Chapter from Unless Peace Comes by Gordon J. F. MacDonald U.S.A.
|Among future means of obtaining national objectives by force, one possibility hinges on man’s
ability to control and manipulate the environment of his planet. When
achieved, this power over his environment will provide man with a new
force capable of doing great and indiscriminate damage. Our present
primitive understanding of deliberate environmental change makes it
difficult to imagine a world in which geophysical warfare is
practised. Such a world might be one in which nuclear weapons were
effectively banned and the weapons of mass destruction were those of
environmental catastrophe. As I will argue, these weapons are
for covert or secret wars.
Substantial progress within the environmental sciences is slowly overcoming the gap between fact and fiction regarding manipulations of the Earth’s physical environment. As these manipulations become possible, history shows that attempts may be made to use them in support of national ambitions. To consider the consequences of environmental modification in struggles among nations, we need to consider the present state of the subject and how postulated developments in the field could lead, ten to fifty years from now, to weapons systems that would use nature in new and perhaps unexpected ways.
The key to geophysical warfare is the identification of the environmental instabilities to which the addition of a small amount of energy would release vastly greater amounts of energy. Environmental instability is a situation in which nature has stored energy in some part of the Earth or its surroundings far in excess of that which is usual. To trigger this instability, the required energy might be introduced violently by explosions or gently by small bits of material able to induce rapid changes by acting as catalysts or nucleating agents. The mechanism for energy storage might be the accumulation of strain over hundreds of millions of years in the solid Earth, or the super-cooling of water vapour in the atmosphere by updraughts taking place over a few tens of minutes. Effects of releasing this energy could be world-wide, as in the case of altering climate, or regional, as in the case of locally excited earthquakes or enhanced precipitation.
For instance, the typical amount of energy expended in a single tornado funnel is equivalent to about fifty kilotons of explosives; a single thunderstorm tower exchanges about ten times this much energy during its lifetime; an Atlantic hurricane of moderate size may draw from the sea more than 1,000 megatons of energy. These vast quantities of energy make it unlikely that brute-force techniques will lead to sensible weather modification. Results could be achieved, however, by working on the instabilities in the atmosphere.
We are now beginning to understand several kinds of instabilities in the atmosphere. Supercooled water droplets in cold clouds are unstable, but they remain liquid for substantial periods of time unless supplied with nuclei on which they can freeze. Conversion of water droplets to ice through the introduction of artificial nuclei can provide a local source of energy. This released heat can cause rising air currents which in turn lead to further formation of supercooled water. This process may lead to rainfall at the ground greater than that which would have been produced without the artificial nucleation. A second instability may arise, in which water vapour condenses into water, again affecting the distribution of sensible energy. On a larger scale, there is the so-called baroclinic instability of atmospheric waves that girdle the planet. Through the imbalance of heat between equator and pole, energy in this instability is stored, to be released in the creation of large cyclonic storms in the temperate zones. There are other, less well understood instabilities capable of affecting climate; I shall return to them later.
As far as military applications are concerned, I conjecture that precipitation enhancement would have a limited value in classical tactical situations, and then only in the future when controls are more thoroughly understood. A nation possessing superior technology in environmental manipulation could damage an adversary without revealing its intent.
Modification of storms, too, could have major strategic
implications. As I have mentioned, preliminary experiments have been
carried out on the seeding of hurricanes. The dynamics of hurricanes and
the mechanism by which energy is transferred from the ocean into the
atmosphere supporting the hurricane are poorly understood. Yet various
schemes for both dissipation and steering can be imagined.
Indeed, climate is primarily determined by the balance between the incoming short-wave from the Sun (principally light) and the loss of outgoing long-wave radiation (principally heat).
Three factors dominate the balance: the energy of the Sun, the surface character of terrestrial regions (water, ice, vegetation, desert, etc.), and the transparency of the Earth’s atmosphere to different forms of radiated energy. In the last connection, the effect of clouds in making cool days and relatively warm nights is a matter of familiar experience. But clouds are a manifestation rather than an original determinant of weather and climate; of more fundamental significance is the effect of gases in the atmosphere, which absorb much of the radiation in transit from the Sun to the Earth or from the Earth into space. Intense X-rays and ultra-violet from the Sun, together with high-energy atomic particles, are arrested in the upper atmosphere. Only the narrow band of visible light and some short radio waves traverse the atmosphere without serious interruption.
