Times We Controlled Nature
From cloud seeding, to the creation of lightning and auroras, here are some amazing times we as humans controlled nature!Science
Since our Neolithic ancestors first struck two pieces of flint together and created sparks, mankind has sought to harness the power of nature. But our ancestors could never have imagined the wonders we’ve now achieved. From man-made glaciers to harnessing the power of lightning itself, let’s check out some incredible times humans controlled nature.
Raising islands out of the sea may sound like something only a god could do, but in the modern world, it’s becoming increasingly common. But how exactly do you create your own island? Firstly, you need an area of raised seabed, so a coral reef or rocky outcrop is a good place to start. Then you need somewhere between 1.4-1.8 billion cubic feet of sand poured on top, possibly more depending on the depth.
To get this, you’ll need a powerful fleet of sand-dredging ships to crush and pull the sand from the surrounding sea floor. Then, once it’s stable, all that’s left to do is build 30 or so acres of concrete structures on top and there you have it, your very own island!
This is the exact technique China has been following across the South China Sea, and it’s landed them in some very hot water. Malaysia, Vietnam, and even Australia have been in uproar over China’s decision to continue building islands in internationally-contested waters. But that hasn’t slowed down China’s desire to overcome nature, one island at a time.
To find out more, you might want to check out our article about manmade islands.
The practice of fracking is a clever means of extracting otherwise-unreachable natural gas and oil from deep in the earth’s crust. First, a huge pipe drills down into the ground between 6,000 and 10,000 ft below the surface. Then, a high-pressure mixture of water and chemicals is injected into the surrounding rock.
Cracks form under immense pressure, and the gas trapped in the rock is released and sucked into the pipe, ready to be processed. However, fracking has its pros and cons.
Unfortunately, one of the issues with fracking is the seismic effect it can have on its surroundings. Once the pressure is released, it can often result in earthquakes. In fact, fracking in Lancashire, England was the cause of the biggest earthquake ever recorded in Britain back in 2019. There are also concerns about groundwater contamination as a by-product, making fracking a highly-controversial issue.
Whether the practice is a good thing or not, nature can’t seem to keep our grubby little hands out of any hidden corner, no matter how deep! But, as the earthquakes and contamination prove, trying to outdo nature often comes at a cost.
The bushfires that swept across Australia in late 2019 and early 2020 emphasized how difficult fire can be to control, causing a staggering $100 billion in damage! With that in mind, you’d think the last thing humans would want to do is create more wildfires. But, truthfully, humans have been using bushfires as a tool for centuries.
Long before European settlement, Native American peoples used controlled burns to manipulate the lands around them. From clearing pastures on the plains to opening up the undergrowth in forests, controlled fires were commonplace, and ashes from the burns enriched the soil with nutrients for crops.
Nowadays, these measures aren’t common practice, and in many places are highly illegal. However, since 1995, the US Forest Service has been undertaking a research initiative, starting huge, controlled, manmade wildfires to study their effects. Of course, they’re always closely tracked by vans, drones, weather balloons, and planes equipped with Laser imaging systems, to stop things getting out of hand. But it’s worth all the effort, in the hope that we can better understand and predict the movement of wildfires in the future.
Agriculture has always driven mankind to mold the world around us. Indeed, many crops require very specific conditions in which to flourish, including the world’s most commonly-eaten food: rice.
To be produced commercially, rice needs to remain submerged in water for a period of its growth. This may seem straightforward enough, but when the landscape of your farm is particularly mountainous, growing a viable amount becomes tricky. That is, unless you shape the landscape to fit your purpose. This is what rice farmers have done for centuries, creating tiered paddy fields by digging out grooves in the earth.
The flat, floodable terraces not only allow the rice to flourish but also create a new home for amphibious fauna. Many frogs and toads use the paddy fields as nurseries for their frogspawn, and eat many of the pests that would otherwise feed on the crops.
One of the most spectacular examples of this practice is the Mu Cang Chai rice fields in the mountainous northern reaches of Vietnam. The terraces stretch across 2,200 hectares of rugged landscape and provide astounding man-made beauty as well as full bellies.
Before 1914, any ships sailing from New York to San Francisco had quite the journey. They’d set sail southward, past the Caribbean, down the length of South America, around Cape Horn, and then north along the spine of the Americas.
It was an inconvenience, to say the least, but in 1881 the French started construction on a canal in the Isthmus of Panama to shorten the journey substantially. This relatively-thin strip of land surrounded by numerous lakes was deemed the best place for the new canal to pass through.
In theory, it was the logical choice, but the project was a disaster in practice. Due to the poor sanitation, housing, and working conditions of the workers, 23,000 people died of diseases like yellow fever and malaria, and the project was left unfinished. But, in 1904, the United States took over the project with a whole lot of dynamite in hand, and 10 years later, the canal was completed. It was one of humanity’s greatest engineering feats and had required literally blasting through mountains and thick jungles, constructing enormous locks to raise ships, and re-routing powerful rivers.
Today, the Panama Canal cuts 8,000 miles off the boat trip from New York to San Francisco. And with 33 cargo ships passing through it every day, it’s one of the most important pieces of infrastructure in the world.
A lot can go wrong when building a dam. As millions of tons of water are often rerouted, one miscalculation can cause a flood or a drought, having profound effects on the local area. But when done right, dams can totally transform otherwise-uninhabitable regions.
