Skip Navigation

Make It Rain: On Clouds and Conspiracy Theories

Art by Olivia Watson

While a recent Gallup poll showed that 50 percent of the public prioritizes environmental issues over economic growth, only 24 percent identify it as a critical policy area. This indicates that although the public highly values the environment, it doesn’t approach the issue in a political sense so much as a cultural one. Much of today’s widespread environmentalism seems increasingly passive and employed on the individual or communal level — perhaps due to repeated setbacks on the political stage. After all, the intense debate over the Keystone XL pipeline, the struggles within the EPA to develop better pollution rules, and the repeated failures to pass carbon taxes and cap-and-trade programs may have tempered the enthusiasm and resolve of the environmental movement. These unsuccessful maneuvers indicate the American public’s waning belief in the government’s ability to be proactive in the environmental realm. What’s needed now is an intervention.

Lately that intervention has manifested in a new and especially powerful tool for environmentalists: geoengineering, or the deliberate alteration of environmental processes. Perhaps “new” is a misnomer. While geoengineering has experienced a resurgence — it’s currently being used in California to combat drought — the strategy has actually been implemented for decades. Cloud seeding, the most common geoengineering technique, is the attempt to influence the amount or type of precipitation through the atmospheric dispersion of substances. It originated in the 1830s, when James “Storm King” Espy, believing that the smoke would stimulate rain, suggested that the US government burn down forests. A century later, showmen in the West launched rockets containing catalysts into the clouds to induce artificial precipitation. The practice reached its peak in the Depression-era Dust Bowl, and while it would sometimes produce rain, it didn’t stave off drought.

Though cloud seeding was born from economic desperation, it came to unexpected prominence as a military technique. During the Cold War, the US military became increasingly interested in the wartime opportunities that geoengineering provided. That research came to fruition during the Vietnam War; in order to limit the movement of North Vietnamese forces, the military dropped silver iodide flares — thought to cause rainfall — over enemy territory. The project, dubbed “Operation Popeye,” was meant to slow the efforts of the Vietnamese army to move men and supplies during the dry season. Instead, the effect of the cloud seeding fell on civilians and likely caused the catastrophic floods and typhoons in North Vietnam that devastated much of the country’s harvest in 1971.

These unintended consequences of geoengineering demonstrate two key principles. First, weather modification can be successful, but dangerous. Co-opting the environment — whether through dams or silver iodide dispersion systems — is always risky. Second, militarized weather modification constitutes a total war strategy, as the attacks affect both military and civilian figures. This reveals something unique about weather modification: It can seem benign when wrapped up in environmentalist packaging, but even brief military experimentation reveals the ominous depth of geoengineering’s effects.

In light of this troubling reality, the United Nations created the 1977 Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques, a declaration with 48 signatories — including the United States — that bans weaponized or hostile use of environmental modification. Regardless, the US military continued to pursue domination of weather modification techniques well after the convention; in the late 1990s, the US Air Force Academy produced a paper entitled, “Weather as a Force Multiplier: Owning the Weather in 2025.” The report, often referred to as Air Force 2025, details a series of futuristic systems that the military could develop in order to control weather patterns as a strategic asset. The Cold War may have been the beginning, but Air Force 2025 ensured that interest in weather modification did not end with the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Cyclic storms on demand or Zeus-like thunderbolts dropped from drones may not be realistic, but it’s easy to see why the military had experiments to that effect in mind. As Air Force 2025 points out, “A tropical storm has an energy equal to 10,000 one-megaton bombs.” The bomb dropped on Hiroshima released only 0.016 megatons of energy. However, no storms-on-demand will be cycling through anytime soon, as the report’s team largely failed to spark a weather modification revolution, and the technology needed remains far in the future. But some of the paper’s goals, at least for hyper-accurate weather monitoring, are nearing completion, and the success of the military in this field indicates a sustained strategic interest in the environment as an asset. The radar communications technology credited with a major role in the 1991 Gulf War, for example, has its roots in weather radar research. And it’s the military’s environmental monitoring technologies that produce the nighttime satellite imagery critical to US efforts to aid recuperation from natural disasters.

