“A change in the weather is sufficient to recreate the world and ourselves” – Marcel Proust
Humans are forever looking for bigger and better ways to kill each other. When some talented, but vaguely psychotic engineer realized the species looked askance at the use of poison gas (and later atomic bombs), he looked for a happy medium that would nonetheless produce more impressive effects than conventional ordinance and invented thermobaric weapons, or as they are more commonly known, fuel-air bombs. This particular piece of nastiness uses the surrounding oxygen to produce an intense, high temperature explosion with a powerful blast wave that far exceeds your more mundane things that go boom. That’s right. He (the first experiments were conducted in World War II by the German Luftwaffe under the auspices of Austrian physicist Mario Zippermayr) came up with a way to light the air on fire. Now this may seem inadvisable in the best of circumstances, but by the 1960’s both the United States and the Soviets were working hard to get the most bang for their buck without mutually assuring all our destruction. Spending my usual Friday morning perusing the literature for signs of the apocalypse (hey, it’s a hobby. Some people play golf), I ran across a curious 1977 international treaty called “Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques” (Geneva: 18 May 1977).
What is now informally called the Environmental Modification Convention (ENMOD) bans the modification of the weather for the purposes of damage or destruction. As it turns out, the United States announced in July 1972 that it was renouncing any form of climate modification for hostile purposes, and by 1973, the U.S. Senate had passed a resolution to seek international consensus “prohibiting the use of any environmental or geophysical modification activity as a weapon of war” and commissioning the Department of Defense to write a report on the military aspects of weather modification techniques. The General Assembly of the United Nations approved the resolution in 1976 (96 votes for, 8 against, and 30 abstentions). By 1996, the U.S. Air Force had issued another report regarding its concerns about the future use of nanotechnology to create artificial weather patterns.
Now, you’re probably asking yourself, given the unpredictability of weather in general, who in their right mind would conceive of such a thing? Well, we would. We’re very unpleasant critters when you get right down to it. Not only can we imagine the utility of such a thing, but we’ve actually done it. Between 1967 and 1968, the United States’ Operation Popeye was trying cloud-seeding over the Ho Chi Min Trail, increasing rainfall by 30%, the reasoning being that turning the trail to mud would hamper enemy movement. During the Vietnam War’s Siege of Khe Sanh, the U.S. also dabbled in dropping salt on North Vietnamese airbases in order to reduce fog (allowing them to see what they were dropping bombs on, which I’m told by most bombardiers is helpful in actually hitting the target). Many have seen this as a pathology of the modern era and the culmination of the 19th-20th Century obsession with rainmaking for agricultural purposes.
Weather modification took a macro-pathological turn between 1967 and 1972 in the jungles over North and South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Under operation POPEYE, the Air Weather Service conducted secret cloud seeding operations to reduce traffic along portions of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Flying out of Udorn Air Base, Thailand without the knowledge of the Thai government or almost anyone else, but with the full and enthusiastic support of President Johnson, the AWS flew over 2,600 cloud seeding sorties and expended 47,000 silver iodide flares over a period of five years at an annual cost of approximately $3.6 million (Fleming, 2006, p13).
Of course, we’ve been praying for the gods to smite our enemies with tactically useful lightning or floods for millennia, so it’s no wonder that in the age of science and technology we thought we might be able to effect a little smiting on our own. We’re lucky that the record of success is relatively unimpressive. Perhaps this is an angle we can take with those few delusional souls that think climate change is a conspiracy concocted by Democrats and tree-huggers. I don’t want to be alarmist, but given our propensity to look for the latest and greatest way to slaughter our enemies, see them driven before us, and hear the lamentations of their women, I have little doubt that some amoral defense contractor is out there coming up with a way to selectively poke a hole in the ozone in case we need to irradiate an army somewhere in the world. Maybe we just need to recognize that some things are bigger than us, and the hubris of messing with them may inadvertently lead to catastrophic results. Given my respective neuroses, I’m not hopeful, since as the French moralist Luc de Clapiers, marquis de Vauvenargues said, “We should expect the best and the worst of mankind, as from the weather”.
Fleming, James Rodger. “The pathological history of weather and climate modification: Three cycles of promise and hype”. Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences, Vol. 37, Number 1, 2006.