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"Fixing" the Weather and Climate for Civilian and Military Purposes

Jim Fleming is a historian of science and technology at Colby College. His teaching bridges the sciences and the humanities and his research interests involve military history and the history of the geophysical sciences, especially meteorology, climatology, and oceanography.
When Oct 30, 2003
from 4:00 PM to 5:00 PM
Where Foster Auditorium, 101 Pattee Library
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Event photoJames R. Fleming

Professor of Science, Technology and Society, Colby College and President, International Commission on History of Meteorology

Jim Fleming is a historian of science and technology at Colby College. His teaching bridges the sciences and the humanities and his research interests involve military history and the history of the geophysical sciences, especially meteorology, climatology, and oceanography. Professor Fleming earned a B.S. in astronomy from Penn State University, an M.S. in atmospheric science from Colorado State University, and an M.A. and Ph.D. in history from Princeton University.

His books include: Meteorology in America, 1800-1870 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990, 2000); Historical Perspectives on Climate Change(Oxford University Press, 1998);Guide to Historical Resources in the Atmospheric Sciences (Boulder: National Center for Atmospheric Research, 1989); Science, Technology, and the Environment: Multidisciplinary Perspectives (Akron University Press, 1994); International Bibliography of Meteorology: From the Beginning of Printing to 1889 (Upland, PA: Diane, 1994);Historical Essays on Meteorology, 1919-1995 (American Meteorological Society, 1996);Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences, vol. 30, no. 2 (2000); Studies in the History and Philosophy of Modern Physics, vol. 31, no. 3 (2000); Weathering the Storm: Sverre Petterssen, the D-Day Forecast and the Rise of Modern Meteorology (American Meteorological Society, 2001); The Papers of Guy Stewart Callendar on CD-ROM. 8 Vols. (Waterville, ME: Colby College, 2002-03); International Perspectives on the History of Meteorology: Science and Cultural Diversity (Mexico City: UNAM, in press).

Work in progress includes The Carbon Dioxide Theory of Climate Change: Emergence, Eclipse, and Reemergence; a biography of G.S. Callendar, 1898-1964: Pioneer Scientist of Global Warming; a study of Irving Langmuir's Work in Weather Modification; and a major international conference on the history of meteorology in July 2004 in Polling, Germany.

Professor Fleming is President of the International Commission on History of Meteorology, program officer of the History of Earth Sciences Society, history editor of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, advisory editor of Earth Science History, advisory editor of the Papers of Joseph Henry, and member of the Electorate Nominating Committee of the AAAS. He served the History of Science Society as chair of the Schuman Prize Committee (2001) and advisory editor of Isis (2000-03); he is past chair the History of Atmospheric Sciences Committee of the American Meteorological Society (1996-2003) and former history editor of EOS: Transactions of the American Geophysical Union(1990-96).

Honors include Who's Who in America and fellowships from the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Smithsonian Institution, American Philosophical Society Library, Yale University, and the University of Arizona's Institute for the Study of Planet Earth. He has been a visiting scholar at MIT, Harvard, and Penn State. He has been named the Ritter Memorial Fellow at Scripps Institution of Oceanography for 2003. He lives in China, Maine (not Mainland China!) with his wife, Miyoko, and their sons Jamitto and Jason. Hobbies include music and outdoor activities.

"Fixing" the Weather and Climate for Civilian and Military Purposes

This presentation examines the history of weather and climate modification since 1945. It provides examples of speculative technical fixes proposed (and on occasion pursued) by both military and civilian planners. The paper concludes with a discussion of how such proposed technical fixes reflect larger social tensions, values, and public apprehensions.

In the summer of 1946 at the General Electric Research Laboratory in Schenectady, New York, Vincent Schaefer, Bernard Vonnegut, and Irving Langmuir developed new cloud seeding agents and schemes for large-scale weather control. A year later, meteorologists in the Joint Research and Development Board advised the Defense Department that weather control by cloud seeding was "entirely feasible" and that the perfection of this technique would have major tactical, strategic, and economic implications. If researchers were right, a small amount of "nucleating" agent could cause a "chain reaction" in clouds that would release as much energy as an atomic bomb. Such a weather weapon could be used surreptitiously and without radioactive fallout. Cloud seeding was seen as the trigger that could release the violence of the atmosphere against an enemy, tame the winds in the service of an all-weather air force, or, on a larger scale, disrupt (or improve) the agricultural economy of nations and alter the global climate for strategic purposes.

Based on the military and economic implications of the technique and the powers it promised its masters, the U.S. military enthusiastically supported research on new technologies of weather and climate modification and control. At least one cloud seeding operation was conducted in Vietnam before the United States signed a U.N. Convention in 1977 condemning the use of environmental modification as a weapon of war. At the same time, commercial cloud seeders succeeded in building up the rain-making business, often resulting in controversy and litigation. Since the 1980s, the most immodest of the new intervention strategies involves "geoengineering" massive technical fixes for the climate system. A recent National Academy of Sciences report, Policy Implications of Greenhouse Warming advised that the United States should conduct research in schemes to cool the Earth if global warming gets out of hand. Proposals included orbiting a fleet of space mirrors or spraying sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere to reflect solar radiation back to space, turning the oceans into soupy green algae blooms to sequester excess carbon, or setting up gigantic "soot generators" to shade the Earth. If this does not invoke apprehension, I don't know what will.