Quaker-born Charles Mallory Hatfield, tidy in appearance and straightforward with a salesman's bearing and farm boy's self-assuredness, made an eyebrow-raising offer to the desperate city council of San Diego in 1915.
The city's main reservoir — the Morena Reservoir — was two-thirds depleted by drought. Hatfield was convinced he could gather rain clouds and engineer them to open up and pour down precipitation.
Hatfield was an early pluviculturist (rainmaker) whom many suspected of bluffing. And that's precisely why he proposed a pay-on-delivery plan. For the cost of $10,000 (approximately $235,000 adjusted for inflation), he'd make it rain and refill the Morena Reservoir.
The city council accepted his offer verbally; no one signed a contract guaranteeing Mallory his requested sum. He went about his business quietly and confidently. The man had experience on his side. With 17 prior gigs on his resume, Hatfield had perfected a 23 ingredient cloud-gathering formula. That, he insisted, was the scope of his work.
"I simply attract clouds, and they do the rest," Hatfield explained. He busied himself erecting a 20-foot (6-meter) wooden tower by the reservoir, then began his work in earnest in January 1916.
Hatfield mixed his formula (ingredients that we can only speculate about; the man kept it a well-guarded secret) and portioned it into iron troughs. Placing the troughs at the top of his tower, Hatfield ignited the formula and waited as the fumes drifted up toward the skies.
Whether by miracle or measurable, quantitative science, it rained. In fact, the first rain occurred just a few days after Hatfield began.
The Seedy Business of Making It Rain
What about Hatfield's efforts were scientific? They were an early form of cloud seeding, which Lauryn Ricketts, broadcast meteorologist, NBC4 Washington, D.C., explains is "a form of weather modification in which we can enhance precipitation development by using certain chemicals to create an environment within clouds that is conducive for precipitation formation."
Ricketts says that cloud seeding isn't just about making it rain: "It's also useful for dissipating fog, decreasing the amount of lightning [and hail associated with storms] and perhaps [even preventing] hurricane development."
In cloud seeding, Ricketts says, chemicals like silver iodide, which have a similar molecular structure to ice, create an abundance of "nuclei for water and ice droplets to fuse with, creating precipitation that will eventually fall out of the clouds." In modern cloud seeding technology, the chemicals are catapulted into clouds by pyrotechnic flares launched from aircraft.
Hatfield didn't use pyrotechnics or aircraft but rather fiery fumes to carry his chemicals aloft. Ricketts hypothesizes his chemical concoction included silver iodide and salt, and it might have also contained hydrogen and gunpowder. Whatever was in it, the concoction worked. It rained a lot. We mean that sincerely.
How Do We Turn It Off?!
San Diego, initially ebullient, clicked into crisis mode to combat 17 inches (43 centimeters) of rain that caused catastrophic floods and landslides. The San Diego River couldn't be contained. Homes were demolished, telephone lines snapped and washed away, and roads and railroad tracks cracked under the pressure of rushing water.
But this was just the start of Hatfield's rain. It continued to pummel the drought-parched county, totaling some 30 inches (76 centimeters) by the end of January 1916. The Morena Reservoir was full once again, as promised, but the Lower Otay Reservoir couldn't contain its bounty of water, and its dam broke. The rushing waters killed nearby residents — sources estimate from a dozen to 50 of them — and destroyed their farm animals and homes.
Believing his work was done, Hatfield inquired about settling payment for services rendered. Befuddled council members couldn't fathom paying for rain that had devastated their city, and what's more, it didn't make legal sense for the city to align itself financially with the precipitation that families, homeowners and farmers fingered as the source of death and property ruination.
To pay Hatfield was an act commensurate with admitting fault for all these damages. When he witnessed firsthand the vitriol of people who'd been affected directly by the floods, Hatfield left town. He waited patiently for the water to settle, then pursued legal action to procure a paycheck. After two long decades, his case was dismissed and not a dime exchanged hands.
Hatfield wasn't wanting for work, though. His reputation preceded him, and nations such as Canada, Cuba and Honduras sought his expertise. The rainy disaster of 1916 ultimately bolstered his career, though his usefulness evaporated as water storage technology improved.
From Drought-stricken to Flooded in No Time
Where did Hatfield's efforts go wrong? Ricketts points out the inherent dangers in saturating a drought-stricken area, such as San Diego in 1915. Ricketts says one must consider how long the drought has been in effect, as well as the topography of the surrounding land. Making an example of contemporary California, which has been in a drought for the past four years, Ricketts says, "With atmospheric conditions the way they are now — one of the strongest El Niño patterns we have ever experienced — the frequency of rain will increase. The ground is extremely dry and hard throughout most of the state ... so a lot of rain that falls will not be immediately absorbed by the ground. Instead, it will turn into runoff (especially on the hilly terrain of California), making for dangerous flooding and mudslide conditions."
Ricketts emphasizes that a large amount of rain falling over a short time on very dry and hardened ground will cause concern for flooding. Circumstances suggest that Hatfield was setting himself up for disaster. Refilling the Morena Reservoir was his objective, but that didn't exempt the dry, surrounding land from the effects of the rain he beckoned.
Hatfield's work paved the way for cloud seeding technology, although there's plenty of debate as to whether cloud seeding is a positive technology. Ricketts points out that Beijing used the technology to prevent rain during the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games in 2008.
Sparing sport spectators is one thing, but can cloud seeding be used to bring rain to nations in need? "If they can afford it," Ricketts says, "there are a number of reasons [they] may want to cloud seed." Its primary purpose isn't alleviating drought but, rather, preventing it.
"Clouds that are seeded are only getting about a 5-20 percent increase in precipitation [to fall]," Ricketts says. And their precipitation potential is being enhanced — rather than maximized — by the seeding efforts. There's a lot of responsibility demanded by a nation that wields the financial and scientific power to alter its weather. We're not talking about a $10,000 fee for conjuring clouds these days. Hatfield might've been ahead of his time, or he might have been an aloof peddler. Regardless, the man lived in infamy and died in possession of a formula that supposedly wreaked havoc on a major metropolis.