PARIS - Hurricane Sandy in the U.S., the tsunami in Japan or the eruption of the Eyjafjoll volcano in Iceland. Could the rising tide of such natural disasters be explained by man’s voluntary action? Could these cataclysms be triggered deliberately by the army, for political reasons?
For years, these conspiracy theories, relayed generously on the Internet, suggest that the climate could be manipulated as part of strategic or tactical wars.
These assertions have more to do with alarmist extrapolations from various interest groups rather than with real military operations, but one thing is true: the concept of Environmental Warfare has long been part of military jargon.
In the U.S., from the 1950s, official reports or statements recognize the military usefulness of climate change techniques. "Intervention in atmospheric and climatic matters . . . will unfold on a scale difficult to imagine at present . . . this will merge each nation’s affairs with those of every other, more thoroughly than the threat of a nuclear or any other war would have done," said American mathematician John von Neumann at the height of the Cold War in 1955.
Between 1967 and 1972 during the Vietnam War, Operation Popeye used cloud "seeding" techniques by injecting silver iodine. The idea was to trigger rain and extend monsoon season in order to slow down the movement of enemy troops through the Ho-Chi-Minh trail.
As the U.S. and Russia were holding a scientific race to be the first to control the climate, the UN decided to create a legal framework. In 1977, the Enmod Convention, ratified by the UN General Assembly banned the military or any other hostile use of environmental modification techniques. It targets "any technique for changing - through the deliberate manipulation of natural processes - the dynamics, composition or structure of the Earth, including its biota, lithosphere, hydrosphere and atmosphere, or of outer space."
A weapon of mass destruction
Though scientific publications have become scarcer, research continues. While the U.S. is going through a "Revolution in Military Affairs" aimed at adapting armed forces to their 21st century missions, a new large-scale project is born: the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program, also known as the HAARP program.
In 1990, the U.S. Air Force and Navy started building a research station made up off 180 antennas and 360 radio transmitters on a Defense Department site in Gakona, Alaska. The goal was to understand the complex mechanism that make the ionosphere, a region of the high atmosphere and study its impact on long distance communications.
For conspiracy theorists, HAARP is way more than that. "From a military point of view, HAARP is a weapon of mass destruction, operating from the external atmosphere and capable of destabilizing agricultural and environmental systems around the world," as well as "burning planes in the sky," writes Michel Chossudovski on the conspiracy website mondialisation.ca.
If the creation of HAARP does date back to the cold war, when U.S. and Soviet submarines were sailing in deep seas and required better communication systems, the goals have been redefined since the end of the Soviet Union, according to a study published in the scientific review Nature.
The U.S. first thought about using it to study ways of blocking the explosion of a nuclear missile in the atmosphere. The idea was to send particles that would accelerate the fall of radionuclides toward the inferior stratosphere. In 2006 however, a group of scientists concluded that any attempt at dealing with nuclear radiation was unrealistic and could trigger a blackout on high-frequency radio waves, which could disturb communications and navigation. After several changes HAARP now focuses on studying scientific phenomenon in the ionosphere, like auroras or the radiation of solar eruptions.
Harming yourself while aiming at your allies
Attempting to manipulate the climate is tricky and dangerous, even for civilian use – called geo-engineering – when scientists modify the energy balance of the earth to fight global warming. "We discovered that if we dissipated clouds above the South Atlantic, we could trigger droughts in Amazonia because of the change to atmospheric circulation. Sending aerosols in the stratosphere to cool down the planet would most likely weaken the monsoon and reduce the rain needed for the survival of millions of people in Africa, India and China," says Alan Robock, a climatology professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
Ken Caldeira, an atmosphere expert at the Carnegie Institution in Washington, says we still don’t have enough knowledge about the climate to know how to influence it in one place without affecting others. "It would be hard to harm your enemy without harming yourself or your allies," he warns. "It wouldn’t be possible to keep the project a secret and the necessary infrastructure, like aerial or naval fleets would be vulnerable to an attack."
Robock also notes that attempts to manipulate the climate leave a trail of evidence. "There would be proof in the stratosphere that we could see through our satellites, like small volcanic eruptions or disintegrating clouds," he concludes. "In short, true climatic weapons don’t exist."