more gargantuan proposal aimed directly at climate. Around 1956, Soviet engineers began to speculate that they might be able to throw a dam across the Bering Strait and pump water from the Arctic Ocean into the Pacific. This would draw warm water up from the Atlantic. Their aim was to eliminate the ice pack, make the Arctic Ocean navigable, and warm up Siberia. The idea attracted some notice in the United States — presidential candidate John F. Kennedy remarked that the idea was worth exploring as a joint project with the Soviets, and the discussion continued into the 1970s. Such "geoengineering" projects were in line with traditional American technological optimism, and still more with the Communist dogma that "man can really be the master of this planet." As the title of an enthusiastic Russian publication put it, the issue was "Man versus Climate." However, it was hard to tell whether giant projects such as a Bering Dam made sense. Mikhail I. Budyko, the most prominent Russian climate expert, pointed out that the effects of such interventions would be unpredictable, and he advised against them.(6)

A more feasible scheme would be to spread particles in the atmosphere, or perhaps directly on the ground. Beginning around 1961, Budyko and other scientists speculated about how humanity might alter the global climate by strewing dark dust or soot across the Arctic snow and ice. The soot would lower the albedo (reflection of sunlight), and the air would get warmer.(7)<=>Simple models Spreading so much dust year after year would be prohibitively expensive. But according to a well-known theory, warmer air should melt some snow and sea-ice and thus expose the dark underlying soil and ocean water, which would absorb sunlight and bring on more warming. So once dust destroyed the reflective cover, it might not re-form.

Russian scientists were not sure whether this would be wise, and scientists elsewhere were still more dubious. In 1971 a group of American experts said that "deliberate measures to induce arctic sea ice melting might prove successful and might prove difficult to reverse should they have undesirable side effects."(8*) As the respected British climate expert Hubert Lamb suggested, before taking any action it seemed like "an essential precaution to wait until a scientific system for forecasting the behavior of the natural climate... has been devised and operated successfully for, perhaps, a hundred years."(9)

By this time, the early 1970s, feelings about human relations with the natural environment had undergone a historic shift.<=Public opinion  Many technologies now seemed less a triumph of civilized progress than wicked transgressions. If it were true, as some scientists claimed, that human emissions were inadvertently changing the entire global climate, the chief result seemed to be droughts and other calamities. As for deliberate rain-making attempts, if they were successful (which remained far from proven) they might only be robbing farmers downwind who should have gotten the rain instead. Such projects might even harm the very people who got the rain. For example, a 1972 U.S. government rain-making operation in South Dakota was followed by a disastrous flood, and came under attack in a class-action lawsuit. <=Public opinion One cloud-seeding airplane was even shot at. An increasing number of people objected in principle to any such meddling with natural processes. =>Government The idea of changing the weather had shifted from a benign dream of progress to a nightmare of apocalyptic risk. Between 1972 and 1975 the U.S. government dramatically cut its budget for weather modification.(10)

Meanwhile the government had secretly been spending many millions of dollars on a grand experiment in actual climatological warfare. The U.S. Department of Defense directed extensive cloud-seeding over the Ho Chi Minh Trail, hoping to increase rainfall and bog down the North Vietnamese Army's supply line in mud. The public did not learn of this until 1974, =>Public opinion two years after the program wound down in failure. Many people were dismayed when they learned of the experiment. There followed a series of resolutions, in bodies from the U.S. Senate to the General Assembly of the United Nations, outlawing climatological warfare. =>Government The movement culminated in a 1976 international convention that foreswore hostile use of "environmental modification techniques."(11)

Of course we were already modifying the world's atmosphere with quantities of polluting aerosols and greenhouse gases vastly beyond anything the most aggressive warrior had imagined. If that raised a risk of damage to climate, some thought we were obliged to prepare a remedy. Now when scientists discussed steps to melt arctic snows or the like, it was not to craft utopian weather, but with the aims implied in the title that Lamb gave a 1971 review article: "Climate-engineering schemes to meet a climatic emergency."(12)

Already back in 1965, a Presidential advisory panel had suggested that if greenhouse effect warming by carbon dioxide gas ever became a problem, the government might take countervailing steps. =>Government The panel did not consider curbing the use of fossil fuels. They had in mind geoengineering schemes — spreading something across the ocean waters to reflect more sunlight, perhaps, or sowing particles high in the atmosphere to encourage the formation of reflective clouds. <=Aerosols Some back-of-the-envelope arithmetic suggested such steps were feasible, and indeed could cost less than many government programs.(13) In 1974, Budyko calculated that if global warming ever became a serious threat, we could counter it with just a few airplane flights a day in the stratosphere, burning sulfur to make aerosols that would reflect sunlight away.

