The control of weather

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William Wood was worried about the weather. In March 1956, he wrote to Prime Minister Menzies noting that recent poor weather conditions coincided with ‘the explosion of a number of Atom bombs in the world’. Had this connection had been properly examined?, he asked. ‘As few of us can gauge the consequences of our actions with any certainty’, he added, ‘why should Atom bomb experiments be likely to behave much differently?’ 1

The reply from the Prime Minister’s Department reassured Mr Wood that ‘leading International Meteorological opinion’ was satisfied that the effect of an atomic explosion was ‘comparable only with that of a small isolated storm and could have no important general influence on weather conditions’. 2 Wood, however, was not convinced, and the announcement that a further series of atomic tests was to be held at Maralinga spurred him to write once more. ‘What else will this certainly mean for us here’, he demanded angrily, ‘than that the few days of nice sunshine we are enjoying now will come to an end immediately these confounded tests begin’? There would be ‘more weeks of cloudy days, he insisted, more ‘blustery, off-quarter winds’, as well as ‘other signs of serious atmospheric disturbance’: ‘Do you want to starve us, sir, as very few crops in Australia will now grow in a normal manner?’ 3 No further reply was sent.

William Wood was not alone in his fears. As atmospheric testing of both atomic and hydrogen bombs continued throughout the 1950s, many people around the world wondered whether abnormal weather might result. 4 ‘Every time an atomic bomb goes off’, the Sydney Morning Herald noted, ‘people get “weather conscious”’. 5 Might not this powerful new force upset the balance of nature? The possibility of human influence upon the weather, however, had been a matter of hopeful conjecture in Australia since the 1860s. 6 As settlers pushed out into regions of ever-lower rainfall, their ambitions were fed by the theory that ‘rain follows the plough’. Cultivated soil, it was argued, absorbed rainfall more easily, releasing it slowly back into the atmosphere to create a moister, more hospitable environment. Others argued that it was not the plough, but trees that brought rain. In 1867, the Victorian parliament was advised that a system of forest planting and conservation would lead to ‘a more continuous rainfall in districts that are now subject to long and excessive droughts’. 7

The long drought of the 1890s drained settlers of their confidence that the climate would gradually yield to human endeavour. Instead came efforts to tackle the menace of drought head on, by actually making rain. In perhaps the most celebrated, and probably the most noisy, attempt, Queensland meteorologist Clement Wragge arranged for a battery of six Stiger Vortex guns to be discharged into the skies over Charleville. Having observed the use of the large, funnel-shaped guns to disperse hailstorms over Italian vineyards, Wragge concluded that they might be usefully employed against ‘the heavy “dry” cloud masses of continental Australia’, which ‘so often promise rain and then pass away without any precipitation’. Firing a series of rounds into the clouds would ‘probably result’ in a ‘downpour’, Wragge suggested. In any case, he added, ‘the experiment is thoroughly worth trying’. 8

Wragge’s efforts were rewarded with a brief shower of rain and the explosion of two of the guns. Other would-be rainmakers were even less successful. Professor Pepper tried ‘tapping the clouds’ with a large kite laden with explosives, while Captain Meaburn used a rocket. 9 JB Balsillie, on the other hand, sought to stimulate the clouds using a charged, metal-coated balloon connected to an x-ray tube. 10 In 1944, the Argus surveyed Australian attempts at rainmaking, observing that for all these ‘interesting experiments’, the weather remained ‘unconquered’. ‘The grim spectre of drought is one of the few enemies which man can see but cannot destroy’, it concluded, ‘with all his scientific knowledge he is powerless to kill it’. 11

Optimism was revived only a few years later with news that the CSIR had embarked on a series of ‘secret experiments to produce rain’. 12 Soon it was confirmed that dry ice released into clouds from an RAAF Liberator had produced a brief shower. 13 Experiments were in their early stages, the scientists stressed repeatedly as the cloud-seeding program continued, but the growing sense of excitement and expectation was difficult to suppress. 14 At war’s end, the CSIR Division of Radiophysics had switched from developing radar systems to investigating the physics of clouds. 15 According to Richard Casey in 1955, the Australian program, inspired by the leadership of EG Bowen, was ‘in the forefront of research into weather modification’. ‘Within a certain time’, he added, ‘it will probably be possible to amend the weather pattern in Australia during periods when suitable clouds exist’. 16

