Distracted in Portland

Ginger Strand

One of the advantages of packing up and relocating for three months to a town where you know no one and are freed from the quotidian banalities that clutter up life—dental appointments, exterminator visits, relationships—is that you have tons of time to work, yet can still indulge in those obsessive distractions from work that you rigorously police (mostly) in your real life.

This week I have been spending too much time writing uncharitable letters to the American Meteorological Society.

It started because, on my way to Portland, I stopped off in Boulder, Colorado, to visit the National Center for Atmospheric Research, a federally-funded research center. NCAR occupies a brutalist I.M. Pei building perched on a mesa between downtown Boulder and the front range and they have sweet stuff, like a miniature tornado, but I was there to visit the archives. I was hunting down some interviews done there in the eighties and nineties with old-timer meteorologists. Many were conducted under the aegis of the AMS, who held copyright, and one of them required permission of the AMS president in order to read it.

So I requested permission. I didn’t expect any trouble.

This was, I hope, my last archival trip for the book I am writing about Kurt Vonnegut and his older brother Bernard. Bernard was a chemist who got seduced by meteorology in the 1940s and ended up inventing the most commonly used method of cloudseeding—the chemical seeding of clouds to induce them to rain. Bernard was working for G.E. at the time, and so, too, was Kurt, writing press releases and corny PR copy while secretly trying to write fiction. I had been to a multitude of archives researching this book: the Library of Congress, the National Archives, and archives at Princeton, MIT, Penn, U Albany, and Indiana University at Bloomington. I have filed FOIA requests with the FBI and tracked down family members and associates, in one case turning up unannounced to a weekly luncheon of cloud physicists at an Albany diner called Grandma’s. I didn’t expect it to be the weathermen who would give me grief.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. Recently, I wrote a magazine piece for OnEarth on the use of cloudseeding today. The practice is currently used in ten Western states and has been for a long time—California’s water and hydropower utilities have been cloudseeding the Sierra Nevada since the early 1950s. For some reason, this continues to surprise people. At cocktail parties, when I tell people I am working on the history of weather modification, they often say, “Oh. But it’s not real. Right?” The only people who seem to believe that weather modification is real are conspiracy theorists convinced that the government is conducting secret weather wars and spraying us with “chemtrails” to make us docile and dumb. As if going to such lengths were necessary when there’s YouTube around.

Such folks have a way of making trouble for the weather modifiers and their clients: water districts, agricultural interests, and hydropower-makers. So, naturally, there’s a level of paranoia among the folks whose job is to try to enhance precipitation. When I was working on the OnEarth story, one of my sources, a private weather modifier, freaked out when the piece was going to press and started insisting we couldn’t quote things he had said at the annual meeting of the Weather Modification Association, where I had stood up and introduced myself as a journalist. I explained that it didn’t work that way, but I did take his name out of the story. Which was his loss, really, since what he had said made him sound effective and would have probably gotten him new clients in need of rain.

All of which means, I am used to a certain level of publicity-aversion from the weather modification community. But the AMS is not that. They are the most longstanding, respected, downright boring association of mainstream meteorologists in the nation. They put out press releases with titles like “A Risk Management Framework Improves the Resilience of Healthcare Facilities and Services to High-Impact Weather.” They try to lure new members by offering sexy sign-up bonuses like a free subscription to Physics Today. So I was shocked when the AMS archivist, after insisting on seeing my curriculum vitae, granted me permission to read . . . the interview’s first five pages.

There’s nothing like redaction to make a writer’s antennae begin to quiver with that tasty tingle that says somebody’s hiding something juicy. But seriously, what could it be? I posted an account of the whole exchange on Facebook and friends had ideas about that. Someone suggested aliens. Another one said . . .  weather control.

I wondered if federally financed research centers were bound by the strictures of the Freedom of Information Act, so I googled FOIA NCAR. And there I found the likely answer to why I was facing such resistance. It’s not just the chemtrail conspiracy theorists whipping the meteorologists into a frenzy of paranoia. It’s right-wing climate deniers filing FOIA requests to try to get their hands on the raw data of climate scientists. There’s a whole online subculture of folks sharing tips about how to harrass NCAR and the AMS and NOAA and anyone doing research on climate. Browsing through some it, I thought, no wonder the AMS is wary. I thought, another snippy email to the AMS archivist is probably not going to work. I suspect they’re trying to cover up nothing more than their own internal squabbles, but they’re playing into the conspiracy theorists’ hands.

How did we get to this point? How did weather become an even more fraught topic than extra-terrestrials or spying or who really killed JFK? One group insists the weather is being manipulated by the nefarious human forces—I’m waiting to see which shock jock blames Obama for the tornado outbreak in the South—and another group insists there’s no way humans can have any effect on the climate. They’re two sides of the same coin, and its currency is discomfort with the part humans play in the weather. We’re either too much in control or have no effect at all. Because who would want to admit that we might be having huge effects—and might still have no control over what happens next? That’s the worst of both worlds.

It’s a funny thing about weather. Nothing is more common, more obvious, more democratic, more the subject of bland banalities and lame small talk. And yet nothing is more shrouded in mystery, more surprising, more subject to wild speculation and reckless flights of fancy. The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious, Albert Einstein supposedly said. It is the source of all true art and science.

I could spend the morning composing another letter to the AMS, but I won’t. Because it’s sunny today, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned about Portland already it’s that when it’s sunny, you go outside. You never know (you never know!) when you might see the sun again.

Ginger Strand is our neighbor & the 2014 Tin House Writer-in-Residence at PSU. She is the author of three books: Flight, a novel, Inventing Niagara, the untold story of America’s waterfall, and Killer on the Road, a history of the interstate highway system told through the stories of the killers who have haunted it. She has published essays and fiction in many places, including Tin House, Harper’s, The Believer, The Iowa Review, The New England Review and the New York Times, as well as This Land and Orion, where she is a contributing editor.