HC Deb 23 February 1954 vol 524 cc361-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."— [Mr. Vosper.]

11.44 p.m.

Mr. Geoffrey de Freitas (Lincoln)

I thank the Under-Secretary of State for Air for coming to answer this Adjournment debate. I hope he will regard it as a preliminary to the debate on the Air Estimates that will probably take place next week. I am asking for increased research into weather modification.

Ever since I went to the Air Ministry in May, 1946, and became Chairman of the Meteorological Committee I have been interested in this subject. It used to be called "rain making" but now is called "weather modification," which is probably the more scientific term, and one which the "boffins" currently like, as also do the commercial users. By chance, after I left the Air Ministry and went to the Home Office I was asked to answer Questions in this House on behalf of the Lord President of the Council, and that meant answering Questions about the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research. I took the opportunity while I was at the Home Office of finding out what the D.S.I.R. was doing in keeping an eye on research into weather modification. So far as I could discover, it was doing very little.

In June last year I put a Question to my successor the Parliamentary Secretary who answered Questions on behalf of the Lord President, asking what the D.S.I.R. was doing, and he said that development abroad was closely followed. Unfortunately—it was inevitable, I suppose, at Question time—the musical hall jokes about rain-making became uppermost in hon. Members minds and the Minister was able to ride off on questions about making rain to produce a sticky wicket at Trent Bridge—or wherever the particular Test was then being played. We got no further.

This month I tried to find a Minister who would receive a deputation so that I could discuss what research was being done into weather modification. The has been the ground-to-air approach. One Minister who had previously answered for D.S.I.R. said he was no longer dealing with the subject. I was told that the Met. Office had taken it over, so I was referred to the Air Ministry. I make no complaint about that. I have every respect and, indeed, affection for the Air Ministry and the Met. Office, and under its new and able Director I am sure the Met. Office is the best office to have responsibility for this.

However, it is not merely a matter of keeping an eye on weather modification. I am asking for direct Government interest in it. I am asking for a special committee to be in charge of it, on the lines of the committee President Eisenhower has set up. It is an advisory committee to study the past and present results and future potentialities of weather modification. It is to make interim reports and will not report finally until 1956. The interesting fact about its composition is that it includes not only "boffins" but consumers. It includes men interested in agriculture and aviation and so on. I am told that Mr. Lewis Douglas, the former U.S. Ambassador here, is on it. He has among his many interests very large farms in the State of Arizona.

The fact that President Eisenhower has set up this committee is surely enough to dispel any illusion that this rain making is some music-hall joke. He is a practical soldier turned politician, not just a crank. They have had five or six years' commercial experience of this in the United States. For instance, the experience of the waterworks at Dallas in Texas. I read an article in the Water Works Magazine, an American publication, which describes the experience of Dallas. Elsewhere in the States, for instance in Arizona, where Mr. Lewis Douglas and his neighbours have had commercial orders for several years for weather modification, there has also been success. The yardstick has been set by the consumer, and payment has been by results. Naturally, the President has something to go on when he says that he would like to find out more about it.

I understand that the most successful method so far used has not been the method talked and written about only a few years ago, namely, dropping particles on to particular clouds. Rather it method, and others may have been developed, uses a large number of coke furnaces, some mobile, some fixed. An up-current is caused, and in it silver iodide particles are raised not into a particular cloud, but into a whole "weather situation." Rain falls in the target area.

Here we come to a problem. The target area is big. One cannot make the rain fall into a particular swimming bath or field. To deal with these matters in a large continent like North America is obviously different from dealing with them in a small continent like Europe. Yet, even in Europe there has been commercial experience of rain-making by this method, again on a payment-by-results basis. In Spain, in the last 15 months, it has been carried out for hydroelectric companies. Payment has been by results, the yardstick being set by the consumer, the hydro-electric companies. Work of one kind or another has been carried on in Italy. I do not know much of the details, but I believe that the method about which I have been talking has been used in Southern Italy, and more recently in Northern Italy. In the Eastern Mediterranean, in Israel, work is also being done.