An age-old dream was resurrected amidst a new age of confidence. The recent achievements of science made it seem as if the weather might at last submit to the will of humankind. Edward Teller, not content with giving the world the hydrogen bomb, predicted ‘scientific control of the weather’ within 10 years. ‘Once the laws are known’, he argued, ‘it will be possible to influence the weather’. 17 The Bureau of Meteorology was rather more cautious in it pronouncements, and was at times concerned by claims attributed to the CSIRO rainmakers. 18 Nonetheless, it was not immune to the swelling sense of power. Speaking on the 50th anniversary of the Commonwealth Meteorological service, its Director, LJ Dwyer, spoke of the possibility of ‘tailoring’ the weather. Cyclones might be broken up, he suggested, droughts and floods prevented: ‘The control of the weather will come in the future when meteorology develops to the stage where engineering can be used’. 19

Could science forever banish the uncertainties of weather? The Sydney Morning Herald reflected on Dwyer’s claims, suggesting that ‘however smart our tailoring of the weather, there will be loose threads for centuries to come’. 20 ‘There is nothing more uncertain than the atmosphere’, it added. Even as the CSIRO rainmakers continued their experiments, they were forced to consult with the Attorney-General’s Department to determine their responsibility should their efforts prove too successful. Could they be sued for flood damage? 21 While the power of science could not be denied, there remained the possibility that such experiments with nature might have unexpected consequences. Australia provided ample evidence of how well-meaning attempts at ‘improvement’ could rebound across generations. Land clearing and overstocking had burdened fragile arid regions with the problem of soil erosion. ‘Man has upset the balance of Nature’, Ion Idriess observed. 22 The devastating impact of the rabbit, upon both land and economy, offered another illustration, argued HW Gepp, of the ‘dangers that await the experiments of mankind in this strange new continent’. 23 The ill-founded assumptions of the present might levy an unbearable cost against future wealth and happiness.

‘Modern man is a forest butcher’, asserted Hugh McKay in Smith’s Weekly. His 1923 article surveyed the profligate way in which the world’s reserves of timber, oil and coal were being used to fuel the progress of civilisation. For all its technological advancement, McKay insisted, the modern age was still an ‘age of trees’. Trees were essential for steel-making, for building, for paper. What would happen if the current ‘wasteful destruction’ of forests continued unchecked? Would newspapers, like ancient tablets, be printed on ‘slabs of clay’? ‘The weight of a single copy of the “Herald”…staggers the imagination’, he remarked, though it could probably ‘be delivered by a travelling crane’. But ‘the unhappy denizens of Australia in the future ironless, coalless, treeless age’ might be faced with ‘a far more serious problem’, McKay warned: ‘Unchecked by great forests, which restore oxygen to the air by absorbing carbon from the carbon dioxide poured from a million factory chimneys, the dioxide gas would go on accumulating till it precipitated an Age of Heat, similar to that of the prehistoric times of the giant reptiles’. McKay concluded with the disturbing vision of humankind forced to retreat to the poles, wielding ‘stone and cement weapons’ against ‘a sun-darkening horde of winged lizards, already rulers of a new heaven and masters of a new earth’. 24 The unheeding pursuit of progress might carry humanity back to a world of savagery.

The question of whether Australia’s climate might be changing was a regular topic for public debate. Unseasonable bouts of hot or cold weather were sure to provoke renewed speculation, as were the nostalgic reminiscences of a long-lost childhood. Mr Henry Hodgson, aged 78, was in no doubt: ‘I say emphatically that the climate has changed, especially the summers’. ‘You can do anything with statistics’, he continued, ‘but no statistics will convince me that the climate has not changed radically’. 25 The summers of Mr Hodgson’s youth were hotter, with more thunderstorms, but none of the cold, ‘wintry days’ of recent years. The main territory in dispute was that of memory. Responding to a similar outcry in 1950, John Hogan, the Deputy Director of the Weather Bureau, explained: ‘Old people who complain about changing climate, remember only the peak periods. Looking back over their lives, these periods of exceptional weather merge together like the telephone posts down a long road’. 26 ‘Outstanding events’ were mistaken for ‘normal’.

