09 August 2010

Irving Langmuir and Project Cirrus

By the end of World War II, Irving Langmuir was already a well-known industrial chemist with impeccable credentials that went as far back as before the First World War when he worked with GE and Thomas Edison to improve the incandescent light bulb, the basis of which led to his 1932 Nobel Prize in chemistry, becoming the first industrial chemist to win the prestigious award. But he had other pursuits and mind, having become interested in weather phenomena before the start of the Second World War. Not only was Langmuir interested in the weather, he saw a chance to even control the weather. At the time, the idea of weather modification and control had been established in the realm of pseudoscience practiced by half-crazed individuals. But in Langmuir, suddenly the field of weather modification had the clout of a prominent scientist. He successfully persuaded his employer, General Electric, to team up with the US Army Signal Corps and the Office of Naval Research in 1946 to start Project Cirrus.

Lanmuir teamed up with a GE machinist, Vincent Shaefer and a chemist, Bernard Vonnegut (author Kurt Vonnegut's older brother) to start some basic work in a research lab to determine the best way to cause precipitation to fall out of a cloud. Dry ice was found at first to be useful, but work also proceeded on silver iodide that was created by Vonnegut. In November 1946 the first aerial cloud seeding in history took place under Langmuir's direction near GE's headquarters in Schenectady, New York. Using a rented Fairchild 24 converted for crop dusting, a four mile long altostratus cloud at 4,000 feet was seeded with dry ice pellets fed into a funnel by Vincent Shaefer in the back of the aircraft. Within minutes, snow fell but evaporated at 2,000 feet. Undeterred, Langmuir tried a more ambitious experiment the following month using a bigger load of dry ice the following month. No precipitation resulted, but the following day upstate New York and Vermont were hit with the biggest snowstorm of the winter season that shut down business and caused accidents throughout the area. Though no connection could be made, many residents of upstate New York blamed Langmuir's experiments.

The US Weather Bureau (predecessor of the National Weather Service and part of the Department of Commerce) and its scientists, though, weren't convinced as no causal relationship could be drawn between that December seeding and the snowstorm the following day. Despite this, GE lawyers got spooked by the potential liability and insisted that Langmuir get the full cooperation of the US military as it was better shielded from the sorts of lawsuits GE feared. Military cooperation benefited Project Cirrus as more powerful aircraft with better load carrying capacities were no available. Boeing B-17s were first used which could seed as much as 80 pounds of dry ice pellets on each pass through target clouds. In October 1947 a USAF B-17 took off from MacDill AFB in Tampa to seed a weak hurricane that was stalled out off the coast of Jacksonville, Florida. Langmuir felt that seeding the rain bands of the storm with silver iodide would weaken it further. For whatever reason, the hurricane inexplicably strengthened, speed up, and struck Savannah, Georgia, causing several deaths and $34 million in damage. Once again, Project Cirrus was blamed for the strengthening of the storm even though the scientists of the US Weather Bureau insisted otherwise.
GE's legal department got spooked again and Project Cirrus was moved to New Mexico to try and create rain in the arid climate. For two years Langmuir's team seeded clouds with silver iodide crystals. Langmuir boldly announced to the press after two years that "only a few cents' worth of silver iodide could initiate dozens of rainstorms." He even appeared on the cover of Time magazine as a "rainmaker" and he quit his position at GE to speak throughout the country on the potential of rainmaking. Soon private pilots throughout the US started up "rainmaking" operations and cloud seeding took place over a six-state area, spurring Congressional hearings as local tourist attractions accused the seeding activities of affecting their businesses.

Even worse, the US Weather Bureau's scientists were busy debunking Langmuir's work. The New Mexico storms were usually the result of warm fronts that pumped Gulf moisture into the area. Study of hurricane records showed that the Savannah hurricane followed the same track as a storm in 1906, calling into question what if any effect had been caused by the seeding of that storm. Project Cirrus ended in a stalemate with the US Weather Bureau and in 1952 GE was more than happy to pull the plug on the project. Langmuir died in 1957 of a heart attack, but the work in the United States on weather modification hardly died with the death of its greatest champion.

Stay tuned for Part Two of this story!

Source: Air & Space Smithsonian, July 2010, Vol. 25, No. 2. "Climate Control: Irving Langmuir tried to change the world one storm at a time" by Sam Kean, p52-55.


  1. Wonderful, fanciful stuff. The Second World War occasioned such a marvelous intensity of scientific speculation and dreaming, happily unrelated to the grim business of finding new ways to kill people. Thank you for introducing me to Irving Langmuir. From now on, whenever I am lucky enough to sit beneath a summer monsoon storm in New Mexico, I will undoubtedly think of him.

  2. Very interesting post. I believe that the name "Vincent Shaefer" refers to Vincent Joseph Schaefer. See Wikipedia entry or NYT Obituary. Schaefer was referred to as "Dr. Schaefer" in an article in the Gallup Independent of Jan 23, 1950 describing his speech before the American Meteorological Society in St. Louis. Not bad for someone who dropped out of high school at age 15.