Modern-day Weather Machines

It’s certainly been a pretty hot summer this year. In fact, it’s been so hot, us Midwesterners are probably experiencing the worst drought in decades. Although it has rained a little bit these past few days, Summer 2012 has mostly been populated with +100 degree Fahrenheit days, cloudless skies and yellow grass. Crops are withering and food prices are rising. The overall rise of summer temperatures, along with the unseasonably warm winter months (we barely got any snow up in Ithaca, NY) seems to point in the direction of Global Warming (or Global Climate Change, I’m not sure what’s politically correct these days).

It’s these scorching hot days that make one wonder, “I wish I could make it rain.” Rain dances and evil-scientist weather-machines aside, there are very few methods out there that can change the weather. A relatively new area of engineering, called geoengineering (also known as climate engineering) is starting to gain more popularity (if not support) around the web. Geoengineering is basically the science of altering the earth’s climate through the use of planet-scale projects. The most common and widely-used geoengineering method is Cloud Seeding, which is the method of injecting Silver Iodide particles into Clouds to cause rain (China currently has the largest cloud seeding system in the world). Because of its large-scale impact and project-size, geoengineering projects are few and far between and there exist even fewer studies on the long-term impacts of such projects on the Earth, causing many scientists and environmentalists to remain skeptic on the benefits of such projects. Currently, scientists in Switzerland and Germany are trying to figure out ways to induce rain by pointing lasers in the sky. In order to combat global warming, Harvard engineers have proposed launching balloons filled with sulphate aerosols which will be released into the sky. The particles will reflect the sunlight, thus deflecting the incoming heat from the Sun and cooling the Earth. Students at UCLA are taking the same concept even further. After studying the Mount Pinatubo volcano eruption in 1991, the students discovered that the Sulfur dioxide particles in the atmosphere helped cool Northern Europe by about four degrees Fahrenheit for the following summer. The UCLA students have proposed emitting large volumes of Sulfur particles in order to reduce global temperatures, possibly by erupting artificial volcanoes. German researchers have found promising results in carbon sequestration by scattering the ocean surface with iron dust. Phytoplankton feed on the iron dust and in the process, sequester CO2 from the Earth’s atmosphere. The Phytoplankton then die off and fall down to the bottom of the sea, taking the CO2 with them.

Geoengineering Projects around the world (click to enlarge)

All these methods have yielded positive results. Positive in that they accomplish what they set out to do. However geoengineering is a very touchy subject, and many projects have undergone delay and scrutiny by skeptical politicians, scientists and environmentalists (many of whom claim that geoengineering is just a ploy backed by oil companies to distract consumers from worrying about company carbon emissions). After all, geoengineering projects alter the Earth’s environment, and we still don’t completely know the side effects of such changes. The fact that these projects would cost millions, if not billions of dollars to implement also pose a large obstacle for the implementation of such projects. And for the romantics out there, it simply feels ‘wrong’ to be messing with the Earth on such a grand scale. I for one feel very hesitant about such approaches, but the humanitarian benefits could be great. Farmers experiencing droughts would be pretty happy with the rain as well as the reduced heat. Nevertheless, there seems to be a greater urgency for more research to be done. After conducting research, The Royal Society in the UK published a report in 2009, urging for the investment of geoengineering projects. The article explains that the reason why people are so hesitant with geoengineering, is because there is not a lot of data on the projects, and the only way we are going to get that data is through more research. And while I’m not necessarily an advocate for space colonization, geoengineering projects would certainly improve our chances of terraforming. But in the end, the safest and most effective way of combating climate change is by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But then again, if we ever find ourselves at war with a solar-powered robot race, perhaps blocking out the sun is the only option.

Operation Dark Storm (Source: Animatrix (2003))

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3 thoughts on “Modern-day Weather Machines

  1. I’ve recently read a book called Fixing the Sky by Jim Fleming that speaks of the checkered history of weather and climate control. It speaks of myths, quacks, genuinely sincere scientists, military and also current geoengineers.

    There’s a synopsis of a lecture Fleming did here:
    http://manchesterclimatemonthly.net/2012/06/30/event-report-if-something-is-wrong-with-the-sky-shoot-at-it-weaponising-the-climate/

    You’re right: the scale, unpredictability, ethics, and potential liability of geoengineering makes it a very tough sell.

    • Thanks for the comments Isaac,

      One thing I thought was interesting about the synopsis you posted was near the end, it mentions how geo-engineers are a little too arrogant with themselves:

      “They’re always projecting one hundred years into the future, imagining the continuity of our current institutions. But if you go back 100 years you see World Wars I and II, the Great Depression, the Cold War etc. We need a bit more humility.”

      I think it’s an interesting point that while it may be commendable to be looking out for our “children’s future,” it might not be the best interest to be messing with something with such far reaching effects. Perhaps given more time and research, safer and more efficient methods can be used. If we use our ‘crude’ technologies (as seen maybe 10 years from now) to try to fix problems, we may make a bigger problem for future generations. This not only applies to geo-engineering, but all forms of technology: at what point do we trust the innovations of the future over current innovations?

      • I think that’s one of the values of understanding history: We are doomed to repeat ourselves if we do not see the same pattern of our thinking and action. I’m sure the engineers, military experts, and scientists in the 50’s and on thought very much the same way geoengineers think now: We can do it, it’s for the greater good, whatever negative side effects we can think up a solution to, whatever social consequences can be dealt with by other non-technical personnel. I certainly confess to thinking that way when I was first presented with clever engineering solutions Carbon sequestration, ocean fertilization, particles in the atmosphere. There is an undeniable allure to being able to exercise that amount of control, to be the masters of our destiny. But they are very specialized and simple technological fixes to complex socio-economic and environment problems. There have been plenty of examples in history to know that we need to exercise serious caution.

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