For a few years in the early 1970s, new evidence and arguments led many scientists to suspect that the greatest climate risk was not warming, but cooling. <=Climate cycles A new ice age seemed to be approaching as part of the natural glacial cycle, perhaps hastened by human pollution that blocked sunlight. <=Public opinion Technological optimists suggested ways to counter this threat too. We might spread soot from cargo aircraft to darken the Arctic snows, or even shatter the Arctic ice pack with "clean" thermonuclear explosions.

Whether we used technological ingenuity against global cooling or against global warming, Budyko pointed out that any action would change climate in different ways for different nations. Attempts at modification, he insisted, "should be allowed only after the projects have been considered and approved by responsible international organizations and have received the consent of all interested countries." The bitter fighting among communities over cloud-seeding would be as nothing compared with conflicts over attempts to engineer global climate. =>Public opinion Moreover, as Budyko and Western scientists alike warned, scientists could not predict the consequences of such engineering efforts. We might forestall global warming only to find we had triggered a new ice age.(14)

Such worries revived the U.S. military's interest in artificial climate change on a global scale. <=Models (GCMs) A group at the RAND corporation, a defense think tank near Los Angeles, had been working with a computer climate model that originated at the University of California, Los Angeles. This was normal scientific research, funded by the civilian National Science Foundation. Around 1970, however, with opponents of the Vietnam war attacking anything that smelled of militarism, the NSF backed out of funding work with overt military connections. The RAND group had to scramble to find support elsewhere. They turned to the Advanced Research Projects Agency of the Department of Defense. ARPA was meanwhile on the lookout for computing projects that could justify the funds it had lavished on its ILLIAC supercomputer. =>Models (GCMs) The menace of Soviet climate engineering schemes gave a plausible rationale. ARPA awarded the project millions of dollars, a secret classification, and a code name, NILE BLUE. =>Government The money supported a variety of large-scale computer studies and even some work on ancient climates. Nothing of obvious military significance turned up, but the program's results proved useful for other climate scientists. After a few years the program was demilitarized. The NSF took over funding as work with the RAND model migrated to the University of Oregon.(15)

As environmental concerns grew more widespread and sophisticated, experts and the public alike demanded a cautious approach to any intervention. A 1977 Academy report looked at a variety of grand schemes we might use to reduce global warming, should it ever become dangerous (for example, massive planting of forests to soak up carbon). The experts could not muster much optimism for any of these schemes. The panel thought that a turn to renewable energy resources seemed a more practical solution.(16)

People nevertheless continued to come up with projects we might pursue if greenhouse warming made us desperate enough. To cite another of the many ideas, we could collect carbon dioxide gas from the furnaces where coal was burned, compress it into a liquid, and inject it into the depths of the Earth or the oceans. That sounded like an engineer's fantasy, but studies indicated it might in fact be done at reasonable cost.(17) <=Biosphere Another fantastic yet perhaps feasible proposal was to fertilize barren tracts of the oceans with trace minerals. In the 1990s, calculations and field trials suggested that an occasional tanker load of iron compounds could induce massive blooms of plankton. The creatures would absorb carbon and take it to the ocean bottom when they died. However, scientists could not be sure that the end result would be to lower the total of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.(18)

Dozens of other schemes for mitigating the greenhouse effect were published, ranging from modest practical improvements in energy systems to futuristic visions. When a National Academy of Sciences panel convened in 1991 to catalog the options, the members got into a long and serious debate over whether to include the grand "geoengineering" ideas. <=>Government Might hopes of a future fix just encourage people to keep polluting? They reluctantly voted to include every idea, so that preparations could start in case the climate deteriorated so badly that radical steps would be the lesser evil. Their fundamental problem was the one that had bedeviled climate science from the start — if you pushed on this intricate system, nobody could say for sure what the final consequences might be.(19)

