• Grace Richardson Banks

How Do You Steal a Cloud?: Geoengineering in history

Updated: Sep 10, 2020

Geoengineering could be the only way to reduce our current rate of global warming, but technology, ideology and the potential for unintended consequences make it a highly contentious area. In IFLA! issue 2, Grace Richardson Banks takes a look at historic attempts to alter the climate and finds a field that is all too easy to exploit.

In ancient Rome, whenever there was a drought, the citizens dragged a stone  the lapis manalis into the city. The rock was hauled the whole way into the senate for an aquaelicium, a ceremony to make the rain fall. In ancient India, Romania, China and Ethiopia communities used chanting marathons, dances, prayer and song to bring rain. Prayer circles were particularly popular in colonial America. In fact they still are; in 2007, Sonny Perdue, the governor of Georgia, held a public prayer service to encourage a downpour. 

Weather modification has a colourful history in America, largely because there has always been profit in precipitation. Native American Nations like the Osage and Quapaw utilised their knowledge of storm patterns to convince colonists of their ability to alter the weather with dance, and charged them for the privilege of a well-timed deluge. This business model was utilised again in the 1930s by ‘rainmakers’, scam artists with almanacs who charged through the nose to bring rain to Dustbowl communities desperate for water. As long as there have been droughts and hurricanes, humans have attempted to change the weather to benefit themselves, and as our climate acts more extremely, so do the attempts to change it. 

Weather modification has a colourful history in America because there has always been profit in precipitation.

Increasing numbers of fraud laws limited the rainmaking confidence schemers, as well as pseudoscientists like Wilheim Reich. His euphemistically labelled ‘inconclusive’ research centred on ‘cloudbusting’ with ‘cosmic orgone energy’ Kate Bush’s video ‘Cloudbusting’ accurately portrays this. Instead, the 1950s saw the growth of a targeted scientific approach to weather modification. ‘Rainmaking, once reserved for medicine men and charlatans, has become a respectable field for scientists and engineers’; so opens John Ludwigsonn’s 1967 article unpicking the US Project Stormfury, which experimented with ‘Cloud Seeding’ as a way to undermine hurricanes. 

For the uninitiated, cloud seeding is a process that theoretically forces clouds to shed their rain. The usual method involves crop-spraying planes flying up into clouds and disgorging large amounts of silver iodide. Water droplets form into ice around the silver and thus the cloud is encouraged to rain. These experiments were the basis of the chemtrail conspiracy [1] and, like the conspiracy, the initial experiments proved wildly inconclusive. 

The trouble is that a cloud is already such a complex system that it is very difficult to identify whether it was the human interference that actually caused the rain to precipitate. After an unprecedented downpour in Cornwall killed 34 people in 1952, conspiracy theorists incorrectly linked these floods to contemporary cloud seeding experiments and the British version of Stormfury, Project Cumulus, was curtailed. Patrick Chuang (Professor of Earth Science at UC Santa Cruz) summarises this problem with cloud seeding: ‘It’s basically taking a pencil balanced on its point, then hitting a gong in a building a block over. Did that make any difference? Who the hell knows.’ The higher purpose of Stormfury was to make it rain in clouds building up a hurricane, thus removing some of its energy and preventing the hurricane landing. In practise, Stormfury never achieved these goals — no hurricanes were dispelled. In some cases, Stormfury simply created different storms headed to other places. In the end, the entire programme was scrapped in 1971, with its most major impact being in contributions to hurricane forecasting technology.

Cloud seeding isn’t a cut and dry miracle for desert communities – it simply adds another element to water tensions in the driest areas.

Instead, national defence programmes have been some of the largest investors in weather modification science. Ever since generals in the Napoleonic and American Civil wars noted that it would often rain during battle there have been systematic attempts to change the weather to give one side the edge. In the late 19th century, the US Department of War bought $9,000 of gunpowder to detonate in Texas to try and form tactical rainstorms. By the 1950s, these attempts had been formalised into Operation Popeye, an ultra top-secret Vietnam War-era US Army attempt to generate tactical rainstorms to hinder the Communist war effort. This was better funded and achieved more precisely than Stormfury. Over the course of 1967-8 alone, Popeye increased rainfall over the Ho Chi Minh trail by an estimated 30%. The Project was so successful that the UN was forced to pass a treaty prohibiting hostile weather warfare. Modern military research into this is shrouded in rumour, but suffice to say the US Air Force’s 1996 research into using nanotechnology to make artificial fog makes it clear that the power of weather as an adversarial tool has not been forgotten. 

The 21st century has seen no decline in weather modification attempts. The most popular is still cloud seeding, but more often than not it is used, not to undermine extreme weather, but for weather optimisation. Today the most regular use in the USA is in ski resorts, in order to enhance snow coverage. The Chinese authorities at the 2008 Beijing Olympics seeded the clouds outside the city so that the opening and closing ceremonies would have clear days. At the G8 summit in St Petersburg, Putin sent the Air Force to seed clouds so that it would rain over Finland, though the conference saw downpours anyway. The UAE is a particularly large investor in rainmaking technology, sponsoring The UAE Research Program for Rain Enhancement Science. Between July and August 2010 alone, they generated over fifty artificial rainstorms in the desert. Yet this isn’t a cut and dry miracle for desert communities. Seeding of clouds simply adds another element to water tensions in the driest areas. Those rain clouds were headed elsewhere and accusations are rife that stealing clouds is as simple as having the funds to seed them.

Cloud seeding is still an inexact and unpredictable science, with the complexity of a single cloud generating such a wide margin for error that the results are largely inconclusive

It seems increasingly clear that some element of climate modification will be essential if we are to stay on track for a 2°C temperature rise, let alone 1.5°C. There are endless discussions of the ethics of geoengineering that are as complex as you would expect from a process to change the climate of an entire world. Yet there are modest takeaways from 75 years of refining the weather. Cloud seeding is still an inexact and unpredictable science, with the complexity of a single cloud generating such a wide margin for error that the results are largely inconclusive. In so many of these cases, the weather improved in one place, but caused changes for the worse somewhere else. Moreover, these examples have demonstrated the speed with which weather science can be exploited to meet economic and military needs; how active engagement in the weather served to accelerate weather inequalities. If we are not careful, curated climate will simply become another arena in which geopolitical inequalities are expressed.

1 Chemtrail conspiracy theorists believe that aeroplane condensation trails contain chemical or biological agents secretly left in the sky.

Illustration by Scott Kennedy