But weather monitoring isn’t without its skeptics, who view it as a conspiratorial cover-up or a next step towards governmental weather control. In March, approximately 17,000 activists in Australia turned up to protest the country’s current government. Among those was an odd constituency with an imaginative message: America was controlling Australia’s weather. The High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP), funded by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), is a project that government officials have repeatedly said is designed for weather monitoring, but many have suspected it of being for weather control. HAARP is also reportedly part of US radio communications and surveillance projects. Because of its secretive nature, it has been accused of everything from disabling satellites to mind control, the Gulf War Syndrome and the destruction of the space shuttle Columbia.

This kind of paranoia about weather manipulation demonstrates the pervasiveness of today’s skepticism towards government involvement in environmental issues. While there is much to admire about environmental noninterventionism’s focus on local and private solutions, the conspiracy theorists at the movement’s fringes have negatively influenced attitudes towards geoengineering. DARPA probably isn’t using HAARP for mind control, but with the political nonstarter of conspiracy theory attached to it and other weather monitoring and control programs, there is now a distinct lack of pressure from the public for politicians to seriously consider even the mildest of geoengineering solutions. In short, the suspicion and distrust of a few have been a constant barrier to useful research and even-handed experiments in the environmental field.

As fantastical as some geoengineering plans sound, many come from a place of scientific rigor and could provide major environmental benefits if taken seriously. Take Nobel Laureate Dr. Paul Crutzen’s idea to shoot sulfate aerosols, which have a demonstrated atmospheric cooling effect, into the stratosphere in order to block sunlight and combat climate change. Although Crutzen’s editorial surfaced in 2006, the fundamental idea for weather modification as a climate change combatant is old news. In 1965 President Lyndon Johnson received a report titled, “Restoring the Quality of Our Environment,” which suggested research into the possibility of initiating climatic effects to counterbalance the atmospheric concentration of CO2. Yet it has only been in the past decade that these possibilities have been more fully explored. Since then, a larger body of academic work has demonstrated the long-term feasibility of Crutzen’s plans. The key phrase here is long-term feasibility; there is no clear consensus among scientists — or politicians — on the viability of current geoengineering technologies, or on which proposals may be the best and most cost-effective. Crutzen’s work is no exception, especially given the difficulty of aerosol delivery and distribution.

Geoengineering’s problems also bring with them the probability of dissent. Gauging consent among those affected will be difficult. Efforts like space reflection mirrors or stratospheric aerosol release can’t be localized, raising questions about whether any one country has the right to use these technologies, as well as questions about who would bear their cost. Smaller projects that would circumvent the ownership debate have their own problems. When California’s cloud seeding recently came to light, controversy followed, despite the fact that the state had just experienced one of the driest years in its history. Artificially induced rainfall effectively “steals” rain from surrounding areas and, if normalized, would cause a redistribution of rainfall between locations. As such, a complex debate about water rights surrounds the practice.

Conspiracy theories aside, there are scientifically rigorous critiques, which portray geoengineering as just another Band-Aid — albeit a big one. Modification is simply an adaptation strategy for dealing with environmental concerns, and while it would likely be effective in mitigating the impact of, say, climate change, it doesn’t tackle the source. As Dr. James Lovelock, a prominent environmental scholar, observed, “Consider what might happen if we start by using a stratospheric aerosol to ameliorate global heating; even if it succeeds, it would not be long before we face the additional problem of ocean acidification. This would need another medicine, and so on. We could find ourselves in a Kafka-like world from which there is no escape.”

This is not a trifling problem for the practice of geoengineering. Then again, neither is climate change a problem to be trifled with. It demands attention, and ultimately pressure, from a public that is content with leaving environmental activism in the realm of ecotourism and organic yogurt bars. After all, climate change is already Kafka-esque; it’s estimated to create 50 million environmental refugees by 2020. Consideration of geoengineering is especially prudent given that the ideal solution to global warming — one that would tackle the source of the problem — has so far proved impossible to find. It is time to approach this global issue both creatively and persuasively. Weather modification, though more salve than cure, may prove to be just what the doctor ordered.


Art by Olivia Watson

About the Author

Lauren Sukin '16 is a Political Science and Literary Arts concentrator. She is the Senior Managing Editor of Brown Political Review.