Saturday 31 December 2016

How humans have tried to control storms

In Lithuania in the olden days, they would drink beer, dance round bonfires, or sacrifice animals. In other Slav countries, maidens would be danced to death. In the British Isles, we burned humans and animals alive inside a great wickerwork idol (remember the cult horror film, The Wicker Man?), while the Aztecs sacrificed children. All these things were done to try to control the tempests which humanity has learned the hard way, can unleash immense destruction without warning.

It must all have sounded so primitive to those in more modern times, who tried to enlist science. So in Central Europe in the late nineteenth century, they fired mortars in vineyards and orchards to stop hailstorms, believing the shock waves in the atmosphere would stop the stones forming. Great success was claimed, but scientific experiments found the method useless.

In the twentieth century, the Soviet Union went for a more ambitious approach, trying to protect the cotton fields of Uzbekistan and other places from hailstorms by firing into the clouds rockets and artillery shells carrying silver or lead iodide crystals. The idea was to provide lots of nuclei around which stones could form, making them more numerous but smaller, and less able to do damage.

The Russians claimed that between 1968 and 1984 they achieved 80 per cent success, but American tests were unable to reproduce the results. 

For the full story of humanity’s attempts to control storms see my new book Storm: Nature and Culture (Reaktion Books). 

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