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Posted at 11:30 AM ET, 07/ 8/2010

The Rainmakers: Did they make it rain? Can they?

By Don Lipman

* Legitimate rain chance Saturday: Full Forecast | NatCast *

The latest U.S. Drought Monitor (issued today) indicates moderate drought over much of D.C. metro region.

After the warmest and one of the drier (60% of average rainfall) Junes on record, drought, or at least the perception of drought, enters people's minds, as it is now. In the past, however, when rain was badly needed (or sought for military advantage), people used the most bizarre methods imaginable. What were some of them?

From the ancient, mystical ideas of some Asian cultures to the modern, scientifically-based techniques of today, many rainmaking theories have intervened. In the first century A.D., Plutarch, a Greek historian, observed that rain often follows battles, which might be nature's way of purifying the air and ground, he thought.

By the time of Napoleon, eighteen centuries later, the idea had evolved: it was now believed that chemical additives and/or loud sounds could disrupt atmospheric equilibrium and produce rain. As a result, Napoleon was known to have fired artillery into the air, hoping for a deluge to surprise and disable the enemy. This was the "Concussion Theory of Rainmaking," an idea that continued to have traction up until the Civil War -- and beyond.

Keep reading for more on rain-making history...

As a matter of fact, even the U. S. Congress was willing to listen. In 1891, it hired retired Brigadier General Robert Dyrenforth, a firm believer, to conduct a series of rain-making experiments in Texas to try and settle the argument once and for all. He used artillery and balloon- carrying explosives and, after claiming some initial "success," was later ridiculed for his absurd methods. In reality, Dyrenforth's main accomplishment was a series of prairie fires. He was promptly given the nickname "Dry-Henceforth."

Despite Dyrenforth's failed efforts to produce rain with artillery and explosives, there continued to be a public perception that rain could somehow be generated by propelling "additives" into the atmosphere. Enter the king of the rainmakers, Charles M. Hatfield, the self-proclaimed "Wizard of the Weather," also known as the "Robin Hood of the Clouds."

Charles Hatfield.

Hatfield undertook his "wizardry" during the early part of the last century, taking advantage of the periodic droughts which occurred then. As opposed to Dyrenforth, who apparently really believed in his own methods, Hatfield was a charlatan--and a very clever one at that. Although he did develop a secret chemical concoction, called a "moisture accelerator," which was released from artificial towers, it's questionable whether he believed the mixture had any real value.

Instead, Hatfield relied, ironically, on official weather records since he was, in fact, an amateur meteorologist. By the time he began offering his services (circa 1900), approximately 30 years of official records existed for many American cities. In the West, water wars were raging (as they are now, in a way) and Hatfield recognized the desperation of farming communities and even large cities when rainfall was scanty.

When water shortages occurred, Hatfield, and his brother at times, offered his services to farmers but warned them that it would take time to build the towers, "moisturize" the air, and allow the clouds to build up. Drawing rain from the atmosphere, he said, was like sowing seed and then nurturing the seedlings. As this all seemed logical and resonated well with the farmers, he often got the job.

What the farmers didn't know, however, was that Hatfield carefully reviewed existing weather records to determine the most likely time of year for rain and wouldn't start the job until then, giving him a much higher probability for success. As a result, his reputation blossomed.

Hatfield's downfall, however, came in 1916 when the city of San Diego, suffering a severe drought, came calling, Or rather, Hatfield came calling to the city, which offered to pay him $10,000 if he could fill the city's main reservoir, Lake Morena (or Moreno) "to overflowing." Only too happy to oblige, Hatfield set up shop outside of town.

Normally, coastal San Diego averages just 10 inches of rain per year and the inland mountains about 40. But for a couple of years, a serious drought had been developing and San Diego's main reservoir was greatly depleted. As fate would have it, shortly after Hatfield released his chemicals in early January 1916, the skies opened up, flooding San Diego and environs with up to 35 inches of rain.

Some of Hatfield's contraptions.

It was estimated that the flood caused $13.5 million ($263,000,000 in today's dollars) of destruction by damaging roads and washing away dams, citrus groves, and homes. Nevertheless, Hatfield, who expected credit if he succeeded, refused to take blame for the disaster, saying that it was an act of God which, of course, it was. The city, in turn, decided that unless Hatfield accepted liability for the damages, he would not get paid. He refused and, as a result, Hatfield's only "reward" was a plaque.

During the rest of the twentieth century, various efforts (and schemes) to increase, or even decrease, rainfall and/or winds were undertaken. One such effort at weather modification, as it's now known, was Project Popeye (1967-72) during the Vietnamese War, which was designed to extend the monsoon in Laos, making it more difficult for the enemy to move supplies and troops. It was considered partially successful.