At present, we can only tentatively speculate about modifying the short-wave radiation at its source, the Sun. We have discovered major instabilities on the Sun’s surface which might be manipulated many years hence. In a solar flare, for example, 1010 megatons of energy are stored in distorted magnetic fields. With advanced techniques of launching rockets and setting off large explosions, we may sometime in the future learn to trigger these instabilities. For the near future, however, modification will not be in the short-wave in-coming radiation but in the long-wave outgoing radiation.
Major earthquakes tend to be located along two main belts. One belt, along which about eighty-five per cent of the total energy is released, passes around the Pacific and affects countries whose coastlines border this ocean, for example Japan and the west coast of North America. The second belt passes through the Mediterranean regions eastwards through Asia and joins the first belt in Indonesia. Along these two belts, large earthquakes occur with varying frequencies.
The use as a weapon system of the strain energy instability within the solid Earth requires an effective triggering mechanism.
MODIFICATION OF OCEANS
Certain currents within the oceans have been identified, but we do not yet know what the variable components are; that is, what the weather within the ocean is. Thus we have not been able to identify any instabilities within the oceanic circulation that might be easily manipulated. As in the case of the solid Earth, we can only speculate tentatively about how oceanic processes might be controlled.
One instability offering potential as a future weapon system is that associated with tsunamis. These frequently originate from the slumping into the deep ocean of loosely consolidated sediments and rocks perched on the continental shelf. Movement of these sediments can trigger the release of vast quantities of gravitational energy, part of which is converted in the motion of the tsunami. For example if, along a 1,000-kilometre edge of a continental shelf, a block 100 metres deep and 10 kilometres wide were dropped a distance of 100 metres, about 100 megatons of energy would be released. This release would be catastrophic to any coastal nation.
BRAIN WAVES ROUND THE WORLD?
The enhanced low-frequency electrical oscillations in the Earth-ionosphere cavity relate to possible weapons systems through a little understood aspect of brain physiology. Electrical activity in the brain is concentrated at certain frequencies, some of it extremely slow, a little around five cycles per second, and very conspicuous activity (the so-called alpha rhythm) around ten cycles per second.
The Brain Research Institute of the University of California is investigating the effect of weak oscillating fields on human behaviour. The field strengths in these experiments are of the order of a few hundredths of a volt per centimetre. Subjects show small but measurable degradation in performance when exposed to oscillating fields for periods of up to fifteen minutes.
The field strengths in these experiments are still much stronger, by a factor of about 1,000, than the observed natural oscillations in the Earth-ionosphere cavity. However, as previously noted, the intensity of the natural fluctuations could bc increased substantially and in principle could be maintained for a long time, as tropical thunder storms are always available for manipulation. The proper geographical location of the source of lightning, coupled with accurately-timed, artificially-excited strokes, could lead to a pattern of oscillations that produced relatively high power levels over certain regions of the Earth and substantially lower levels over other regions. In this way, one could develop a system that would seriously impair brain performance in very large populations in selected regions over an extended period.
SECRET WAR AND CHANGING
In addition to their covert nature, a feature common to
several modification schemes is their ability to affect the Earth as a
whole. The environment knows no political boundaries; it is
independent of the institutions based on geography and the effects of
modification can be projected from any one point to any other on the
Political, legal, economic and sociological consequences
of deliberate environmental modification, even for peaceful purposes, will
be of such complexity that perhaps all our present involvements in nuclear
affairs will seem simple. Our understanding of basic environmental science
and technology is primitive, but still more primitive are our notions of
the proper political forms and procedures to deal with the consequences of
modification. All experience shows that less significant technological
changes than environmental control finally transform political and social
relationships. Experience also shows that these transformations are not
necessarily predictable, and that guesses we might make now, based on
precedent, are likely to be quite wrong. It would seem, however, that
these non-scientific, non-technological problems are of such magnitude
that they deserve consideration by serious students throughout the world
if society is to live comfortably in a controlled
Professor MacDonald is
associate director of the Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics at
the University of California, Los Angeles. His researches have embraced a
remarkable diversity of natural phenomena and his professional interests
are further extended by his participation in national science
policy-making. He is a member of President Johnson’s Science Advisory