The purpose of my Adjournment debate is to ask for a committee to research into weather modification. In a debate limited by the clock I can give only some of my reasons. First, I want to know whether it is not right that we should kill the music-hall joke type of approach to weather modification. Second, I want to know whether it is not right that we should kill the idea that this lush green country has too much rain. We all know there is too little sun, but that does not mean that there is too much rain. It may be that if, over the years, our scientists are able to modify the weather we shall be able to have heavier falls when there is rain, and in the intervals have more sunshine. That is what I want to find out in the course of the next 20 or 30 years. If we are to find it out, more research must be started.

The third point I want investigated is whether it can be the answer to the country's falling water table. I am sure that people do not realise that if the present rate of consumption continues to rise many towns, especially on the dry side of the country—the East coast— and even London, are going to suffer water shortage, and of course the countryside too.

Fourthly, what about our defence services in this? We must not forget our geographical position. We live on the edge of the Atlantic, and a vast amount of the rain that goes on to North-Western Europe comes from the Atlantic across the British Isles. It is terrible to contemplate—although it is no more terrible than the atomic bomb —depriving our European neighbours of rain in war for military purposes. But it is something which it is the duty of a Government concerned with the defence of the country to look into. I would like this committee to see what form of research could be undertaken on that line.

Fifthly, I would like the Government, on the basis of the findings of this committee, to begin to consider the international consequences, both legal and economic, of weather modification in the small continent in which we live. As members of the Council of Europe we have an obligation to deal as friends with the countries of the continent of Europe, and although it will be many years before any practical problem arises we should look into the future now. Perhaps we should have to come to a form of international control. Certainly—and perhaps it is all too obvious from what I have said—we need more study and research. We know little about the potentialities of weather modification.

11.57 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Air (Mr. George Ward)

The hon. Member for Lincoln (Mr. de Freitas) has raised an interesting and an unusual subject. There is no doubt that extra water supplies are needed at certain times of the year and in certain parts of the country. There are increasing demands for water for domestic and industrial purposes, and greater agricultural yields could be produced if water was available during periods of droughts. I understand that experimental work has shown that the general run of farm crops in South-East England would benefit from irrigation in at least five years out of 10. In the driest area around the lower Thames Estuary they would benefit in nine years out of 10. The real question we are now considering is whether a useful amount of rain can be artificially produced to help these problems, and to make other problems of water storage, distribution and irrigation more manageable.

Let me first deal with the theoretical possibilities—and I emphasise the word theoretical—of producing rain on occasions when no rain would fall naturally. Obviously rain must fall from a cloud, and as far as I know there is no question or suggestion that clouds themselves can be artificially produced. We must therefore have a cloud to start with—indeed a procession of clouds— because one cloud only would produce nothing but a shower. The small drops of water which make up a cloud, unless of course the clouds are high enough to be made up of ice crystals, are normally supported by upward currents of air, and when rain falls what happens is that the drops of rain in the cloud have grown big enough to overcome the upward currents of air that support them and they fall to the ground. In cold conditions they may grow around a nucleus of ice crystals. Sometimes they grow by small drops of water colliding with each other and combining into large drops. Therefore rain-making technique is a matter of stimulating the growth of large drops of water by introducing various substances into the clouds.

The hon. Member has touched on various methods of achieving this. The best-known methods are by dropping pellets of solid carbon-dioxide from aircraft, or by introducing silver iodide crystals into a cloud or by one means or another, by spraying large drops of water into a cloud, or by introducing other matter which might form large drops of water by absorption. There is a lot of evidence that some of these methods may occasionally produce a shower of rain which otherwise might not have fallen.

Turning to the practical side of the problem, the question is whether an economically useful amount of rain can be artificially produced. I have noted what the hon. Member has said about the successes in the United States and elsewhere, and I was particularly impressed that interest in this matter should be taken by so eminent a man as Mr. Lewis Douglas. We shall certainly study all the information we can get on this matter with the greatest interest.

But there is rather more to it than that. At the risk of being thought elementary, I would explain that from the point of view of rain-making there are four different kinds of weather. There is the day when rain falls naturally and needs no artificial stimulation. We all know this kind of day. Then there is the day when there are no clouds in the sky. I do not know of anyone who is capable of doing anything about that. Then there is the day when the clouds are too thin to give any useful amount of rain, even if they could be tickled up and encouraged to do their best. Finally there is the day when the clouds are thick enough and extensive enough to give a useful amount of rain but do not do so naturally.

