Ecological Militarism: The U.S. Military's Cold War with the Earth Itself / by Adeene Denton

Many scientific historians have broadly discussed the influence of the Cold War on the development of specific fields within the broader discipline of earth science.  However, few have touched on the study of climate change by the U.S. military, and its array of plans to co-opt the process for warfare during (and later after) the Cold War. 

The concept of anthropogenic climate change (also known as global warming) became known to the public in the later half of the 1980s, when James Hansen and other scientists testified before Congress.  However, the possibility of climate change and the newfound human ability to use technology to act as a geological force was a concept that the U.S. political and military leadership began to explore in the 1950s. Here, we break down some of the prevailing reasons for the military’s interest in manipulating climate, an overview of some of the ideas they had to that effect, and a discussion of several in-depth examples.

When the Earth Became Global

For a science that is built on the concept of change occurring over inconceivably long timescales, earth science developed at a breakneck pace during the Cold War.  As earth science grew both in numbers of people working under its banner and in terms of the amount of data they had at their disposal, the field subdivided rapidly (in a case of science imitating life).  The 1950s saw a fascinating dual development within earth science: scientists were increasingly recruited to work with and for their national militaries, even as they developed datasets and connections with other scientists that were global in nature.  Scientists who wanted to study the history of the earth were looking for datasets that spanned the world, not just their country’s borders, a feat that could be accomplished through either extensive collaboration with other nations… or massive amounts of manpower on a scale only the military could offer.  Oceanographers chose the latter option as their chance for technological exploration of the oceans; U.S. naval vessels became the hosts of scientific research cruises, as they had the greatest mobility and technology of any ships in the world. 

Many scientists collecting these data were loath to discuss the tensions between their research and any political agendas, but it was certainly on their minds – and the minds of their benefactors.  For the Navy and the other branches of the U.S. military, scientific projects typically served multiple purposes; the data collected was both a research boost to a specific scientific community and information that the military might be able to use.  Sometimes this meant that radio arrays in the Caribbean, which were ostensibly for ocean floor sounding and bathymetric mapping, were coopted to survey for Soviet submarines. More often, however, it simply meant collating the flurry of incoming information about the earth and its climate for use in future tactical plans.  Like the space race, climate and environmental science became yet another venue in which the Cold War was fought. Unlike the space race, however, the translation between climate science and policy was one that became far more fraught with time.

Why was the military so interested in environmental research during the Cold War?  In the context of the time, it’s not too surprising – in a “war” fought through prestige and power, every step along the chess board was about control.  When researchers in conversation with the military became aware that humanity was becoming a force that could act on a geologic scale (and the danger associated with that concept), the possibility of extending U.S. control to the environment became extremely appealing.  As American oceanic scientists saw the bathymetry of the seafloor for the first time, the political and military forces in Washington were haggling over just how much ocean the U.S. could control outside its borders.  American oil companies like Chevron, Shell, and Mobile became technological giants over the course of the Cold War by expanding their search for petroleum to South America and Africa, and their profitable dividends seemed to suggest that the earth’s interior was also within the scope of human knowledge and control.  The advent of earth-orbiting satellites with Sputnik in 1957 seemed to herald the beginning of total surveillance from above, and for the military planetary surveillance was the beginning of planetary control. 

The more scientists discovered about the earth on which they lived, the more outside forces like the military sought to use that information to bring the earth to heel.  All of these ideas seemed to coalesce together during the Cold War, yielding decades of oscillating cooperation and struggle between the U.S. military and the scientists it patronized.

  Figure 1:  Maurice Ewing in 1948, one of the many earth scientists to utilize Naval vessels and obtain powerful oceanic datasets. Image courtesy of Columbia University.

Figure 1: Maurice Ewing in 1948, one of the many earth scientists to utilize Naval vessels and obtain powerful oceanic datasets. Image courtesy of Columbia University.

An Overview of the Military's Foray into Being a Geologic Force

Looking back on the available information from military plans during the Cold War, it is plain to see that there were many abandoned operations that applied technology to the environment on a grand scale. Scientists as well as members of the internal military command floated these ideas, and they were often scrapped either in the proposal stage or discarded after initial testing.  The popularity of such ideas, as well as their typically quick demise, had several basic factors.  In particular, it was a case of ambition far exceeding capability.  Environmental control was an undeniably powerful concept, as it promised ways to turn the tides of war through untraceable methods, or from continents away.  Unfortunately, the military’s tactical plans to utilize newfound climate information often took unusual (and unusable) turns because much of the information was very new and because the experts they consulted weren’t always well versed in the information that they handled.  Climate science was a field in its infancy, and not everyone who claimed to speak on its behalf understood the data.