Hoover Dam, one of the world’s greatest, allowed for the agricultural and economic development of the US Southwest in the early 20th century. Without the Hoover Dam, iconic cities like Las Vegas could never have thrived.
A total of 21,000 men worked together to construct the dam, re-routing the Colorado River using four 56ft-diameter tunnels, carved out with dynamite and jackhammers. In the empty riverbed left behind, the colossal, 726ft dam was constructed, piece by piece.
When the dam was ready, the diversion tunnels were sealed shut, allowing Colorado to flood the dam, forming the reservoir now known as Lake Mead. By controlling water distribution and utilizing the dam’s built-in hydroelectric capabilities, the Hoover Dam completely transformed the surrounding area for human benefit.
Millions of people were provided a constant water and power source, and at the time of its completion in 1936, it was the largest concrete structure ever built.
Living 11,000ft above sea level has its challenges, like finding a dependable source of clean water. For centuries, Himalayan farmers in Ladakh, India have used annually melting glaciers as their main water source. But in recent years, climate change has made their situation very precarious.
The glaciers are shrinking, and whereas in previous years they would have provided melt-water year-round, this is no longer the case. But, as they say, necessity is the mother of invention. In 2017, a local scientist found a novel way to create artificial glaciers, which function as reservoirs during the warmer months.
He pumps jets of unused glacial water into designated areas during the winter, which freezes in the cold air into 100-foot-tall ice formations. These icy pyramids, or “Ice Stupas”, may look like something out of science fiction, but for many, they are a vital and ingenious source of water in a rapidly-changing environment.
Man-Made Rocket-Triggering Lightning
Out of all of our world’s awe-inspiring elemental forces, lightning has to be one of the most spectacular, and it’s been constantly revered throughout the ages. So, when the researchers at the University of Florida undertook an experiment to attempt to control lightning, they were doing something our ancestors thought was strictly the domain of gods.
The experiment, known as rocket-triggering, involves firing a rocket trailing a grounded wire into a natural thundercloud. The cloud’s powerful electrical charge is naturally attracted to the metal wire and, if the conditions are right, a lightning strike is triggered. These incredible snaps show the moment the lightning races down the conductor.
As the wire explodes with the sudden electrical energy, the lightning arcs outward, with each burst following the path of least resistance carved out by the one before it. Many experiments like these are undertaken to test whether lightning could be used to decontaminate groundwater in the future, or even as a viable energy source.
From satellite imaging to computer analysis that calculates the virtual path storms will take, we’ve never been better at predicting the weather. But few people realize we can actually control the weather, too. And it happens more regularly than you’d think.
Since the early-to-mid-20th century, a process called cloud seeding has been used all over the world. In this process, chemicals like silver Iodide, potassium chloride, and sodium chloride are released up into clouds. The molecules attract water droplets, causing them to gather and fall as rain.
This is a game-changer for arid regions and is seeing increasing usage in places like China, Russia, and the United Arab Emirates. One of the first ever documented cases of weather seeding was way back in 1916.
San Diego was suffering from a serious drought, and when a businessman called Charles Hatfield claimed he could deliver rain, the city council took him up on the bizarre offer. For an agreed $10,000 dollars, Hatfield set up his apparatus by the Morena Reservoir and started burning a secret concoction of chemicals, causing the fumes to rise into the air.
Days later, the rain started; but it wouldn’t stop. 17 inches of rain fell, causing landslides, floods, and loss of life. It was a total disaster and painted cloud seeding in an understandably bad light.
During the California Gold Rush, miners used a technique first concocted by ancient Romans, whereby redirected water sources are used as powerful jets. Tapping into a water source above the area that needed to be excavated, miners directed the water into canvas tubes with a nozzle at the end.
The water was fired out at such high pressure, it could blow away sediment and erode rock, revealing the gold inside. Unfortunately, this practice caused extensive environmental damage, as well as occasionally flooding farmland. But it did look very cool.
Nevada Fly Geyser
The following seemingly-natural landmark looks even cooler, but it’s actually the product of humans unwittingly unleashing unanticipated forces while trying to tame the land. In early-20th-century Nevada, a farmer attempted to dig a well to irrigate his crops, which were struggling in the dry summer.
He drilled down and found water, but it was an unstoppable torrent of nearly-boiling water, heated within the earth. This manmade geyser may not have been much use for watering crops, but in the years since, the calcium deposits that bubbled up formed an incredibly colorful landmark.
Arguably one of the most incredible sights in the natural world, auroras are produced by high-energy particles emitted from the sun. These particles transfer some of their energy to molecules in the atmosphere, causing them to give off beautiful, ghostly lights.
But how could humans possibly control this marvel of the natural world? Scientists from the US military have managed to use high-frequency radio waves to set the atmosphere aglow above Alaska.
Using the HAARP radio transmitter, an enormously powerful radio station with a set of 180 antennae, the molecules in the atmosphere were agitated into emitting light. Like a real aurora, only much dimmer.
But this isn’t the only way to get the aurora glowing. Scientists in Norway have created their own lights by releasing tracer chemicals into the atmosphere, which track the flow of atmospheric particles, producing equally-impressive patterns in the sky.
Say what you will about humans; we certainly know how to put on a show. And we learned from the best. I hope you were amazed at these human feats that attempted, and succeeded, in controlling nature. Thanks for reading.