Now that spring is here, many American farmers are preparing to sow and seed their fields. However, in 1947, the U.S. Army and the General Electric Company decided to seed the skies in an attempt to modify hurricanes.
Earlier this week, Gabrielle covered an interesting story about Project Stormfury, a multi-decade attempt by the U.S. government to “seed” hurricanes in order to lessen their impact and destructive power.
Unfortunately, in the case of Project Cirrus, hurricane modification was not the only end product reaped from the project. The U.S. Army and General Electric ended up facing several lawsuits from the cloud seeding project.
Scientists began taking an interest in cloud seeding during the 1940s and 50s. However, numerical weather prediction was still in its fledgling stages, and weather modification was the stuff of science fiction.
Nevertheless, the great minds at General Electric (GE) figured that since they had brought the world the Vortalex Pedestal fan and the Deluxe Refrigerator; hurricane modification would be a breeze.
Project Cirrus stemmed from the theory of Dr. Irving Langmuir. The basic idea was to deploy ice crystals into a hurricane to force the storm to release an abundant amount of stored energy.
As a result, the storm would weaken, at least in theory.
The Internet Archive has several documents that go into the technical details of the experiment; but, those documents also contain a history of the project which traces its roots all the way back to gas masks and smoke generators.
Someone to Sue For Bad Weather
Dr. Langmuir and his group of GE scientists had a chance to prove their theories in 1947. The group devised a plan where a Naval B-17 dropped 80 pounds of dry ice into a hurricane.
The hurricane was roughly 350 miles off the coast of Jacksonville, Florida. However, shortly after the drop was made, the hurricane turned direction and headed straight for Savannah, Georgia.
Immediately, Dr. Langmuir and his group of researchers received the blame. The researchers themselves believed that their modification efforts had a mild effect on the hurricane; however, they were unsure if it actually affected the hurricane’s path.
With that said, Langmuir boasted publicly that his men had altered the path of the hurricane.
Though the hurricane had passed, the trouble was only beginning for the scientists. Since most of the blame for the storm’s altered path was pinned on the scientists, a barrage of lawsuits immediately ensued.
Lawsuits were a common fear of GE. According to Time Magazine, the legal implication is what sparked GE to pair up with the military. The magazine stated:
“GE lawyers got spooked by the potential liability and insisted that Langmuir get the full cooperation of the US military as it was better shielded from the sorts of lawsuits GE feared.”
The Georgian hurricane caused about $34 million in damages and resulted in several deaths.
After the lawsuits were filed, Project Cirrus was relocated to New Mexico. Once in New Mexico, the researched continued until local tourist attractions began blaming Dr. Langmuir for the odd wet weather that had occurred since his arrival, and a Congressional Hearing was initiated to explore Langmuir’s weather manipulation madness.
Once again, the lawsuits only began because Langmuir bragged publicly that the irregular weather was due to his team’s research.
Dr. Irving Langmuir – Genius or Bad Scientist?
It is important to note that aside from Langmuir’s confidence, there was little evidence to support the idea that his team had altered the weather in any way.
Many of the lawsuits that were derived from the Georgian hurricane were thrown out when further research by independent scientists provided evidence showing that the storm had begun to turn prior to the cloud seeding.
Also, it appeared that a 1906 hurricane followed a similar path, which seemed to substantiate the fact that Langmuir’s team had little to do with the hurricane’s course.
Further research into the New Mexico incident showed that the uncharacteristically wet weather was more than likely not due to any of the cloud seeding, but instead due to a series of warm fronts that carried Gulf moisture into the region and dumped rain across a six-state area.
Nevertheless, because of Langmuir’s boasting and the fact that the science of meteorology did not yet have a firm grasp on weather prediction, Project Cirrus was finally cancelled.
Due to the litigation headaches, cloud seeding research in America was not picked up again until nearly a decade later, during the Vietnam war.
We’ll be covering those experiments, known as Project Popeye, next week.
References & Image Credits:
(1) The Black Vault