Climate Control

Irving Langmuir tried to change the world one storm at a time.

A crew member filmed cloud behavior. (Fort Monmouth)
Air & Space Magazine

Three years after the brutal 2005 season that brought Katrina and other storms, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security began studying how to quell hurricanes. Some of the ideas it looked at, like seeding hurricanes, are conventional. Some, like dyeing hurricanes with soot, are a little out there. Since the middle of the last century, the government has spent millions of dollars on weather modification—and the only thing the scientists really had to show for it was some wild stories. Indeed, Homeland Security would be wise to revisit the efforts of a Nobel Prize winner who once sought to tame the weather.

From This Story

On the morning of October 13, 1947, a Boeing B-17 loaded with 180 pounds of crushed dry ice took off from MacDill Field in Tampa, Florida. Two days earlier a hurricane had wreaked havoc in Miami, but had since been treading water 350 miles off Jacksonville, where it seemed ready to wind down. The U.S. Air Force B-17 rendezvoused with the storm and climbed 500 feet above its dark upper clouds, where the crew sprinkled it with a few thousand white peas of dry ice (frozen carbon dioxide). The airplane circled for a while, then turned for home. For reasons as obscure as they were controversial, the hurricane followed.

The storm, which had been drifting to the northeast, executed a full pivot, as if tracing a “7” from the bottom up. Gathering momentum, it barreled toward the Atlantic coast and slammed ashore near Savannah, Georgia, where it chewed up terrain for miles inland, causing $23 million in damage ($220 million today) and killing a few people. Pretty soon, reports about the B-17’s actions began circulating in southern newspapers. The military denied that the experiment had diverted the storm, but commanders refused to release flight details and scientific data. Furious locals threatened lawsuits, and denounced the shadowy mission as a “low Yankee trick.”

Meanwhile, safe in his lab in upstate New York, the Yankee in question, Irving Langmuir, analyzed the storm data with grim satisfaction, sympathizing with Savannah but confident he’d proved that humans could, at last, control the weather.

Until that October day, Langmuir could only call himself one of the great chemists of the 20th century. He had won the 1932 Nobel Prize in chemistry, and his contributions to the General Electric research lab—a better incandescent lightbulb among them—helped the company become one of the richest in U.S. history.

But Langmuir aspired to more than better light bulbs. He came to weather modification in his 60s, but suddenly saw a chance to end the capricious rule of weather over our food supply and to rob nature of its ruinous power. In a 1948 Fortune magazine article, he boasted, “There is a reasonable probability that in one or two years man will be able to abolish most damage effects from hurricanes.” Previous projects to alter the weather had been dominated by kooks and pseudo-science, but Langmuir had clout and charisma, and he persuaded GE, the U.S. Army Signal Corps, and the Office of Naval Research to collaborate on Project Cirrus just after World War II. The hurricane that turned on Savannah was Cirrus’ first big test.

The project began inside a $240 GE home freezer. In 1946 Langmuir and a GE machinist, Vincent Schaefer, rigged an open-top freezer to mimic the cold upper atmosphere, in which they hoped to create precipitation. They lined the freezer with black velvet to make any precipitation easier to see. Icicles thick as carrots lined the top rim. To form “snow,” Schaefer exhaled a breath (which is largely water vapor) into the chamber.

At first, Schaefer and Langmuir struggled to create realistic precipitation. Water normally freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit, but it can also persist in a stubborn supercooled vapor state, invisibly suspended in the air, at below-zero temperatures. Progress was stalled until a roasting July day. The heat prevented the freezer from cooling properly; to lower the temperature Schaefer went to a nearby lab and borrowed a block of carbon dioxide, which freezes at –109.3 degrees. When he lowered it into the chamber, he watched with amazement as a bluish fog appeared. The temperature had finally dropped enough to drag the vapor out of suspension. When Schaefer huffed this time, ice formed instantly, thousands of tiny droplets that glistened on the black velvet like diamonds on a jeweler’s cloth. Clouds in the sky are also suspended water molecules, and the molecules fall as precipitation only if the water coalesces into heavy drops or ice. The freezer experiment seemed to illustrate an easy way to accelerate the process.

Not long after, a second breakthrough took place. Dry ice has limitations: It has to be dispensed in small, careful doses, lest it “choke” clouds of vapor and prevent ice from forming. So another assistant, Bernard Vonnegut (older brother of writer Kurt), created ice with silver iodide. Silver iodide crystals have the same hexagonal structure as ice and can trick water molecules into latching on. Though purified silver iodide was more effective than crushed dry ice for generating precipitation, it was harder to make.

After these breakthroughs, Langmuir’s colleagues threw themselves into more experiments. Duncan Blanchard, a GE assistant scientist in the late 1940s, remembers each personality distinctly. Langmuir, ever dapper in his suits, was the driving force, he says. The mechanical genius was Schaefer, a high school dropout. Schaefer, among others, jokingly referred to Langmuir as “Boss” behind his back —“Where’s Boss? Boss in today?”—but always as “Doctor” to his face.

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