Can science fight climate change by tinkering with the weather?
Last month, Cynthia Barnett, an unostentatious workhorse of an environmental journalist with an incredible track record for nailing issues of water security, released a new book that’s a bit of a departure from her previous works. Entitled Rain: A Natural and Cultural History, the tome is a curious exploration, not just of the science of rain, but what it means to us as a species on an emotive and anthropological level. A meditative and engrossing work of ranging non-fiction, peppered with fascinating anecdotes and solid insights, one of the most interesting sections of the book is on the little-known phenomenon of weather manipulation. Throughout history, people have sought to control their environment, and attempts to change the weather have come along with many of our breakthroughs in science and technology. And while the pursuit can claim a couple of partial successes, weather alteration is mostly characterized by a string of crazy failures and dangerous, unworkable ideas.
When we talk about weather manipulation, most of us probably think about the increasingly accepted concept that man-made climate change is distorting existing weather patterns. Scientists point to increasing incidence of unusual or catastrophic weather patterns they say are produced by an opaque-yet-profound daisy chain of environmental tweaks and triggers. But that’s not the sort of thing Barnett talks about. She refers to focused projects actually intended to trigger (in the case of her book) rain, like a 19th century scheme to plant entire forests in the Midwest just to burn them down—it was theorized that rain droplets would condense around the smoke particles and help bring some moisture to fragile farmland.
In a historical context, cockamamie plans like this sound like the product of frenzied minds, high on the early utopian promises of unabashedly anthropocentric science. Jump forward just over a century, and the notion of weather modification sounds like either an antiquated remnant of that era or the stuff of conspiracy theorists convinced of the government’s sinister scientific powers. Though there are some legitimate scientific attempts to affect the weather, today there are also tons of crazy and overblown ideas out there about how Americans can not only make it pour, but even conjure hurricanes from scratch to screw over our enemies and ensure our dominance.
Yet as crazy as weather modification sounds, we know that it does happen. Cloud seeding, a practice that is supposed to force the formation of raindrops via the dispersion of chemicals like silver iodide, dry ice, or liquid propane into the air has been publicly researched since the 1950s. And from 1967 to 1972, it was actively used by the US military as a weapon in an attempt to elongate Vietnam’s monsoon season (and possibly to try to rain out Cuban sugar harvests too). Despite loss of faith in the technology’s effectiveness in America in the 1970s, and international bans on the weaponization of weather, cloud seeding is still used by many nations—and even a few water-desperate US states—as an agricultural aid of last resort.
Chief amongst cloud seeding nations is China. Since adopting the technology from Russia in 1958, China has created an entire state office devoted to Weather Modification. The department employs over 30,000 people, spends millions every year, and claims to create tens of billions of tons of artificial rain per year to help water the arid north. Although there’s no great evidence that cloud seeding actually works (weather systems are complex, so it’s near-impossible to prove that rain following a cloud seeding rocket launch was caused by the chemical dispersal and wouldn’t have happened naturally), the very public persistence of cloud seeding speaks to the things humans are willing to try when confronted with nature’s refusal to fit our best laid plans for civilization.
And cloud seeding is one of the most legitimate stabs at controlling the weather—since WWII, people have thrown some truly insane theories out there. Idle speculations about zapping lasers into cyclones and sapping lighting from the sky are a dime a dozen. But as climate change sets humanity into even greater confrontation with a wrathfully responsive nature and its increasingly volatile and deadly weather patterns, we’re likely to see ideas like these become more prevalent in popular discourse. Most of these schemes fall into a few categories:
Even most nukes can't beat up a hurricane
Of all the weather modification plans put forward, the vast majority seem to involve an impulse to stop hurricanes in their tracks before they can slam into coastlines, doing great damage. And as hurricanes become more common with the warming of the seas, these plans will only get more elaborate—which is really saying something. Back in the 1940s, when we first started talking about manipulating hurricanes, we just talked about seeding clouds in the eyes of these storms, thereby keeping the sun from warming waters, robbing the hurricanes of energy, and dispersing some of their rains over the ocean. But from there, we’ve floated ideas such as pouring oil over the water to prevent vapor from being sucked up into the storms, throwing powders into the air to solidify moisture as a gel, or flying F-4 jets at supersonic speeds in concentric circles around the eye of the storm to disrupt its convection currents. At the far end of the spectrum, almost every year someone proposes dropping a nuclear weapon into a storm to obliterate it—a theory the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has had to address directly, pointing out that not even this would have enough energy to stop a hurricane. And like all of the other hurricane busting projects out there, a nuke would be an extremely costly solution, not to mention one that would devastate the environment far more than it would save any coastline.
