48 Years Ago
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Taming the Weather
Nearly five decades ago it seemed as if we might gain mastery over the
weather—but what of the risks?
“Most of man’s inadvertent weather modification has resulted from pollution of
the atmosphere by discharges from his technological establishment. Thermal
pollution of the air over cities has caused them to become heat islands. Particulates and freezing nuclei have increased at all levels of the troposphere
and have been related to increased cloudiness. The increase of atmospheric
aerosols and particulates has been associated with an increase in atmospheric
turbidity. Although direct measurements have not yet shown it, the greater
cloudiness and turbidity threaten to reduce solar isolation. At the same time
there has been a measurable rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide. Because this
gas has a ‘greenhouse’ e;ect, several observers have forecast a general rise in
the global air temperature of as much as 4 °C by the year 2000.
“Within the past decade man has had su;cient success with manipulating weather processes to encourage him to press on toward greater and more
precise control. We need information that will help us to anticipate the nature
and magnitude of biological changes that may result from a given weather
“Some of these cause-and-e;ect relationships seem relatively simple:
increased precipitation might favor tree growth but deep snow seriously
impairs overwintering elk. But other biological e;ects may be remote from
the target of the weather-modifying operation. Outbreaks of pests or of plant
and animal diseases might materialize as a consequence of heavier amounts
of rain and weaker animals. Weeds and undesirable animals might move into
habitats made hospitable by weather modification. It is equally possible, however, that the altered weather might prove favorable for plants and animals
desirable for man.
“Taming the weather can be a dangerous game. There may be gains for
human welfare from achieving some control over the weather. At the same
time, there are some imponderable ecological risks. Because man is as much
a species of the biosphere as any other organism, he must critically evaluate these gains against the risks. He must undertake ecological studies that
will allow him to anticipate the consequences and implications of conscious
weather modification for the biosphere. In a real sense he holds his destiny
in his own hands.”
Adapted from “Weather Modification and the Biosphere,” by Frederick Sargent,
from the March 1969 issue of Technology Review.