A similar mismatch between memory and statistics encouraged the public to believe that current conditions were beyond what would normally be expected. ‘Almost every person in Melbourne who is not a meteorologist is certain that this is the coldest, wettest and windiest winter that he remembers’, reported the Argus in 1935. But officers of the Weather Bureau were ‘unmoved’ by this popular consensus, referring ‘unemotionally’ to average temperatures and aggregate rainfalls to demonstrate there was nothing abnormal about recent events. 27 So-called ‘freak’ weather might well be unusual, but it was rarely unprecedented.

The winter of 1956 brought heavy rains and floods to large areas of eastern Australia. Two atomic tests had recently been completed in the Monte Bello Islands, and a further series was planned for the new test range at Maralinga. Was there a connection? At the government’s request, the Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO prepared a report examining the ‘possible weather effects’ of atomic explosions, though, once again, it was human memory that seemed most to blame. 28 ‘In their view on the weather’, the report argued, ‘the majority of people have very short memories indeed, and, particularly in periods of distress due either to floods or to droughts, there is an obvious tendency to blame unusual conditions vaguely to some illunderstood cause’. The report examined past rainfall figures to conclude that the current wet period was ‘unusual but not unique’. It then summarised the views of eminent meteorologists who all agreed that it was ‘unlikely’ that atomic or thermonuclear explosions could have any significant effect on the weather. For good measure, the report also cleared CSIRO cloud-seeding experiments in the Snowy Mountains of any responsibility for the recent floods. ‘If there were to be the slightest evidence’ that the CSIRO ‘experiments’ were implicated in these events, the report offered reassuringly, ‘they would, of course, be discontinued’. 29

An edited version of the report was published in a number of daily newspapers, attributed to the Minister responsible for CSIRO, Richard Casey. 30 ‘Weather men exonerate “the Bomb”’, the Age announced. The poor old bomb had been made the scapegoat of human insecurity, a victim of the world’s flawed memory. Just as ‘bad weather’ in the period between 1914 and 1918 had been ‘wrongly attributed to…wartime bombardments in Europe’, so it was ‘popular now to blame atomic explosions’. 31 But while the bomb may have been blameless, it was hardly innocent. It was a mechanism whose moment of fulfillment came in the blinding ‘light of many suns’, in an angry, billowing ferment of fire, wind and dust. 32 It was a weapon that entered public imagination in the form of a forbidding, mushroom-shaped cloud. The bomb may not have effected weather, but in its raw, elemental power it almost was weather. ‘Maralinga’ itself was said to draw its name from an aboriginal word meaning ‘thunder’. 33

Nor, despite Casey’s confident case for the bomb’s acquittal, was the idea that it might have an effect on the weather particularly far-fetched. Less than a year after Casey’s article was published, EG Bowen, the man whose ‘genius’ Casey proclaimed as the inspiration for the cloud-breaking work of CSIRO’s Division of Radiophysics, made a proposal which he thought ‘might help settle the question of whether atomic bomb explosions can influence the weather’. 34 Bowen had become interested in the properties of ‘freezing nuclei’, minute particles of dust or other material that encouraged water droplets in clouds to form ice crystals, and eventually raindrops. He had already proposed the controversial theory that dust from periodic meteor showers might result in heavy falls of rain, so why not the dust thrown up by an atomic explosion? 35 Bowen requested space for equipment and personnel aboard one of the aircraft used to make measurements in the bomb’s radioactive plume, but William Penney, the British scientist in charge, was reluctant, ‘mainly for security reasons’. 36

In the 1980s, Bowen’s scientific successors in the CSIRO Division of Atmospheric Research considered again the effects of nuclear weapons. This time, however, it was not the possibility of rain they were concerned with, but the possibility that life on earth could be threatened by a ‘nuclear winter’. 37 The amount of dust and soot thrown into the atmosphere by a nuclear war would be sufficient, scientists theorised, to block out the sun and plunge the earth into a freezing hell in which little unprotected life would survive. The weather would certainly take a turn for the worse.

