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Go to In the News indexLearning lessons of weather in war

Imagine weather as a weapon

Instead of bombing enemy troops, the Air Force creates immense rain storms that make ground movement difficult. Bridges wash out, roads flood, and even railroads become impassable. Long-lasting storms mean fields too muddy to plant in spring, or crops rotting at harvest. Or perhaps the Navy requires fog to mask covert operations, or gales to keep enemy ships in port. Maybe the Army needs sandstorms to keep enemy helicopters grounded, or clear weather so satellite cameras can track enemy positions. Nothing far-fetched skews such scenarios. Weather has always shaped military activity and thinking, and lately the military considers shaping the weather.

At US military academies, cadets learn that battles and even wars sometimes turn on weather. Napoleon and Hitler both invaded Russia, and severe winters hampered their armies. Gales enabled the fledging US Navy to evade Royal Navy blockade of Boston, Provincetown, and other ports.

Before radar, fog caused warship captains to reduce speed, and sometimes even to anchor, but in sailing ship days sharp-eared sailors sometimes conned warships through fog to surprise enemy vessels. Much American military history depends on weather, but children viewing a painting of Washington crossing the Delaware often fail to realize that the Hessians might have been far more alert that long-ago Christmas night had the Delaware been frozen. A frozen river becomes a highway for soldiers, but one jammed with moving ice seems an effective barrier against infantry on foot or crammed into small boats.

The intense cold and deep snow that heartened British forces occupying Boston meant a perfect opportunity to the patriot Henry Knox, who had just captured Fort Ticonderoga. He fashioned sledges from trees, and used oxen to pull the garrison cannon east. After unspeakable hardship the Americans arrived at the coast, and the military situation changed. Had the winter been warm and open, Knox might never have moved the cannon.

Weather offers its own tricks

Nowadays cadets and enlisted personnel learn not only the great lessons of past wars and battles, but also bits and pieces of immediately useful data. Warm snow is slippery, not only hard to walk on but capable of stopping trucks and other wheeled vehicles. Very cold snow affords traction. A wise soldier waits until nightfall, when dropping temperatures make travel over snow more certain. Sailors learn that fog plays tricks with sound, often carrying faint noises long distances. Now and then even modern warships roll gently in fog-shrouded seas, their engines and other mechanical equipment shut off, their crews simply listening for noise-making sources invisible on radar. Military service, like any other, benefits from knowing the tricks of the trade, and weather offers its own tricks.

After World War II, US military strategists began speculating about weather modification and began small-scale experiments. Throughout the 1950s and '60s the military cleared fog from Alaskan air fields by spraying its top surface with dark powder that absorbed sunlight. Carbon black, essentially the fine soot one finds inside the chimneys of oil-burning lamps, figured in cloud-hole making experiments in the same decades.

Soon afterward the Air Force began dropping silver iodide crystals into clouds, not to create rain but to open holes for reconnaissance cameras. In the Vietnam War, American forces created rain along the Ho Chi Minh Trail to make the trail muddy. Later in the 1970s, the Air Force conducted experiments to eliminate the contrails left by high-flying jets and to increase the high cirrus-cloud cover that hampered Soviet satellite photography.

United Nations bans environmental warfare

As American experiments became more subtle, other countries reacted. The United Nations Treaty that became effective in October 1978 bans widespread or long-lasting or severe environmental weather modifications by any country. For years after 1978, the Air Force simply dismissed efforts to do much to weather and climate, simply because experiments had produced scant success.

But now the military explores active weather modification within larger contexts. It struggles to predict weather more accurately. It worries deeply about global warming as a threat to the United States and its allies. In February 2004, the Department of Defense released ''An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and Its Implications for United States National Security," a report perhaps intended to interest academics and other nonmilitary researchers.

Allan Shearer, now a Rutgers University professor, quickly responded in a paper published in the high-tech journal Futures. He argued that environmental security may become as important as military security, simply because rapid, severe weather change might cause nations to act both offensively and defensively as harvests fail, energy supplies run out, and transport collapses. In releasing its report, the Pentagon not only broadened issues of global warming, but also cleverly attracted Shearer and other civilian futurist experts into discussions hitherto reserved for military strategists.

Those strategists contract with the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University and elsewhere to study localized weather modification, especially the production of floods, droughts, and cloud cover, what the experts call "storm enhancement," and to exploit periodic solar flares. By 1997 the lab had begun releasing reports on what might be accomplished and how.

Such research leads to James-Bond-like scenarios in which military satellites use lasers to warm the seas and produce hurricanes like Ivan, Katrina, and Rita. All too easily some people imagine the Russian Mafia, the Chinese government, the oil companies, or some other power secretly manipulating the changing climate. It is easy to dismiss such imaginings as the stuff of Hollywood films, but the ongoing research sends a shiver down the back of any thoughtful person.

Source: The Boston Globe

Related:
United Nations Convention on the prohibition of military or any other hostile use of environmental modification techniques
An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and Its Implications for United States National Security
Weather as a force multiplier: Owning the weather in 2025
The ultimate weapon of mass destruction: Owning the weather for military use
How Earth-scale engineering can save the planet


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