U.S. should fight back against the weather with technology

James Lilliefors / The Baltimore Sun /


Last December, an American milestone passed virtually unnoticed. Forty years earlier, Harrison Schmitt became the 12th and last person to walk on the moon. Schmitt and the 11 men who preceded him — beginning with Neil Armstrong in 1969 — had this in common: All were employees of the U.S. government.

Some have argued that sending men to the moon may not have been the most prudent use of American resources or ingenuity. But the realization of President John F. Kennedy’s dream of a U.S. moon walk before the end of the 1960s became a symbol of the scientific and imaginative leadership of this country and what Kennedy termed our “freedom doctrine” during the Cold War.

Now, the United States has an opportunity, even an obligation, to mobilize its resources and know how to achieve a more practical, and pressing, end. Increasingly under siege by destructive and deadly weather events — wrought, many scientists believe, by man-made climate change — we need to make a national commitment to weather research, including the fields of geo-engineering, weather modification and storm mitigation.

During the decades since the moon landings, our country has declared ideological warfare on drugs and terrorism. But we haven’t yet mustered the political courage to act decisively on the growing natural terrorism of so-called extreme weather events. As a result, we are not only losing this undeclared war, but the U.S. is also falling behind in the nascent science of weather modification research.

Bills introduced to Congress in the mid-2000s by then-Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison that would have created a national weather modification policy drew a lukewarm response and were tabled.

Dozens of other countries, meanwhile, have created robust programs aimed at taming the weather. China’s weather modification bureau, for example, employs about 40,000 people. The private sector, too, is pursuing this new frontier. Bill Gates’ company Intellectual Ventures recently filed patent applications for a process to weaken hurricanes by mixing warm waters from the ocean surface with colder waters deep in the sea.

In fact, the U.S. is less active today in weather modification than it was in the 1960s, at the height of the Space Race, when the government-operated Project Stormfury seeded clouds with silver iodide in an attempt to slow down hurricanes.

Some worry that pursuing geo-engineering would discourage calls to reduce emissions. But it needn’t be an either-or proposition. If we accept the premise of man-made global warming, there are really only two options for dealing with it: reduce carbon dioxide emissions drastically or mitigate the impact of those emissions. Unfortunately, for the first option alone to work, we’d have to cut emissions by about 80 percent, which isn’t likely. A more feasible plan would be to explore ways of combining these options.

Taming the weather is, of course, a big idea — bigger than walking on the moon. An idea that would require enormous funding. But that’s exactly what made the U.S. a leader in the past: investments in technology that gave birth to new industries, from computers to the Internet to space exploration.

A 1995 Air Force report called “Owning the Weather” stated, “technologies that will mature over the next 30 years will offer anyone who has the necessary resources the ability to modify weather patterns. The technology is there, waiting for us to pull it together.”

This echoed a notion experts had speculated on for decades. Mathematician John von Neumann said in 1955: “Intervention in atmospheric and climatic matters will unfold on a scale difficult to imagine at present.”

This brave new world hasn’t yet come about. But now, as global warming threatens to turn weather into a Frankenstein’s monster, the U.S. needs to make a national commitment to taming the beast. It’s time we become a pioneer in weather modification research, as we have been in so many other fields.