A classic example of this phenomenon is Neumann’s ice sheet proposal. As new data came flooding back on the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets thanks to the development of technology that could withstand the harsh conditions, John von Neumann suggested that one way for the military to easily affect the climate would be to spread colorants on the ice sheets to reduce their albedo, driving melting, further global warming, and potentially massive flooding of enemy coastlines.  It was an absurd idea proposed by a brilliant physicist who had yet to understand how global the effects of such a plan would be. 

Some sections of the U.S. government were also interested in using humanity’s geologic-level destructive power for good, however – Operation Plowshare was a decades-long series of attempts to use nuclear explosives for peaceful purposes, particularly construction.  This resulted in swathes of proposals like Project Chariot in 1958, which called for the use of five thermonuclear devices to construct a new harbor on the North Slope of Alaska.  Scientists were often split in their reactions to these proposals largely depending on how much they valued their contracts with the U.S. government vs. the possibilities of risk to terrestrial environments they were only beginning to understand.

To further understand how the U.S. government and the military thought about climate change and the environment, it is worth looking at some in-depth examples of their priorities. Below, I discuss two of the major focuses for the U.S. military’s forays into climate change and control: the weather and the oceans, in service of national interests.

  Figure 2:  The original Project Chariot design, which would have utilized 2.4 megatons of explosives. Image via University of Alaska Fairbanks archives.

Figure 2: The original Project Chariot design, which would have utilized 2.4 megatons of explosives. Image via University of Alaska Fairbanks archives.

Make Mud, Not War: Weaponizing Weather in Vietnam

When the United States began seriously considering the possibility of human-driven climate warfare, their first attempt focused on a concept that has been on human’s minds for centuries – controlling the weather.  Though the military’s weather modification plans began as the relatively well-intentioned Project Stormfury in 1962, the intense stress of the Vietnam War on the U.S. political and military command drove a metamorphosis into the highly classified Project Popeye in 1967-1972.  Stormfury, the original project, began with researchers at the Naval Ordinance Test Station (NOTS) testing weather control through the cloud seeding of tropical cyclones.  Their initial goal was to reduce the impact of hurricanes that wreaked havoc on the southern and eastern coastal regions of the United States. The hypothesis: that the addition of silver iodide to hurricane clouds would disrupt the inner structure of the hurricanes by freezing supercooled water inside.  While this hypothesis was ultimately shown to be incorrect by the very data they collected as part of the cloud seeding flights, a similar hypothesis was used as the basis for Project Popeye and its unclassified code name, Gromet.

Despite Project Stormfury’s failure to deliver measurable results, the need for any kind of interference that could harry the northern Vietnamese caused Popeye to be rushed into the testing phase.  Popeye proceeded with testing, beginning with their slightly modified cloud seeding approach – the use of lead iodide and silver iodide in large, high-altitude, cold clouds, which (in theory) would then “blow up” and “drop large amounts of rain” over an approximately targeted area.  If successful, Popeye would increase the rainfall during the monsoon season over northern Vietnam, hampering their forces by destroying their supply lines. Ideally, lengthening the monsoon season – something the Americans had also promised the Indian government they could do in order to end India’s crippling drought – would have adverse infrastructural side effects for the Vietnamese, including increased landslides, destruction of river crossings, and washing our roads.

Despite the eagerness and ambition with which the U.S. military undertook testing of this method in both India (with governmental permission) and Laos (without informing the Laotian government), it was ultimately unclear whether the attempts at “rainmaking” were effective at all.  The utmost secrecy with which projects Gromet (in India) and Popeye (in Laos and Vietnam) were undertaken limited attempts to measure and verify their success.  The U.S. military sunk years and untold amounts of money into one of the most widespread attempts at weaponized weather control, but by 1972 was forced to concede that its effectiveness was unclear at best, in addition to being exceedingly unethical.  The Indian drought ended, but no one could really say whether it was the U.S. that had done the job.

  Figure 3:  1966 photo of the crew and personnel of Project Stormfury (image via the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration).

Figure 3: 1966 photo of the crew and personnel of Project Stormfury (image via the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration).

Owning the Oceans: National Politics vs. Scientific Exploration

Throughout the course of the Cold war, the oceans became a locus for the development of poorly conceived climate control plans as well as a site for political tomfoolery.  There are two basic prongs to the American (as well as other countries’) political/military approach to the oceans during the Cold War – the oceans were seen as a way to extend a country’s sovereign borders, and as a mechanism for disappearing unsavory nuclear waste.