The practical side of the question is therefore limited to this last type of day, and to days of this type when rain is needed on the ground for one purpose or another. The practical question is not only limited in scope in this way but it must also take account of whether the cost of producing this available quantity of rain would be worth while; and if so, whether we could make it fall where it is needed. The hon. Gentleman has pointed to the difficulty of this aspect.

The Meteorological Office is studying reports of rain-making activities all over the world. I understand that a good deal of the material comes from commercial firms who are interested in rainmaking and cannot perhaps be regarded as wholly disinterested. I am advised that the available scientific evidence on the practical side of the matter is not completely convincing. We are always up against the difficulty that it is impossible to prove that the rain which has fallen after treatment would not have fallen anyway.

Mr. de Freitas

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. If hard-headed businessmen are willing to pay good money, and to have payment by results, they must have been convinced that there is something in it, and that is why I think there is ground for more research.

Mr. Ward

I agree. That is why I said that I was impressed that so eminent a man as Mr. Douglas should have been taking an interest in it. Nevertheless the hon. Gentleman has taken my point. He asked what action the Government were taking in the matter, and suggested a committee, on a basis similar to that which has been set up in the United States by the President, should be set up to examine it. I understand that rainmaking came before the Advisory Council on Scientific Policy in 1951, but the Council were then of the opinion that there was no call for the expenditure of effort on large-scale field trials without further research. Since then, however, research on cloud rainfall problems has been carried out by the Meteorological Office, and some practical experiments have been made by the Meteorological Research Flight of the Royal Air Force, but more with the object of increasing our knowledge rather than of trying to produce rain.

My noble Friend is also advised on this matter by the Meteorological Research Committee which is representative of expert meteorological knowledge in this country, and is presided over by Sir David Brunt, who is of course a world famous meteorologist. At the instance of the Director of the Meteorological Office rain-making, and the present state of our knowledge on the matter, will come before the Physical Sub-committee of the Meteorological Research Committee soon, so that our future course of action can be reconsidered.

We are, perhaps fortunately, not in the same position as the United States where large-scale commercial rain-making operations have shown it desirable to appoint a special committee. At the present stage of events in this country I think the right course of action is to leave the matter in the hands of the expert committee which already exists—namely the Meteorological Research Committee. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I shall watch the matter with the greatest interest as long as I am at the Air Ministry, and I am sure my noble Friend will feel as interested as I am in the subject.

I cannot leave the subject without referring briefly to the legal difficulties which I believe have already arisen in the United States in cases in which rain may have been artificially produced. There could be two grounds for complaint. A man could claim that he had been rained on to his loss when he did not want rain, or another might claim that rain, which would have fallen on his property to his benefit, had been induced to fall elsewhere. These are problems which need careful consideration, and all I can say now is that the rain-makers of the future will be well advised to suspend their activities at the time of the Old Trafford Test Match. I understand that Old Trafford is more susceptible in these matters than Trent Bridge. As I say, I have carefully noted the points made by the hon. Member, including the defence aspect which he raised. I can assure him that we shall continue our studies with the greatest interest.

Mr. de Freitas

As there is an odd minute or two left, perhaps, with the leave of the House, I can make two points. I am well aware of the legal difficulties. As the hon. Gentleman has said, legislation has been begun in some of the States in America, and also, I think there has been suggested Federal legislation. That is one reason why we should now start studying the subject.

What I was sorry to hear was the hon. Gentleman saying that this subject came before these scientific committees in 1951. He did not say in 1952 or 1953, but in 1951. It came before those committees then, because, I think, of something I did. I got a very much more important member of the Government interested at that time, and it is discouraging I find to hear the hon. Gentleman refer not to 1952 or 1953 but only to 1951. I hope, if I raise this matter from these benches next year—if we are still in opposition; we may be on those benches by then— that it can be said that it came before these committees in 1954.

However, even if the hon. Gentleman cannot give me the indications for which I asked, at least he gave me some indication that he and his noble Friend will give it further.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Thirteen Minutes past Twelve o'Clock.