At about the same time, reports began to circulate that Aboriginal people living in the vicinity of the atomic test site at Emu Field had been enveloped by a mysterious ‘black mist’ after the Totem One explosion in 1953. 38 The mist was said to have left many ill, causing vomiting, diarrhoea, skin irritation, blindness and even death. 39 Ernest Titterton, who had been closely involved in the tests, thought the story was ‘laughable’. 40 ‘No such thing can possibly occur’, he argued on the ABC ‘PM’ program, ‘the radioactive cloud is in fact at 30,000 feet, not at ground level. And it’s not black’. 41 The UK Ministry of Defence also dismissed the reports, but initiated further research. Eventually, modelling of the explosion by British scientists demonstrated that by varying particle size and wind conditions they could generate a phenomenon with observable characteristics similar to that of the ‘Black mist’. 42 As William Wood had suggested, it was not always easy to judge the consequences of one’s actions, even when armed with the confidence of science. The ‘Black Mist’ showed that the interactions of bomb and weather were more complex than had been supposed. It was a reminder too that the bomb could affect the weather in more insidious ways, for under its influence the wind could become a carrier of death.



Notes:

  1. Letter from William F Wood to Prime Minister, 22 March 1956, NAA: A6456/3, R087/016.
  2. Letter from AS Brown (Secretary PM’s Department) to WF Wood, 3 May 1956, NAA: A6456/3, R124/007.
  3. Letter from WF Wood to Prime Minister, 11 September 1957, NAA: A6456/3, R124/007.
  4. See, for example: ‘A-Blast “no effect on weather”‘, SMH, 16 October 1953, p. 1; ‘Investigation of European weather’, SMH, 13 September 1954, p. 1; ‘Weather-man’s H-bomb theory’, SMH, 7 April 1955, p. 3; ‘The H-bomb and the English summer’, SMH, 17 September 1958, p. 2. For a history of atmospheric nuclear testing in the 1950s, see Robert Divine, Blowing on the wind: the nuclear test ban debate, 1954-1960, Oxford University Press, New York, 1978.
  5. ‘So the weather’s been odd! Well those A-bombs…’, SMH, 11 July 1956, p. 2.
  6. Geoffrey Blainey, A land half won, Sun Books, Melbourne, 1983, pp. 348-50; Geoffrey Bolton, Spoils and spoliers – Australians make their environment, 1788-1980, George Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1981, p. 30; Jenny Keating, The drought walked through: a history of water shortage in Victoria, Department of Water Resources, Victoria, Melbourne, 1992, pp. 39-40.
  7. Quoted in Blainey, A land half won , p. 350.
  8. Clement L Wragge, ‘The Stiger Vortex’, Wragge’s Australasian Almanac and Weather Guide, Brisbane, 1902, p. 183. See also Tim Sherratt, ‘The weather prophets’, part of the Federation and Meteorology online resource <http://www.austehc.unimelb.edu.au/fam/0006.html>.
  9. ‘Man cannot yet cause rain – But Australia has seen some interesting experiments in the past’, Argus, 9 December 1944, Weekend Magazine, p. 2.
  10. Rupert S Charlett, ‘Will man ever control the weather or the rain?’, Argus, 4 February 1939, Weekend magazine, p. 9.
  11. ‘Man cannot yet cause rain’, p. 2.
  12. SMH, 25 January 1947, p. 1.
  13. SMH, 12 February 1947, p. 3.
  14. See for example: ‘We mean to alter the weather’, SMH, 7 October 1951, p. 9; ‘They “seed” the clouds’, SMH, 10 September 1956, Aviation supplement, p. 6; ‘Rain – is this the year of the pay off?’, Sunday Herald, 12 May 1957, p. 27.
  15. RW Home, ‘Rainmaking in CSIRO: The Science and Politics of Climate Modification’, in Tim Sherratt, Tom Griffiths and Libby Robin (eds), A change in the weather: climate and culture in Australia, Halstead Press, Sydney, 2003 (forthcoming).
  16. CPD, vol. HofR 6, 31 May 1955, p.1221.
  17. SMH, 13 August 1955, p. 3.
  18. WJ Gibbs, ‘A perspective of Australian meteorology’, Australian Meteorological Magazine, no. 30, March 1982, p. 6; WJ Gibbs, ‘A Very Special Family: Memories of the Bureau of Meteorology 1946 to 1962’, Metarch Papers, no. 13, May 1999.
  19. SMH, 6 January 1958, p. 5. See also, ‘Science versus cyclone’, Sun-Herald, 16 December 1956, p. 30.
  20. SMH, 7 January 1958, p. 2.
