Project Cumulus

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Project cumulus was an initiative of the United Kingdom government in the 1950s. The main goal of this project was to look into the possibility of weather manipulation specifically dealing with the cloud seeding trials. It was also known as Operation Witchdoctor; it lasted from 1949 to 1952.

After World War II, the British government continued to study numerous methods that would give them an upper hand over their enemy militaries especially the Nazis. The Nazis were very close to doing away with Britain and the entire United Kingdom anticipated this and prepared themselves accordingly. The literal skies were their only way out. The RAF (Royal Air Force) started conducting experiments with cloud seeding; they filled up the clouds with certain chemical agents that would develop a harsh thunderstorm. This process enabled the British to successfully counter the tactics of troops and rain out on their enemies literally to cause confusion. It was unfortunate when events took a terrible turn. It does not mean that the experiments were not successful; they worked so well.

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) sought to investigate some allegations that the Royal Air Force was responsible for seeding clouds over England. The participants and witnesses included some pilots that were actively involved in operation cumulus, the classified mission. During the operation in August 1952, pilots of RAF flow over the cloud lines, unleashing loads of silver iodide, salt, and dry ice. Thirty minutes afterward, the rain started falling from the contaminated clouds. The pilots obviously celebrated their success especially when the press gave them the title rainmakers.

According to BBC, within a week after heavy rains poured, the location at North Devon around England experienced about 250 times the usual quantity of rainfall at the end of the month. In the town of Lynmouth on August 15, 1952, an approximated 90 million tons of rainfall made its way through the town in only one day. Every other tree in the area was uprooted creating dams causing the current of the two rivers gushing through the town of Lynmouth to be gradually stronger in force.

Slabs and rocks were carried off by the torrents, destroying quite a number of buildings, homes, bridges and displacing inhabitants towards the sea. In total, at least 35 Britons sadly lost their lives the same day because of the torrential rain. Most people thought that the disaster was due to natural forces and they called it ‘the hand of God’. However, despite the catastrophic event, the Ministry of defense insisted that did not try any experiments with cloud seeding before what happened in Lynmouth. The British government denied their involvement in the trials.

So far, Britain and China are the two countries that have successfully tried out the cloud seeding program. China has been able to benefit from this program since they have used it for irrigation purposes in arid lands. On the contrary, the same program massively failed the British to show the consequences of being careless with forces of nature. Evidence sourced from former top-secret government files later showed the involvement of a group of international scientists with the Royal Air Force to experiment with man-made rainmaking during the same week of the disaster in southern Britain.

Len Oatley who was in charge of the military unit told the BBC humorously that they called the rainmaking activity operation witch doctor. In addition, team captain John Hart his navigator clearly recalls how the managed to successfully conduct the experiments. Hart said that they had to pour dry ice down to the clouds and they flew below the chemical-filled clouds to confirm whether any rain poured out of the clouds. They were excited when it rained thirty minutes later.

Up to date, the meteorological department has refuted any claims of their knowledge about these rainmaking experiments performed prior to 1995. The BBC Radio 4 held their own independent investigations and broadcast their findings; they were also able to uncover documents released by the public record office indicating that the very experiments lasted for about six years from 1949 to 1955. Looking further into logbooks belonging to RAF and their personnel, they confirmed the evidence.

Currently, the UK government still denies knowing any of the cloud seeding experiments that happened early in August 1952. Amidst all this, documents containing top-secret information showed that the operation was underway at the period between August 4 and August 15, 1952. The documents suggested that the scientists and RAF used Cranfield School of aeronautics for their trials as well as the Ministry of Defense’s meteorological research flight at Fanborough. The ICI in Billingham provided all the chemicals for research. The two dates described the flights launched to record data about the cumulus cloud icing rate, cloud temperature, water droplet, and ice crystal formation, cloud temperature, vertical motions and turbulence, water content and cloud seeding.

Moreover, Radio 4 mentioned Alan Yates, a glider pilot and an aeronautical engineer as a participant of operation cumulus during that time; Yates was reported to be spraying large amounts of salt while he was flying over Bedfordshire. He was even ecstatic when he was told by the scientists about the heavy rainfall some 50 miles away in Staines, Middlesex. Operation cumulus was put to a permanent halt immediately after the tragedy.

The main reason why the military was interested in an artificial increment of rain and snow according to the minutes of a meeting in the war office was to slow down enemy movement. The rain was also meant to increase the flow of water in streams and rivers to prevent enemies from crossing and removing any signs of fog from all airfields; the minutes were from the meeting held on November 3, 1953. The documents further revealed of rainmaking increasing the chances of exploding atomic weapons in a seeded cloud or storm to cover a wider location of radioactive contamination compared to the case of a normal atomic explosion.

In 1955, the same issue about the tragic incident was addressed in the House of Commons and whether there was any probability of liability and compensation claims. The BBC saw documents that indicate that the treasury and the air ministry became so anxious since they knew of the damages of rainmaking to personnel involved, the military targets as well as to the civilians. Survivors of the ordeal asked for a full investigation to be carried out to shed light on the reasons behind the disaster but the government ignored their appeal.