"Weather modification," a participant had written ruefully in 1974, "is based on sound physical principles that cannot be applied precisely in the open atmosphere because several processes are interacting together in a manner difficult to predict." Moreover, attempts to change the weather "are superimposed upon natural processes acting, perhaps indistinguishably, to the same or opposite effect.... Therefore it should not be surprising that the history of weather modification is one of painfully slow progress."(20) Much the same could be said of research on how humans were modifying the climate inadvertently.
SPENCER R. WEART (sweart@aip.org) is Director of the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics (AIP) in College Park, Maryland, USA. Originally trained as a physicist, he is now a noted historian specializing in the history of modern physics and geophysics.
Much of his recent effort goes into producing and editing the extensive historical exhibits on the AIP History Center’s award-winning Website.

1.  Byers (1974), p. 3.

2.  Kwa (2001); Kwa (1994); Keith (2000), p. 252; A. Spilhaus, interview by R. Doel, Nov. 1989, AIP.

3.  Lambright and Changnon (1989); Byers (1974); Soviet: Keith (2000), p. 250-51.

4.  von Neumann (1955), pp. 108, 151.

5.  National Academy of Sciences (1966); Lambright and Changnon (1989); Byers (1974).

6.  Lamb (1971); Lamb (1977), pp. 660-61; for Soviet and other conquest of nature ideology see Josephson (2002). I have not seen Lamb's Russian-language references, which include: for diversion, Adabashev (1966); Drozdov (1966); for dam, Borisov (1962) ; Budyko (1962); inadvisable: Budyko (1977), pp. 237-38; for U.S. reaction, see e.g., National Academy of Sciences (1966), vol. 2, p. 61; for the whole story, Ponte (1976), pp. 220-29; Keith (2000), p. 251, quoting "master of this planet" from Rusin and Flit (1960).

7.  For discussion and references, see Lamb (1977), pp. 46, 660-61, 676, 797; I have not checked his Russian references, which include Budyko (1961); Budyko (1962); Rakipova (1966); 1966 Rakipova reports in English translation are cited by Sellers (1969).

8.  Donn and Shaw (1966) (without reference to Budyko); Fletcher (1966); Sellers (1969) however calculated a temperature rise of only 7C if the ice pack were destroyed, probably insufficient to keep ice from re-forming; Wilson and Matthews (1971), quote p. 182.

9.  Lamb (1971), quote p. 95.

10.  Ponte (1976), pp. 156-58; Kwa (2001).

11.  For the public acknowledgment, see New York Times, May 19, 1974, p. 1, also Shapley (1974). Indications were already published in 1971 in a Jack Anderson column in the Washington Post, 18 March 1971, and in the "Pentagon Papers," see Seymour Hersh, "Weather as a weapon of war," New York Times, July 9, 1972, p. IV:3; for background and response, see Ponte (1976), ch. 11. Convention on the Prohibition of Military or any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques, UN Treaty Ser. 1108:151.

12.  Lamb (1971).

13.  President's Science Advisory Committee (1965), estimated cost $500 million per year, p. 127; see National Academy of Sciences (1966), vol. 2, pp. 60-62.

14.  Budyko and Korol (1975), p. 469; Landsberg (1970), p. 1268. He cites 1968-69 RAND Corp. reports by J.O. Fletcher; for spreading smog from supersonic transports, see Wilson and Matthews (1971), p. 9; a summary with warnings is Kellogg and Schneider (1974), pp. 169-70.

15.  Hecht and Tirpak (1995), p. 375; personal communication from John Perry, 2001, and Rapp (1970) .

16.  National Academy of Sciences (1977); for discussion of Academy reports, see Keith (2000).

17.  Notably Marchetti (1977), where the term "geoengineering" may have first appeared.

18.  Coate et al. (1996); Chisholm (2000).

19.  Schneider (2001), p. 418.

20.  Byers (1974), p. 3.


Copyright 2003-2005 Spencer Weart and the American Institute of Physics.


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