Back When We Wanted to Weaponize the Weather

Palm trees and lower heating bills in Chicago? Bikinis and orange blossoms in Duluth? Back in 1958 these miracles were the promise of tomorrow, thanks to the hot new science of weather control. And once we learned to harness these forces that were once thought beyond humankind's reach, there was only one question left: would these powers act as a "deadly weapon or a magic wand?"

On November 13, 1946 researchers at a GE lab in New York created the world's first manmade snowstorm. Ever since this modest step, we've grappled with big questions about what we should do with our scientific knowledge of weather control. There are potentially countless consequences to playing around with the weather, as we've seen today with the early devastating effects of human-influenced climate change. But the questions of unintended consequences became even more acute at the height of the Cold War, when both the United States and Soviet Union looked at global weather control as a possible weapon.

The June 22, 1958 edition of "Closer Than We Think" — a Sunday comic strip by Arthur Radebaugh — imagined this futuristic world of weather control. But in true Radebaugh fashion, the implications of the science are just under the pulpy surface. Even with Cold War rhetoric heating up on the front page, there were no overt signs in the comics section this particular Sunday that weather control would become a weapon of war in the battles of the future.

From "Closer Than We Think":

In years to come, there will be satellite equipment for forecasting — as well as controlling — the weather. The effects of air and humidity masses can be calculated more precisely from above. Sunspots, solar rays and other space disturbances will be more easily observed and studied. And sensitive sighting and analysis devices will make long-range predictions highly accurate. Control of weather is the next step. In the words of Dr. I. M. Levitt, Director of the Fels Planetarium at the Franklin Institute: "In time, 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."

Of course, the part that Dr. Levitt didn't mention — and perhaps didn't know much about — was that this vision of weather control in the future was being discussed at length in every corner of the Department of Defense.

Technically speaking, we've had a treaty that bans weather control as a means of waging war since 1978. But during the first couple decades of the Cold War, everything was on the table. So thank goodness the policy got ahead of the technology. At least for the time being.


Image: June 22, 1958 edition of "Closer Than We Think" scanned from the Charleston Gazette