One of the more well-known U.S. weather modification programs was Project Stormfury, which lasted from 1962-1983. Designed to test the feasibility of weakening hurricanes by seeding them with silver iodide crystals, it was never fully proven. In fact, the program received a black eye from which it never fully recovered when, in 1965, Hurricane Betsy suddenly and unpredictably slammed into the Bahamas and southern Florida. The storm had not been seeded but neither Congress nor anyone else believed this.

Today, other countries, it seems, are more involved with attempts at weather modification than we are in the U.S. Anyone remember the Chinese bravely announcing to the world in 2008 that, armed with a battery of hundreds of artillery and rocket launchers to seed threatening clouds, they could prevent rain from interfering with the opening Olympic ceremonies? Over a thousand dispersal rockets were fired and it was dry for the ceremonies, but was it cause and effect?

You might also remember Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov's statement last fall when he promised to prevent snow from falling ever again in Moscow......If he was given enough money for the Russian Air Force to seed the clouds outside the city.

With the exception of certain localized types of weather modification, such as hail suppression, rainmaking (or rain prevention), it seems, still has a long way to go before becoming a reliable, controllable, and scientifically sound large-scale weather changer.

Deja vu for China's weather modification program
NOAA Says No to DHS Hurricane Modification
DHS Rebuffed by NOAA on Hurricane Modification
Artificial or Not, China Has Snow and D.C. Doesn't
The Hairy Issue of Hurricane Modification
A Full-Out Effort to Forecast Olympic Weather

By Don Lipman  | July 8, 2010; 11:30 AM ET
Categories:  Droughts, Education, Lipman  
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Is this really a drought???

There's a rain threat most of the time [4 days out of 6]. Looks as though Saturday could be the rainiest. At least my big dance is HISTORY by then.

Posted by: Bombo47jea | July 8, 2010 12:07 PM | Report abuse

"Normally, coastal San Diego averages just 10 inches of rain per year and the inland mountains about 40."
Ummm....I think you need to check your figures. There's no way any mountain near San Diego averages anywhere near 40 inches of rain. Maybe 15?

Posted by: silencedogoodreturns | July 8, 2010 1:29 PM | Report abuse

It's a drought at my house, no rain in 35 days. Article in the local paper about the withering corn & hay fields in Spotsy. & Culpepper Counties, & a few scattered storms won't alleviate the dryness.

Posted by: VaTechBob | July 8, 2010 1:40 PM | Report abuse

Definitely drought. A chance of rain four out of six days, or even 100 out of 100 days, means bupkus.

In central Fairfax, water poured onto the soil just disappears. Just when you think you've soaked the soil, you dig in, only to find it's nothing but dust.

So it's not 1930s Dust Bowl drought, but it's getting pretty dry out there.

Posted by: ennepe68 | July 8, 2010 2:21 PM | Report abuse

silencedogoodreturns : I appreciate your comments and thanks for your interest in the Capital Weather Gang. However, the reference to the rainfall amounts at some of San Diego's inland mountains is valid, at least in some areas (as corroborated by one of the hydrolgists at the NWS San Diego Office.

For example, Mt. Palomar about 60 miles from San Diego) officially gets about 30 inches per year but San Diego flood control gauges (used by the NWS) on the front ranges consistently measure 40-45 inches,

Another example: Cuyamaca Mountain has official measurements for over 30 years showing about 36 inches annually.

Don Lipman, Capital Weather Gang

Posted by: Weatherguy | July 8, 2010 2:42 PM | Report abuse

Hatfield is legendary to students of San Diego history (like myself). Here's a link to a good article about him and other So. Cal rainmakers of the time.

Posted by: dhb2 | July 8, 2010 2:59 PM | Report abuse

We really need a tropical storm...

Posted by: rocotten | July 8, 2010 3:08 PM | Report abuse

Ok, I have to ask - I am confused as to how the slight chance of rain that hasn't actually happened means there is no drought. The forecast has nothing to do with reality and the reality is that the area is under a moderate drought due to lack of any significant rain for months and no rain at all in most places for weeks. Yes, there have been bursts, but that does not affect the overall health and dryness of the soil.

And I like being outside too and rain on Friday night or Saturday might disrupt my plans to see Jazz in the Gardens or the fireworks in Old Town. But I also like green soft grass vs crunchy fire prone grass, trees that aren't dying, and enough moisture to wipe away the layer of dust that covers everything around here.

Posted by: hereandnow1 | July 8, 2010 4:30 PM | Report abuse

It could be that the forecast icons (top left) are misleading. There are 4 out of 6 days with thunderstorm icons, however the text for today says "extremely isolated" and for tomorrow "isolated". I think Saturday was described as "strong chance". Maybe the isolated days could have a very light gray thunderstorm icon to not give the impression we are headed into a rainy period.

Posted by: eric654 | July 8, 2010 4:44 PM | Report abuse

The article was very interesting - Thanks!!

Posted by: GrayDawn | July 8, 2010 10:20 PM | Report abuse

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