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Cold War Science Had Ambitions to Weaponize the Weather

By Wesley Fenlon

"This rain shower will REALLY put a dampen on the Americans' spirits!" - Soviet scientists, probably.

In sci-fi, terraforming often runs hand-in-hand with weather control systems. Reshaped paradise planets offer changes in weather programming on command--constant bright, sunny skies, interspersed with the occasional pleasant shower or cool breeze. Weather control is even possible, to some extent, thanks to research that stretches back to the 1940s. When scientists first proved they could control the weather, both the United States and the Soviet Union's governments quickly came up with potential uses for atmospheric domination. They'd use the weather as a weapon.

Paleofuture author Matt Novak writes that weaponized weather control was a popular notion during the Cold War. The idea began with an artificially created snowstorm in late 1946. General Electric Research Laboratory sent a plane up to 14,000 feet to release dry ice into the clouds. Their experimented resulted in snow falling from the clouds--not exactly sci-fi touch-a-button-to-make-it-rain weather control, but still a successful breakthrough. In 1953, the US established the "President's Advisory Committee on Weather Control" to analyze how the government could control the weather. And if it should.

"Methods that were envisioned by both American and Soviet scientists—and openly discussed in the media during the mid-1950s— included using colored pigments on the polar ice caps to melt them and unleash devastating floods, releasing large quantities of dust into the stratosphere creating precipitation on demand, and even building a dam fitted with thousands of nuclear powered pumps across the Bering Straits," writes Novak. "This dam, envisioned by a Russian engineer named Arkady Borisovich Markin would redirect the waters of the Pacific Ocean, which would theoretically raise temperatures in cities like New York and London. Markin's stated purpose was to 'relieve the severe cold of the northern hemisphere' but American scientists worried about such weather control as a means to cause flooding."

A man controlling the weather with the buttons and levers of a control panel made the cover of Collier's Magazine in 1954. Novak goes on to quote weather scientist Dr. Irving Langmuir, who compared the energy released by creating clouds with silver iodide to the power of the atomic bomb.

And in 1958, a newspaper predicted that there will be satellite equipment for predicting (hey, not bad!) and controlling (hmm...) the weather. It also predicted that "huge solar mirrors five or more miles in diameter may be used to reflect radiation of the sun to specific areas on earth to increase evaporation and to prevent crop-killing frosts." That sounds pretty great. Why don't we have those?

Well, here's one reason why. While the Cold War was still marching on, dozens of countries signed the Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques in 1977. The treaty encouraged countries to push forward the science of environmental study, and to work together to do so. But that fun, dangerous planet-wrecking military stuff? That was out.

Parties had to agree "not to engage in military or any other hostile use of environmental modification techniques having widespread, long-lasting or severe effects as the means of destruction." Those techniques were further defined as any technique for changing — through the deliberate manipulation of natural processes — the dynamics, composition or structure of the Earth, including its biota, lithosphere, hydrosphere and atmosphere, or of outer space." And that was more or less the end of weather warfare.