While hurricanes may be too massive to contain, many still think we have a chance to stop tornadoes from ripping through our towns. Given that tornadoes are fragile creations of cold downdrafts and warm updrafts, some suspect that it’d be easy to throw a wrench in their works by heating up entire regional cold fronts using microwave rays aimed at wide swathes of earth from solar power-collecting satellite arrays. Yet the price of such a system would be literally astronomical, far outpacing the costs of most tornado damage. Then there are the environmental issues and great unknowns involved in zapping the Earth with heat radiation in concentrated blasts.
An illustration of a space lens that would theoretically disperse solar light
If warming the Earth is a troublesome prospect, then maybe we can somehow prevent the heating that makes hurricanes more common and contributes to our increasingly temperamental weather systems. It’s been theorized that this can be done by reflecting sunlight to keep the rays from heating us up, either by creating massive clouds via cloud seeding or (in a more permanent solution) installing a massive band of mirrors above the Earth. Governments have actually explored both options, but cost effectiveness and possible unintended consequences of reflecting or diffracting sunlight have kept such fantasy brainchildren out of the skies for the time being. Another theory suggests that we can keep the Earth cooler by mimicking the earth-cooling particle dispersion of volcanoes. This sounds a little like cloud seeding, but it’s different and far more dire. Whereas cloud seeding is local and temporary, these artificial volcanic effects would cool the earth in its entirety, and come with a massive diffusion of chemicals—a literally explosive, insane concept. See also: geoengineering, albedo modification.
The town of Rjukan in Norway, which until 2013, got no sunlight between September and March. Image by G.Lanting via Wikimedia Commons
If we can’t reflect the sun away from us, then maybe on a localized level we can focus it to heat or brighten up the coldest of human settlements. Although there have been a few tests of mirrors in space, shining down sunlight onto northern cities in the dead of winter, more recently a small town in Norway created a mirror array on the ground to warm up a village stuck in a grim, frigid valley. The idea of just slightly heating up an individual town is probably the most modest of these weather modification concepts, and one of the only such technologies to be reliably deployed and actually function in the world right now.
To date, few of these costly, technologically iffy, and potentially environmentally destructive projects have even come off the drawing board. But some experts fear that the effects of climate change on dry countries could push them to explore weather modification more seriously. After all, compared to emissions reduction, green technologies, or shifting one’s economy, weather modification is actually unilaterally achievable and kind of cheap—it has found support from luminaries like ex-Microsoft innovator Nathan Myhrvold. As countries begin to tinker with quick-fix solutions, though, they risk not only changing their own weather, but that of their neighbors, creating domino effects of contamination that could further destabilize the environment.
“If climate change turns ugly, then many counties will start looking at desperate measures,” Stanford University Professor David Victor told The Guardian during its 2009 coverage of China’s cloud seeding program. “Logic points to a big risk of unilateral geoengineering [i.e. weather modification]. [But] unlike controlling emissions, which requires collective actions, most highly capable nations could deploy geoengineering systems on their own.”
Desperation, it seems, runs the risk of restoring the kind of hubristic, overeager solutions that Barnett talks about in her history of whole-forest-burning rain creation. But whereas the quick fix seekers of the 19th century just had trees and fire, we have nukes. And that's just a recipe for even more insane, amusing, and terrifying geoengineering innovations in the future. On the bright side, if we actually master the weather, or even destroy the Earth trying, just think of all the wild, riveting programming we’ll get from the Weather Channel.