Page 9
Previous/Next Page
Federation and MeteorologyBureau of Meteorology
Table of Contents

The Weather Prophets

The Charleville Rainmaker

Reading the Signs

Weather to Order

The Long-range Outlook



Contact us
Weather to Order

'For the man in the street the weather does not depend on climate or upon the weather bureau', argued the Argus in 1918. Statements of mean temperatures or other such 'scientific pronouncements', it maintained, 'are meaningless because they take no heed of the state of mind which some people bring to the weather'. What of the influence of the weather on our well-being, on the connection between temperature and temperament? On matters such as these, the editorial suggested, science remained 'extremely ignorant'.[41]

In an era when even our cars come with 'climate control', we might think that the weather has little impact on our lives. But even beyond such vital questions as whether to take an umbrella when we go out, the weather shapes our daily experience in subtle and enduring ways. The writer of the Argus editorial believed that talking about the weather was a means of testing whether 'our own particular temperament' was 'in tune with that of our neighbour'a symbolic language of sorts. Certainly the weather effects how we 'feel', how we interact with others, how we remember. Perhaps talking about the weather helps us to position our own lives and experiences within a broader landscape of significance—to chart our personal highs and lows, our storm fronts and our sunny spells.

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'.[42] The summers of Mr Hodgson's youth were hotter, with more thunderstorms, but none of the cold, 'wintry days' of recent years. And Mr Hodgson was not alone. Despite assurances from the Weather Bureau, claims that the climate had changed were regularly reported and commonly believed. A series of headlines from a 1935 article summarised the debate: '"Winter not abnormal"—Cold comfort from the Weather Bureau—Officers blame psychology'.[43] The Bureau's Assistant Director, H. Barkley, argued that average temperatures were thoroughly normal. But 'cloudy skies have a psychological effect', he added, causing 'the average citizen to place the mercury in thought much lower than it stands'.[44]

However, the main territory in dispute was that of memory. Responding to a similar outcry in 1950, John Hogan 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'.[45] 'Outstanding events' are mistaken for 'normal'. Moreover, suggested one meteorological authority, such preoccupations are 'due to the fact that the attitude towards life, the amount of energy, and the daily occupations and responsibilities of old people are different from what they were when they were younger'.[46] Were Mr Hodgson's missing thunderstorms, merely forlorn reminders of lost vitality?

Memory is not an average of the past. The statistical transformation of weather into climate is one of the foundations of meteorology, but it is not something we directly experience. We cannot expect our weather memories to provide a reliable guide to climate change, but perhaps they do help us make sense of other changes in our lives and our world. In a similar way, the attraction of long-range forecasts may lie not in their accuracy, but in their certainty. Just as averages bear little relation to our remembered past, so probabilities are difficult to align with an imagined future. The long-range weather prophets, armed with their periods and cycles, made the future less threatening, more orderly. Nature did not act on a whim, it was running on a timetable.

There is, it seems, but a small step between imagining we could know the timetable of nature, and believing it possible to change it. The quest for knowledge and the desire for control were, as ever, closely entwined. In the second half of the nineteenth century, many were convinced that the Australian climate could be improved, either by cultivating the soil, or by planting trees.[47] Severe droughts in the 1880s and 1890s diminished such optimism, but in its place grew the conviction that drought itself was the enemy of progress and must be vanquished. Wragge was not the only one who answered this call to arms, though he certainly had the biggest guns. Others, perhaps less well-motivated, also presented themselves as the saviours of a thirsty continent. Just like the long-range weather prophets, the would-be rainmakers offered Australians the chance to make their own destiny.

