2016-03-30 19:18:57 UTC
The pathological history of weather and climate modification: Three cycles of promise and hype
Espy viewed the atmosphere as a giant heat engine. According to his thermal theory of storms, all atmospheric disturbances, from thunderstorms to winter storms, are driven by heated updrafts, inwardly rushing air currents, and the release of latent heat. His theory, published as The philosophy of storms (Boston, 1841), was well received by many scientists of his time, including a committee of the French
Academy of Sciences.
The meteorological literature of the time indicates that Espyʼs ideas on the steam power of the atmosphere and on the importance of latent caloric were widely accepted by such influential scientists as Joseph Henry, Elias Loomis, and James Coffin. William Ferrel, perhaps the greatest theoretical meteorologist of the late 19th century was a supporter, with modifications, of “Espian thermal processes.” His colleagues respected his basic physical insights, but not his presentation of them. His credibility was reduced by his tendency to offend other investigators and challenge their findings during the “great American storm controversy” and by his unbridled enthusiasm for his scheme, loosely linked to his theoretical insights,to enhance thermal updrafts by lighting huge fires across the country to generate artificial rains.
According to meteorology professor Hans Verlinde of Penn State, one of the
authors of the NRC report, the basic problems in cloud microphysics “havenʼt really changed much over the years.”43 Scientists do not have the ability to characterize the background concentration, sizes, and chemical composition of aerosols, the very smallest particles that participate in cloud processes. This is particularly true for ice nuclei. Additionally, the mass accommodation coefficient, a factor that determines the activated drop spectrum at cloud base and the maximum supersaturation attained within the cloud, is not known within an order of magnitude. Taken together, this means that atmospheric scientists cannot with confidence predict the droplet distribution and its variation within any particular cloud. Moreover,factors such as chemical surfactants and radiation influence the evolution of the droplets over time.
Understanding, prediction, and control are the fantasies of both science
and science fiction. For some, controlling the weather, climate, or chemical
composition of the atmosphere, is more desirable than merely understanding it
or predicting its behavior. We have examined two past cycles of promise and
hype involving manufactured weather and climate in an attempt to illuminate
what appears to be the start of a third rhetorical cycle. Fantasies are again giving way to seemingly rational, technical proposals. But they are only rational without their histories. In the recent flurry of activity beginning in 2003, as well as in the past cycles, massive and immodest proposed interventions served to subvert or at least submerge more fundamental and perhaps more reasonable aspects of cloud physics and climate dynamics. Instead they came to reflect larger social tensions, values, and public apprehensions.
James Espy was the leading meteorologist of his day; Irving Langmuir
and his team at GE developed many of the basic techniques of cloud physics.
However, in both historical cycles, the promise of weather control soon gave way to excessive hype and pathology. No one doubts the competence of the scientists and engineers involved in the recent NRC and DoD reports or the Tyndall Centre and NASA/Carnegie conferences. However, by emphasizing the purely technical or economic aspects of strategies of weather and climate control, bypassing understanding and prediction, and neglecting the historical, ethical, and social dimensions, we are in danger of entering a new cycle of discourse saturated with hype, the heirs of an impoverished debate.