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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Inside the lab, things were less formal. Blanchard remembers Vonnegut’s dingy workspace “in complete disarray, with bits and pieces of wire, old test tubes, rubber tubing, and parts of generators covering most of the bench space and dripping off onto the floor.” But all three men had one trait in common. “Langmuir, Schaefer, Vonnegut were always enthusiastic even when the project did not seem to work out,” says Blanchard. “Science there was glorious entertainment.”

The enthusiasm seemed warranted after the first aerial cloud seeding, in November 1946. GE rented a Fairchild 24 airplane, and during the flight, Schaefer identified a four-mile-long altostratus cloud at 14,000 feet. While passing over it, Schaefer slowly dispensed three pounds of crushed dry ice through a funnel. According to eyewitnesses, the cloud “writhe[d] in torment,” and within minutes had transformed into snow. That the snow fell just 2,000 feet before evaporating didn’t prick the team’s enthusiasm. Langmuir, observing from the ground, watched the cloud quake and shouted, “This is history!”

A more ambitious experiment followed in December, near GE headquarters in Schenectady, New York. Schaefer seeded clouds with a bigger load of dry ice, but this time the clouds kept drifting, seemingly unperturbed. A day later, upper New York and Vermont were hit with the biggest snowstorm of the season. Scores of car accidents followed, and businesses shut down for a week. New Yorkers were peeved.

So far, the experiments seemed solid, but many meteorologists doubted the team’s conclusions. Francis Reichelderfer, head of the U.S. Weather Bureau, told Time, “I feel quite sure that in many cases [Langmuir’s] rain was due to natural causes.” The bureau argued that weather systems are immensely complicated, and just because a cloud seeded one day started snowing the next doesn’t mean that seeding caused it. Also, said Reichelderfer, Langmuir’s men didn’t seed clouds randomly, but picked “ripe” clouds that probably would have snowed (or rained) anyway.

Clearly, more experiments were needed, but after the snowstorm in Vermont and New York, GE lawyers had a conniption: GE faced staggering legal liability. They insisted Langmuir secure the cooperation of the U.S. military, which was shielded from legal threats.

As much as his scientific acumen, it was Langmuir’s stature and eloquence that saved Project Cirrus. “He could convince you that black was white—he had an acting voice,” says Blanchard. “He had the ability to charm.” Blanchard still remembers the day the Army Signal Corps dispatched a junior officer to GE to interrogate Langmuir about weather modification: “The [officer’s] instructions were ‘Milk him dry. Milk him dry.’ We heard about that in the lab and we just laughed,” says Blanchard. “A day or so later, Bernie [Vonnegut] and a friend saw this chap at lunch with Langmuir. Langmuir was carrying on an animated conversation while this person sat there with a glazed look on his face. Langmuir’s cow was far from being milked dry!”

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.”

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