Climate Change Weather History



Remember this past winter when instead of enjoying winter sports, people were riding bicycles and hiking well into the 2012 ski season? How different it would have been for the regional economy if we could have managed to temporarily change the stubborn dry weather pattern from calm to stormy.

During the dry winter of 2012, Tahoe resorts deployed snow guns to stay open. 

Mankind’s quixotic quest to influence weather is as old as civilization itself, but scientists today can be successful in coaxing enhanced precipitation from clouds when atmospheric conditions are favorable. Ground-based and aerial cloud seeding over the Sierra can increase precipitation from any given storm by up to 15 percent. That is not a trivial amount.

During the El Niño-influenced winter of 1998, seed-dispensing aircraft and five ground-based generators were able to produce almost 15,000 acre feet of water in the Tahoe area before seeding was suspended in February— enough to supply 15,000 suburban households with a year’s worth of water.

Weather modification has always generated controversary. Reno Evening Gazette, Dec. 11, 1950.

Private entrepreneurs, public utilities, and government agencies have been seeding Sierra skies with dry ice, silver iodide, and other particulates since the 1950s and in the Lake Tahoe region since the 1960s. For seeding to be successful, clouds must contain supercooled water—water that has remained liquid at below-freezing temperatures. Introducing nuclei into the supercooled water accelerates the production of ice crystals that fall as snow or melt into rain drops. Increasing precipitation with cloud seeding is based on sound science and in the arid west is a far cheaper method of increasing water supplies than buying water on the open market.

Jim “JB” Budny standing on the lip of Upper Yosemite Falls during the severe 1975-77 drought. At age 20 I was insane enough to climb out onto the sheer granite face for this photo. That won’t happen again!

One of the first Sierra cloud seeders was Bob Symons, based in Bishop, California. In 1946, a General Electric research scientist discovered how dry ice initiated precipitation in lab experiments. During a winter dry spell in 1948, executives at California Electric and Power Company were concerned about the lack of snowpack in the southern Sierra and the utility’s hydroelectric energy commitments.

Since no one had done cloud seeding in the region before, a Cal-Electric engineer secretly contacted Symons to see if he would be willing to try some “hush hush” weather modification. Ironically, several months before Symons had shaved a load of dry ice himself and tossed it from his plane. It snowed!

When ignited, wing-mounted hygroscopic flares disperse cloud seeding agents.

For two winters Cal-Electric and Bob Symons worked in tight secrecy on the project. People in Bishop knew something was going on because virtually every time Symons flew his plane, it seemed to rain or snow. However, the whole town kept the experiment secret for two years, including the publisher of Bishop’s newspaper, until March 1950 when the project was revealed as a well-documented success.

In addition to enhancing precipitation, modern-day weather modification efforts include using seeding to mitigate hailstorm formation, dissipating ground fog near airports, and, more controversially, weakening hurricanes by dosing cloud-tops to alter circulation.

Historically, “rainmakers” have also included those who claimed that they could protect farmers from destructive hailstorms. In the U.S. alone, crop losses from hailstorms average a half billion dollars annually, but it’s a worldwide problem.

Legendary rainmaker William F. Wright, a University of Nebraska professor, designed these anti-hail cannons in the 1890s.

Using artillery to disrupt hailstorm formation has been around since 1890. Their use in the United States reached its heyday in the early 20th century when meteorologists debunked it, but in recent years several companies have reintroduced “anti-hail cannons” back into the market. The new cannons automatically load and reload, and can be remotely controlled and fired. Each gun costs about $60,000, and that doesn’t include the recommended radar component.

Modern anit-hail cannons are designed to work with radar for greater effectiveness.

Many scientists are skeptical of anti-hail weapons, but there are 20 cannon sites in California alone, and there is one in Mississippi where a Japanese automobile manufacturer has installed the cannons to protect new cars at their plant.

Classic convective downburst “foot” indicative of strong outflow. Cells like this are known for producing graupel (snow pellets) which occur when snowflakes get coated with super-cooled water. (April 12, 2012) 



Weather History



I first came across the Storm King moniker in the 1980s while researching 19th century newspapers for information on Sierra winter storms. In the late 1800s it was common for editors to capture the reader’s attention with headlines like “Railroad Battles Storm King.”

The Storm King headline would be followed by a riveting account of heroic railroad crews fighting against the violent Storm King, who wielded weapons of heavy snow, deadly avalanches, extreme wind and biting cold.

When wild weather overwhelmed the railroad, news articles would describe train blockades, derailments, and other calamities. Depending on the newspaper, sometimes the stories were accompanied by advertisements touting the “Storm King” brand of weather-proof boots and jackets for those who worked outdoors.

Daily Nevada State Journal, January 10, 1890

Years later I discovered the story about James Pollard Espy, the first official meteorologist to the U.S. government, who the press had dubbed “The Storm King.” According to one account, during his long, esteemed career, Espy became known as the “Old Storm King,” as much for his argumentative style as his significant scientific accomplishments.

