Irving Langmuir tried to change the world one storm at a time.
- By Sam Kean
- Air & Space magazine, July 2010
(Page 3 of 5)
Military cooperation gave Langmuir access to airplanes more powerful than the cropdusters GE had rented. Typically, a B-17 with a five-man crew would dump 80 pounds of dry ice each run; support aircraft followed to take readings and pictures. The crew targeted wide sheets of clouds, and used the dry ice to etch figures into them: Ls, Greek gammas (γ), and racetracks 20 miles in diameter. They were experimenting; they didn’t know what the optimal pattern would be.
The Savannah hurricane spooked the GE legal department all over again, so Langmuir headed out to arid New Mexico and began seeding clouds with silver iodide smoke. The work lasted around two years, and in announcing the results, Langmuir threw out all his normal scientific prudence. Just cents’ worth of silver iodide, he claimed, initiated dozens of rainstorms. One reportedly stretched 4,000 square miles and liberated 200 billion gallons of rainwater. “[It] could not possibly have been accounted for as the results of naturally occurring rain,” Langmuir insisted.
The scientist appeared on the cover of Time, hailed as a literal rainmaker, and he even quit his job at GE to barnstorm the country—“Langmuir Quits Post to Pursue Rainmaking,” read the New York Times headline. A mesmerizing speaker, he wowed early-1950s audiences.
Sensing a quick buck, private pilots retrofit their airplanes with seeding equipment and began treating clouds in six states. But for every rancher or city water engineer eager to seed, a farmer or hotel owner raged about hail and poor sightseeing. In 1952, a U.S. senator from Michigan, Blair Moody, promised to open a Congressional inquiry because the spate of rainy weekends that Langmuir claimed to have caused was, a local newspaper wrote, “spoiling Michigan’s lucrative tourist business and ruining lots of picnics.”
If Project Cirrus was controversial among citizens, it was notorious among some meteorologists, who dismissed Langmuir’s claims as voodoo. In examining the 200-billion-gallon storm in New Mexico, Weather Bureau scientists concluded that the prior day a common warm front had swept in from the Gulf of Mexico, and it, not Langmuir, had created the rainfall. They also noted that no one had sued GE over the Savannah hurricane because in 1906 a hurricane had followed an identical path, taking the same mid-ocean turn and causing just as much damage on shore. Weather Bureau scientists hooted loudest of all when Langmuir argued that his airplanes were altering weather patterns as far away as Scotland.
With the Weather Bureau and Langmuir in disagreement, in 1952 Project Cirrus ended in a stalemate. GE was all too glad to extricate itself, and in 1957, Langmuir died, of complications from multiple heart attacks. But even with the chief proponent of weather modification gone, the cause attracted ambitious converts. A few horrendous storm seasons in the mid-1950s gave them a chance to test their theories. Washington (after a bureaucratic delay) decided to launch Project Stormfury in 1962, through the Navy and the Department of Commerce. This was no casual mission. Its goal was to hunt—and kill—hurricanes, by sending pilots deep inside the storms to do battle.
Few storms rattle an airplane like a hurricane. “There were some times when the turbulence got so bad that I thought, Damn, I maybe misjudged this one,” recalls David Turner, a former Stormfury pilot who flew DC-6s and WC-121s. “Except you’d hit a point where backing off was worse than going on.” So he usually plowed ahead.
“The turbulence is a rolling, boiling kind,” says Turner. “And we could see zippo,” just gray streaks of clouds and rain. The lack of vision intensified the sounds: “There was a roaring hammering of the rain on the airframe, a wild roar.”