Climate change is on the way folks, and whoever controls the weather controls our future. But how is it possible to control the weather, isn’t that the whole problem? Well, it’s not actually possible to control the weather yet, but scientists are working on it.
Efforts to control the weather aren’t just the stuff of some futuristic science fiction novel. Weather modification happens today, although its scope is fairly limited. Cloud seeding involves injecting a chemical agent into clouds, either by blasting it into the sky from rocket launchers on the ground, or by spraying it from planes flying above the clouds. These chemicals condense the water vapour in the cloud to the point where it rains.
Dr Vincent Schaefer accidentally discovered cloud seeding in 1946 when he was creating artificial clouds for an experiment. He put some dry ice into a cloud chamber to cool it down and noticed that water vapour formed. He later discovered that another chemical called silver iodide caused the same reaction and this became the chemical used for cloud seeding.
So, does this mean we can already control the weather, in a sense? That’s debatable because we don’t have conclusive proof that cloud seeding does what it says on the tin. Weather is notoriously difficult, sometimes impossible, to accurately predict, so how do we know whether cloud seeding increases rainfall at all?
What Does the Science Say?
Plenty of research has tried to establish whether cloud-seeding produces extra precipitation. A $14 million six-year research project called the Wyoming Weather Modification Pilot Project took place several years ago in the mountains of Wyoming, USA. The project was a collaboration between government, academic and industrial researchers. Results published in 2015 were inconclusive. Researchers couldn’t give a definitive answer as to whether cloud seeding had caused an increase in rainfall. However, the study did help them to identify optimal conditions for cloud seeding.
These results were similar to another research project carried out ten years previously by the National Academy of Sciences. The general consensus on cloud seeding seems to be that it can create a little more precipitation, but only if other conditions like temperature and wind speed are favourable.
In years gone by, however, it was assumed that cloud seeding worked well. From the 1960s until the early 1980s, a US government operation called Project Stormfury used it to weaken tropical storms. This was later discovered to be ineffective. Then again, cloud seeding has caused some major headaches over the years. In 1947 when a hurricane was seeded with dry ice, it changed direction causing severe damage in Georgia. And in 2009 when China used cloud seeding to end a drought, it caused temperatures to drop suddenly causing traffic chaos in Beijing.
So, current evidence suggests this cloud seeding business is a waste of time and money, right? Maybe so, but why let the facts get in the way of a good idea! Despite the evidence to the contrary, cloud seeding is actually growing in popularity. This is perhaps a measure of how big the stakes are; according to UN estimates almost half of the world’s population will be living in water-stressed areas by 2030.
In the United Arab Emirates, a country with an annual rainfall of under 100mm (Ireland’s is 2,000mm) a research programme for rain enhancement offers big money to scientists working in the field. In 2018, Japanese, German and U.A.E. researchers won $5 million for their work on the use of drones for cloudseeding and improving the scientific understanding of rain enhancement.
The UAE aren’t the only country investing in rain enhancement. In China, a huge cloud seeding system is being constructed high in the Himalayan mountains to address the problem of water shortages on the Tibetan Plateau. Hundreds of furnaces are burning solid fuel to produce silver iodide, but the plan is to increase their number to tens of thousands in an area about the size of Spain. The Tibetan Plateau is Asia’s biggest freshwater reserve. Demand for water in the region has been increasing owing to population growth and urbanisation.
This enormous cloud-seeding project is intended to encourage clouds coming from the Indian Ocean to produce rain, something they don’t usually do due to a rain shadow effect. The researchers say results are positive so far. But since nothing on this scale has ever been done before, the long-term consequences are untested.
Where Could We Go From Here?
So, we have a limited ability to change the weather, or we think we can. But cloudseeding isn’t exactly all-encompassing weather control – it’s hardly the same as being able to redirect a storm or stop a hurricane. We can’t make the sun shine on demand or make it rain exactly where and how much we want. And if (or when) the worst excesses of climate change kick in, we can’t protect ourselves from it using satellites in space like the 2017 film Geostorm.
Geostorm. Now there’s an idea: a network of satellites (aptly called Dutch Boy) with geoengineering technologies capable of protecting us from natural disasters. Oh, but hold on, it all goes wrong when Dutch Boy is infected with a virus by a power-crazy American politician who wants to take over the world (wouldn’t you know).
Mirrors In Space
How feasible is a real-life Dutch Boy satellite network? Could some genius eventually develop a reliable means of weather control? In 2017, an interesting paper was presented at the Aerospace Europe CEAS Conference, a scientific conference for space research. The authors proposed a specially designed system of orbiting mirrors which might deflect hurricanes and tornadoes away from populated areas and prevent the extension of deserts.
According to the scientists, the orbiting mirrors would focus sunlight into a concentrated beam of light which could be directed wherever needed on earth. Hurricanes could be deflected by directing the light from the mirrors into the upper part of the hurricane where cold air is concentrated. This would have the effect of warming up the cold air, thereby reducing the hurricane’s strength and driving force. The authors point out, however, that this would have to happen before the hurricane became too powerful.
The concentrated beam from the orbiting mirrors could also cut an enormous, extensive network of channels through the desert to decrease desert areas. The idea is that the channels would connect with a sea or ocean. Sea water would enter the channels, producing plant growth and clouds over the desert, increasing rainfall and reducing the extension of desert areas. It’s important to note that this paper was pure theory and hadn’t been tested even on a small scale. However, with desert areas set to increase as the planet heats up, this technology could prove very useful indeed.
Another proposed method of weather control for the future centres around laser technology. Firing lasers into the sky can have a similar effect to cloud seeding, but without the spraying of chemicals and with potentially better results. This technology might also control lightning storms, since researchers have recorded lasers triggering lightning within clouds.
Laser technology is not yet developed enough to produce large effects in the atmosphere, but it has been done in smaller experiments and work is continuing. A physicist called Jean Pierre Wolf from the University of Geneva is leading the research in this area. Perhaps laser technology could eventually be adapted to control hurricanes, floods and whatever else the climate throws at us.
If all this seems rather far-fetched, that’s because it is – for now. A huge amount of research is required to develop the technology for all-encompassing, dramatic weather control. And it would have to be funded and controlled by governments. After all, who’d want a private corporation to have the power to change the weather? But imagine the benefits. The ability to prevent droughts or flooding, to divert severe storms away from populated areas, or to reduce the worst effects of heatwaves could be within our grasp in a matter of decades.