The Cold War really introduced the concept of owning the oceans.  As American scientists followed the Navy to exceedingly remote places in search of exploratory new data, the question of nationalism followed them.  Where could the Navy “plant the flag” as part of its surveys?  Polar scientists who wanted direct access to their regions of interest – the Arctic and Antarctic – were hamstrung by the security fears of not just their own nations, but others.  The U.S., which noted the USSR’s conveniently large strip of polar access, was exceedingly interested in extending its sovereignty as far off of Alaska’s northern continental shelf as it could.  Where scientists saw the Arctic as a fascinating geologic environment and ecosystem, the U.S. saw a direct route to its biggest enemy.  In Antarctica, meanwhile, by the time the International Geophysical Year came around over seven different countries had laid claim to large swaths of the frozen continent.  The British had already secretly built a base.  Establishing the Antarctic continent as a zone that was to be as free from geopolitics as possible (as well as exploitative capitalist interests) was a difficult task, and one that took decades.  It took until the Clinton administration for oil companies to be officially banned from prospecting on or near the continent, essentially reserving Antarctica as a place where only collaborative science could reign.

As the U.S. and other major powers jockeyed with each other in increasingly absurd land grabs in remote areas of the world, they were also using the ocean as a garbage disposal for humanity’s most terrifying waste.  In the late 1950s and early 1960s, scientists from the International Scientific Committee on Ocean Research began collating data on the possible dangers associated with radioactive waste.  However, the governments funding their research were largely uninterested in the results until ecological concerns caught the public’s attention.  The ocean was convenient – its volume seemed limitless, and perfect for permanently keeping such waste, and any information about it, from the public eye.  Unfortunately, like many other classified U.S. ploys, oceanic waste dumping did not stay a secret forever.  Between 1946 and 1962, the United States had dumped ~86,000 containers of radioactive waste into the oceans, some of which washed back up onshore to be discovered by local fishermen. Getting rid of radioactive waste seemed to be a double-edge sword; while disposal of such waste on land incited criticism from the public at home, the abundant amounts of radioactive waste being dumped into the oceans opened the U.S. up to international criticism, particularly from the Soviet Union, which claimed to have never done such a thing (they did; the USSR sank eighteen nuclear reactors in addition to packaged waste).

To describe the relationship between the U.S. and the oceans during the Cold War as fraught would be an understatement.  The U.S. military wanted the ocean to be an effective source of information on Soviet activities, a convenient landfill for their unsightly problems, and a way to extend their own authority and gravitas.  In the end, they couldn’t have it all. By the end of the Cold War, the U.S. was forced to concede to the public and scientific pressure to back away from the oceans on almost all fronts.

  Figure 4:  A comparison of the seven land grabs made by countries in Antarctica. The U.S. and Soviet Union did not stake any specific claims, but then, they didn't have to. Image from Nature Geoscience.

Figure 4: A comparison of the seven land grabs made by countries in Antarctica. The U.S. and Soviet Union did not stake any specific claims, but then, they didn't have to. Image from Nature Geoscience.

In Conclusion

In his speech to the National Academy of Sciences in 1963, President Kennedy noted that human science could now “irrevocably alter our physical and biological environment on a global scale.”  This was a fundamental realization – that humans could change the world, and they could do it in a matter of minutes to years if they chose.  The significance is not just that humanity was now a geological force; the Cold War forced scientists and their military benefactors to realize that humans had become the most efficient geologic force in existence.  What we can do in a day, geology does over hundreds of human lives.  It was easy, then, for the military to investigate how far that power could go, in both destructive and nondestructive ways.

Can we lengthen or shorten the seasons? The military tried it. Can we hide the truths of our radioactive waste programs in the oceans? Every country with nuclear waste tried it.  How much do we need to know about the environment before we can begin to reshape whole regions to suit nationalistic goals and objectives?  For the military during the Cold War, the answer was almost always “we know enough.”  For some of the scientists they employed, and many more whom they didn’t, the answer was “we may never know enough.”

We rarely discuss these outlandish attempts to reign in the forces of nature during the Cold War. In this age of polarization around the issue of climate change, perhaps we really should.

Selected References

Doel, R.E. and K.C. Harper (2006). “Prometheus Unleashed: Science as a Diplomatic Weapon in the Lyndon B. Johnson Administration.” Osiris 21, 66-85.

Hamblin, J.D. (2002). “Environmental Diplomacy in the Cold War: The Disposal of Radioactive Waste at Sea during the 1960s.” The International History Review 24 (2), 348-375.

Marzec, R.P. Militarizing the Environment: Climate Change and the Security State.  University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis. 2015.

Naylor, S., Siegert, M., Dean, K., and S. Turchetti (2008). “Science, geopolitics and the governance of Antarctica.” Nature Geoscience 1.

O’Neill, Dan (1989). “Project Chariot: How Alaska escaped nuclear excavation.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. 45 (10).

“Text of Kennedy’s Address to Academy of Sciences,” New York Times, Oct 23, 1963, 24.