In 1903, Broken Hill rainmakers sought to open the clouds by means of a 'vortical whirl' of hydrogen, generated by adding zinc to open pots of sulphuric acid.[48] Most experimenters, however, preferred blowing things up. Captain Meaburn, for example, fired a rocket directly into overhanging clouds, and was delighted when a torrential downpour followed, despite the fact that rain had already been predicted by the Bureau. Professor Pepper's technique, on the other hand, involved 'tapping the clouds' with a huge kite loaded with explosives.[49] 'Despite many unsuccessful experiments', the Argus noted, 'the belief that heavy explosions and concussions will produce rain still lives'.[50]

The efforts of Mr J. B. Balsillie, an early radio experimenter, attracted particular attention. Balsillie proffered a more 'scientific' approach, and disapproved of the term 'rain making': 'a phrase coined by persons of inferior mental calibre'.[51] Instead he argued that rain could be 'stimulated' by electrical means, using a charged, metal-coated balloon connected to an x-ray tube.[52] Balsillie claimed success for a series of experiments in the Mallee between 1915 and 1919, but an expert committee appointed by the government to investigate his technique was less sanguine. 'Still the weather remains unconquered', the Argus concluded in 1944, after surveying various rainmaking attempts: 'The grim spectre of drought is one of the few enemies which man can see but cannot destroy . . . with all his scientific knowledge he is powerless to kill it'.[53]

Only three years later the mood had changed with news of US cloud seeding experiments. 'Weather to order next?' asked the Sydney Morning Herald.[54] Australia was quick to follow the American lead, and in January 1947 there were reports of 'secret experiments' being carried out by the CSIR in cooperation with the RAAF.[55] Soon it was confirmed that dry ice released into clouds from an RAAF Liberator had resulted in a brief shower of rain.[56] 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.

At the end of the war, CSIR's Division of Radiophysics had switched from developing radar systems to investigating the physics of clouds. These were the new rainmakers. Publicity surrounding their adventures in the clouds helped consolidate CSIR/O's position at the heart of Australia's nation-building enterprise. In 1955, Richard Casey summarised the achievements of the division, inspired by the 'genius' of its leader, E. G. Bowen. Casey proclaimed that the Australian program 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'.[57] As the researchers prepared for a large-scale experimental program in the Snowy Mountains, the Sydney Morning Herald wondered, 'Is this the year of the pay-off?'. If the tests succeeded, the article concluded, 'then 1957 may go down in history, not as the year of the A-bomb, the H-bomb or the guided missile, but as the year Australia gave rainmaking to the world'.[58]

An age-old dream was resurrected amidst a new age of optimism. 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'.[59] The Bureau of Meteorology was rather more cautious in its pronouncements, and was at times concerned by claims attributed to the CSIRO rainmakers.[60] Nonetheless, it was not immune to the swelling sense of power. Speaking on the 50th anniversary of the Commonwealth Meteorological Service, its Director, L. J. 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'.[61]

But with this feeling of power came uneasiness. Already there was concern that 'freakish' weather might be attributable to atomic tests. 'Every time an atom-bomb goes off, people get "weather conscious"', noted the Sydney Morning Herald in 1956.[62] Moreover, if the weather could be controlled, then surely it too could be used as a weapon. Reports, emanating from a US Presidential committee investigating weather control, warned of the 'ominous threat' that the Russians might 'launch a vast program to change the world patterns of rainfall'.[63] Tucked amongst the alarmist prophesies and cold war paranoia, however, was an admission that the climate might already be changing. Pointing to the rapidly increasing levels of carbon dioxide, the scientists suggested that 'there has been a general warming of the earth's atmosphere by vehicle exhausts and industrial pollutants'.[64] The greenhouse effect.

Even as dreams of controlling the weather have faded, we have, it seems, finally worked out how to modify the climate. It's easy, we've been doing it for years. But our reluctant acceptance of the reality of climate change offers little consolation to Mr Hodgson. The greenhouse effect is still something we know through statistics rather than direct experience. We can't feel it, and yet these tiny, cumulative changes, beyond casual perception, might drastically alter the way we live, in this and coming centuries. The power to modify the climate has not brought us certainty. It has not delivered us mastery over nature. Instead we face the future with new doubts and fears, wondering, as always, about the coming change in the weather.

Organisations in Australian Science at Work - Division of Radio Physics

People in Bright Sparcs - Bowen, Edward George (Taffy); Casey, Richard Gardiner; Dwyer, Leonard Joseph; Hogan, John; Wragge, Clement Lindley

Previous Page Bureau of Meteorology Next Page

© Online Edition Australian Science and Technology Heritage Centre and Bureau of Meteorology 2001
Published by Australian Science and Technology Heritage Centre, using the Web Academic Resource Publisher