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

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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.”

And then the eye. Not all hurricane missions penetrated the eye, but pilots sure remember when they did. Some described a “Tarzan moment”: staggering forward out of a dark cave of clouds, fighting through sheets of water like a waterfall, wet and angry—then emerging into crisp brilliant air. “You can see all the way up forever, to the stars and the moon,” says Turner. “The wind drops off to zero. Sometimes it would have been such a painful transit getting in there, I’d fly a few times around in the clear, and we’d have a cup of coffee and go to the bathroom and straighten up the airplane.” Eventually, they girded themselves and plunged back into the cloud bank.

In 1969, Turner started flying for the Florida-based Stormfury, doing seeding runs and ferrying dozens of strapped-down scientists into storm cores to gather data. Stormfury’s yearly budget, $2 million, outpaced Cirrus’ ($750,000 at its peak), and that didn’t include the millions spent outfitting airplanes, including Lockheed P-3 Orions, for hurricane hunting. Instead of dumping seeds through funnels, as had been done in Cirrus, some Stormfury scientists developed 130-pound bombs with fins. Others went micro, developing plastic flares a few inches wide, called “candles,” that worked on a delayed fuse and streamed silver iodide for 36 seconds as they fell.

Despite fires, turbulence, and other dangers—or perhaps because of them—Stormfury scientists had a cowboy cockiness about playing with hurricanes. They chafed at government restrictions, which limited company pilots to seeding only hurricanes that had no chance of striking land. “Bureaucrats are scaredy-cats,” one anonymous Stormfury scientist growled to Time.

The scientists were cocky because, they believed, they had finally developed a fail-proof way to defuse hurricanes. Hurricanes can stretch for hundreds of miles, but they concentrate their fury in the eyewall, the bank of swirling clouds orbiting the eye, which in powerful storms span only a few tens of miles. The tighter the eyewall, the greater the concentration of energy, and the greater the damage when storms hit land. Stormfury scientists calculated that if they sprinkled silver iodide in a wide ring around the eye, the seeded clouds would writhe, rain, and collapse. This would disrupt the eyewall, sucking it outward by 10 or so miles, and crank down the winds that cause destruction.

Because of the scales involved, each seeding run required 10 or so airplanes to fly laps for an hour or two in the murky dark, in a counterclockwise swirl that required remarkable coordination. Hugh Willoughby, a former Stormfury scientist, says his colleagues knew exactly how many airplanes to fly and how far apart to fly them. They knew what chemicals to dispense, how much, and when. They knew the type of signals they wanted to see on satellites and on radar. And see them they did: Early experiments clearly showed eyewalls getting wider and wind speeds falling.

But as the science got more objective and rigorous, support for seeding hurricanes unraveled. Blind experiments with non-storm clouds—where pilots would randomly tear open one of two sealed envelopes, which contained instructions to seed or only pretend to—proved that scientists on the ground could not reliably predict, based on observations alone, if clouds had been seeded. Some seeded clouds did nothing, and some unseeded ones blew up like mushroom clouds.

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