  21. SMH, 24 February 1958, p. 2. For some of the legal problems facing rainmakers see Home, ‘Rainmaking in CSIRO’.
  22. Ion L Idriess, ‘Sand: impressions of a large tract of dry country in the interior of Australia’, Walkabout, vol. 1, no. 11, 1 September 1935, p. 23. See also Ion L Idriess, The great boomerang, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1941, p. 166, 205-7, discussed in Chapter 3. For a classic account of the problem of soil erosion see Francis Ratcliffe, Flying fox and drifiting sand, Angus & Robertson, Sydney,  1947, discussed in Tom Griffiths, ‘Going with the flow: Flying fox and drifting sand’, in Marion Halligan (ed.), Storykeepers, Duffy & Snellgrove, Sydney, 2001.
  23. HW Gepp, ‘Address at the Sydney Rotary Club’, p. 4. See also Eric Rolls, They all ran wild: the story of pests on the land in Australia, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1969.
  24. HC McKay, ‘Mankind’s last stand’, Smith’s Weekly, 15 September 1923, p. 29.
  25. Argus, 29 December 1928, p. 15.
  26. SMH, 1 July 1950, p. 2.
  27. ‘Winter not abnormal’, Argus, 3 August 1935, p. 21. See also ‘Snow in August – Are seasons changing?’, Argus, 16 August 1932, p. 6.
  28. The covering letter from LJ Dwyer (Director of Meteorology) notes that the report was originally put together by FWG White (CEO, CSIRO) using information provided by the Bureau, it was then added to by Bureau staff, 13 July 1956, NAA: A6456/3, R102/001.
  29. ‘Possible weather effects associated with atomic explosion’, July 1956, NAA: A6456/3, R102/001.
  30. ‘Weather men exonerate “the bomb”‘, Age, 18 July 1956, p. 2; ‘Blame the weather, not the H-bomb’, Daily Telegraph, 19 July 1956, p. 12.
  31. ‘Weather men exonerate “the bomb”‘, Age, 18 July 1956, p. 2
  32. SMH, 2 July 1946, p. 3.
  33. Len Beadell, Blast the bush, Adelaide, Rigby, 1976, p. x.
  34. CPD, vol. HofR 6, 31 May 1955, p.1221; letter from EG Bowen to WAS Butement (Chief Scientist, Department of Supply), 24 May 1957, NAA: A6456/3, R87/81.
  35. For a discussion of Bowen’s research see Home, ‘Rainmaking in CSIRO’; for a popular account see HV McKay, ‘That rain—is it from space?’, Sunday Telegraph, 25 March 1956, p. 44.
  36. Cable from W Penney to WAS Butement, undated (June 1957), NAA: A6456/3, R87/81.
  37. In particular, Barrie Pittock, Principal Research Scientist with the Division, published widely on the atmospheric effects of nuclear war and the nuclear winter scenario. See, for example: A Barrie Pittock, ‘The atmospheric effects of nuclear war’, in Michael Denborough (ed.), Australia and nuclear war, Canberra, Croom Helm Australia, 1983, pp. 136-60; Barrie Pittock, Beyond darkness: nuclear winter in Australia and New Zealand, Sun Books, Melbourne, 1987.
  38. The first public report was published in the Adelaide Advertiser, 3 May 1980. For an account of the ‘Black mist’ and its consequences see: Robert Milliken, No conceivable injury: the story of Britain and Australia’s atomic cover-up, Melbourne, Penguin, 1986, pp. 121ff; The report of the Royal Commission into British nuclear tests in Australia, vol. 1, Canberra, Australian Government Publishing Service, 1985, pp. 174-94.
  39. The limitations of the Royal Commission approach to resolving the ‘truth’ and significance of such claims is examined in Heather Goodall, ‘Colonialism and catastrophe: contested memories of nuclear testing an measles epidemics at Ernabella’, in Kate Darian-Smith and Paula Hamilton (eds), Memory & history in twentieth century Autralia, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1994, pp. 55-76.
  40. Quoted in Milliken, No conceivable injury, p. 129.
  41. Quoted in The report of the Royal Commission into British nuclear tests in Australia, vol. 1, p. 177. A report by the Australian Ionising Radiation Advisory Council also cast doubt on the reports, see Australian Radiation Advisory Council, British nuclear tests in Australia: a review of operational safety measures and of possible after-effects, AIRAC No. 9, Canberra, Australian Government Publishing Service, 1983, pp. 45-50.
  42. The report of the Royal Commission into British nuclear tests in Australia, vol. 1, pp. 179-84.

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