Born in 1785, Espy taught school in several states before settling in Philadelphia in 1820, where he transformed the city’s Franklin Institute into the nation’s vanguard of weather science. By 1836, Espy developed a theory that storms were caused by moist air heated by the earth’s surface. It rises in a column that eventually cools, condenses and forms clouds. The so-called latent heat trapped within the air is released by condensation, which often leads to clouds, wind, and precipitation. (Espy’s concept of convection is now accepted as part of modern meteorology.)

In 1842, James Pollard Espy was appointed by Congress to become the first offical meteorologist to the United States government.

These were challenging times for scientists attempting to study the physical processes and internal dynamics of weather systems. At the time, unpredicted storms often caused catastrophic loss of life and widespread damage, and pioneer weathermen were scrambling to figure out how improve forecasting.

The rudimentary concept of the counterclockwise circulation of low pressure systems in the Northern Hemisphere was still not proven. Scientists didn’t know how storms formed or traveled. Prevailing thought held that storms traveled in the direction the wind blew. Even the brilliant Benjamin Franklin was at a loss to explain why winds during a storm blew from the northeast even as the low pressure worked its way northeastward from Philadelphia to Boston.

The United States started developing a fledgling weather service before the Civil War

While Espy was developing his theory, William Redfield, a self-taught American weather aficionado, had been working on his own research. After visiting the aftermath of a hurricane that ravaged New England in 1821, Redfield observed that in one location fallen trees were toppled by a southeast wind, while trees further north had been blown down by winds from the northeast. That evidence convinced Redfield that the tropical storms that sometimes walloped the East Coast were in fact massive whirlwinds that rotated as they surged up the Atlantic coast.

Pioneer meteorologist William Redfield studied typhoons in the West Indies to determine that storm winds blow in a rotary direction.

For the next decade, Redfield analyzed ship logs, interviewed shipmasters, and studied wind patterns. In 1831, his thesis containing the details of a storm’s anatomy was published in the American Journal of Science. James Espy, however, vociferously disagreed with Redfield, arguing (incorrectly) that instead of winds rotating in a circular manner, they rushed in at great speed toward a storm’s center where the rising column of air was strongest. Their heated debate went on for years.

William Redfield’s postulate would later be verified with the establishment of the telegraph system, which enabled operators to report real-time information. By 1860, there were 500 stations across the United States telegraphing data to the Smithsonian Institute, which began producing America’s first daily weather maps, and the science of forecasting had begun.

Note lack of data available for the sparsely populated western United States in this 1871 weather map.  

Ironically, Redfield and Espy died without realizing that each of them had contributed vital parts that led to a more advanced understanding of weather and storms. Perhaps more ironic is that as a weather enthusiast growing up in Philly, I never knew about Espy, the “Storm King of Philadelphia.”





Climate Change Weather History



This March, Lake Tahoe finally had a decent month of rain and snow worthy of the winter season. However, the April 2 snow survey that measured the liquid equivalent in the Sierra snowpack came in at a disappointing 55 percent of normal. One above-average month of rain and snow wasn’t enough to make up for this mostly bone dry season. This graph represents an average of how much precipitation has fallen in the Northern Sierra since October 1, the beginning of the water year.

Blue line represents this winter. Note huge spike in precipitation during March. Red line indicates last winter’s profile. Note how precipitation continued to add up well into June.

The early April survey is considered the most important of the year since the snowpack usually peaks at this time, just before it begins to melt and feed the state’s streams, reservoirs and aquifers. With only one month left with statistical chances for much precipitation before the storm season shuts down for good, it’s too late to bring on the Indian “snow-dance” or call in professional rainmakers like days of yore.

Avid fans of the American rock group Widespread Panic are familiar with their tune “Hatfield.” The song spins a tale about an early 20th century rainmaker named Charles Hatfield who was famous for producing moisture during extended droughts. In December 1915, San Diego’s city council promised to pay Hatfield the Rainmaker $10,000 if he could generate enough precipitation to break a four-year dry spell that had dessicated local reservoirs.

In the contract, Hatfield stated: “I will produce enough rain to fill the Morena Reservoir to overflowing, between now and next December [1916], for the sum of $10,000. I will deliver the first 30 inches of rainfall at no charge (San Diego averages just over 10 inches of rain per year). But you will pay me $500 per inch, for the next 20 inches. Should I fail to deliver as promised, I ask for no compensation whatever.” It was a bold, brash statement but incredibly, Hatfield would be good to his word, and then some!

Hatfield was a “pluviculturist,” a term coined by a Stanford University professor to describe the type of pseudo-scientific quackery regarding weather modification that was popular in the decades around the turn of the 20th century. These “weather wizards” traveled around the country, boasting about the efficacy of their proprietary chemical brews, strange machinery, and artillery firepower used to bring the rain. Each flimflam artist took a different approach to rain making; whether unleashing fusillades of cannon fire into the atmosphere, stirring up chemical concoctions that wafted into the air, or cranking dynamos to send electric charges up long metal wires suspended by balloons rising into the clouds, all in hopes of pulling water from the sky.

“Weather Wizard” using electricity to coax rain from clouds, circa 1880. 

Mankind’s quixotic quest to influence weather is as old as civilization itself. Best known among America’s huckster rainmakers was “Professor” Charles Mallory Hatfield. Born in Kansas about 1875, the sewing machine salesman had no formal education beyond ninth grade. By 1902, young Hatfield was studying weather records and finding work as a noted rain engineer in San Diego and Los Angeles. In early December 1904, he approached some L.A. business interests with a proposal to guarantee 18 inches of rain by April 1905 in exchange for $1,000. Hatfield seemed to take a big risk betting his reputation on this contract, but when 18 inches had fallen by the deadline and the money paid, the public and press began to take Hatfield much more seriously. The following year he earned $250 from Grass Valley-based South Yuba Water Company when he broke a dry spell with a 4.5 inch deluge.

Charles Hatfield studied weather and climate patterns to enhance his chances for success.

Hatfield’s reputation was based on fortuitous rains that seemed to follow his “treatments,” as well as his simple, down-to-earth approach. Many would-be rainmakers were con-men trying to separate desperate, drought-stricken farmers from their hard-earned cash. Hatfield, however, had a marketing advantage over most of them. He came across as being honest and a straight-shooter. Unlike other flamboyant shysters who relied on flashy pyrotechnics and other outlandish methods meant to dazzle their clients, Hatfield was modest. He said, “I do not make rain. That would be an absurd claim. I simply attract clouds and they do the rest.”

It seemed that Hatfield really believed that his approach was an effective weather producer. In reality, as someone knowledgeable about weather and climate, he calculated that it would probably rain anyway within the time parameters of the contracts he offered. Hatfield, assisted by his brother Paul, erected tall towers topped by large wooden containers filled with a noxious, gas-producing brew. Hatfield claimed that certain chemicals stimulated by electricity, when released into the atmosphere, could increase rainfall, a concept similar to how fertilizer applied to crops boosted production. Although Hatfield said that the odor was mild, one farmer observed, “These gases smell so bad that it rains in self-defense.” Hatfield said, “I have nothing to do with bombs, dynamite or explosives of any kind whatever.” His low-key approach stood out in stark contrast against his competition.

Charles Hatfield stands before his rain towers near Hemet, California, 1912.

By the time Hatfield cut the deal with the San Diego Chamber of Commerce in Dec. 1915, he had been disparaged as a fraud by the U.S. Weather Bureau, but he was big news all across the country. After negotiations with civic leaders, Hatfield withdrew his commitment to produce 30 inches of rain, but promised to fill the city’s depleted reservoir system for $10,000. Although a formal agreement was never drawn up or signed by the town council, by early January Hatfield had built a tower near the Morena Reservoir and his brew was wafting into the sky. The first heavy rain storm hit on Jan. 10, followed by days of persistent showers that led to even more intense downpours that lasted much of the month. No one had ever seen such rain, but Hatfield continued to work his magic up in the mountains, about 60 miles east of San Diego. Near Hatfield’s tower, nearly 13 inches of precipitation fell in just four days.

The unusual tempest temporarily halted a Panama-California Exposition being held in Balboa Park. The weather also forced officials to cancel opening day races at the new Agua Caliente Race Track in Tijuana. Rising waters throughout the region began washing away bridges, marooning passenger trains, and flooding homes. Despite the deluge, Hatfield used a telephone to call City Hall from his remote location at Morena: “I just wanted to tell you that it is only sprinkling now. Within the next few days I expect to make it rain right…just hold your horses until I show you a real rain.”

Heavy rain in January 1916 washed out bridges and stranded trains.

Meanwhile, San Diego engineers watched nervously as torrents of water poured into the regional reservoirs; Morena, Chollas, and Upper and Lower Otay lakes. Operators warned that despite huge releases through relief gates, several dams were at risk for failure due to the unprecedented inflow. Their worst fears were realized when the Lower Otay Dam collapsed and water surged out of the mountains toward the ocean, sweeping away everything in its path. Afterwards San Diego was cut-off from the outside world save for naval ships that ferried people and supplies. Fortunately, due to the sparsely populated countryside, less than 20 people died.

In addition to the Lower Otay Dam failure, water breached the Sweetwater Dam as well.

San Diego picked up 300 percent of normal rainfall for that January, but refused to pay Hatfield his $10,000 until he paid for the nearly $4 million in damages he caused. A lesson was learned, however. When San Diego hired a cloud seeder in 1948, the city took out damage insurance. As a wise man once said, “Timing has a lot to do with the outcome of a rain dance.”

Charles Hatfield may have been a con man, but his reputation for “milking the skies” hasn’t been forgotten.