Humans have been attempting to control the weather for thousands of years now and, with the ever-evolving scientific advancements, the prospect is beginning to look more and more tangible. But with great power, comes great responsibility…
Back in late February, Britain shivered in sub-zero Siberian winds with snow covering the country. The "Beast from the East," as it was dubbed by the media, refused to die quietly, coming back from the dead in early March to again ravage most of the UK with exceptional, heavy snowfall that disrupted travel and transport.
According to Martin Bowles, Operational Meteorologist at the Met Office, “It was a severe event by UK standards”. However, it hardly matched the Winter of 1962-63, when mean temperatures stayed below freezing from Christmas to early March, blizzards caused snowdrifts 20 foot deep, while rivers and even the sea at Whitstable in Kent froze solid in places.
Yet even these extreme weather events hardly compare to some that have been experienced elsewhere round the globe, killing hundreds of thousands of people.
Given the historic unpredictability of the weather it’s hardly surprising that since time immemorial people have attempted to control or modify it using ritual practices. The exact forms have differed depending on culture but have ranged from rain dances (North American Indians), human sacrifices (Aztecs and Vikings) to more simple ceremonies and prayers.
Nowadays, people in the UK are generally more inclined to put their faith in science. Certainly, scientists now have a better understanding of the complex physical interactions between the atmosphere and large areas of ocean and land that ensure weather is more predicable over the timescale of a few days.
However, as Dr Phillip Williamson from the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia points out, a reasonable understanding of these processes doesn’t mean it's possible to manipulate them to achieve reliable weather control. He explains, “For example, although deliberate cooling of the surface ocean could, in theory, slow or divert hurricanes, the effort needed to change the temperature of many millions of tons of seawater would involve costs many times greater than the uncertain benefits obtained. Changing local cloud conditions to stimulate rainfall is potentially more achievable; nevertheless, there has been low success for the many rain-making techniques that have been tried.”
"One of the pitfalls could be that trying to modify the weather in one place could actually cause a disaster elsewhere"
In a fascinating book entitled Fixing The Sky, James Roger Fleming, Professor of Science, Technology and Society at Colby College in the US, discusses various attempts to manipulate weather on a small scale. For example, during the Second World War, Britain managed to clear fog over airfields by burning petrol, using a secret system known as the Fog Investigation and Dispersal Operation (FIDO). Fleming admits, “FIDO actually worked”, but it was too expensive for peacetime operation.
Similarly, on occasion cloud seeding (the introduction of chemicals such as silver iodide into clouds) appears to have successfully produced rain. For example, during the Beijing Olympics rockets were fired into clouds to prematurely trigger rain so as to avoid the opening ceremony being spoiled. In California clouds are regularly seeded with chemicals in an attempt to produce rain.
Yet, despite some limited success on a local basis Fleming warns that intervening in any weather system carries immense ethical considerations. “One of the pitfalls could be that trying to modify the weather in one place could actually cause a disaster elsewhere,” he says.
"Weather is what we get, usually much the same as what someone else has already had yesterday"
Fleming reveals that following a secret cloud seeding experiment on the night of August 14, 1952, the seaside resort of Lynmouth in Devon was hit by torrential rain, causing a flash flood that killed 35 people and injured many more. He acknowledges, “it is impossible to say if cloud seeding really did trigger the flooding, or if it was just an unfortunate coincidence."
A few scientists have also proposed using satellites and laser beams to control the weather but as Clive Hamilton, author of the book Earthmasters, points out, “These ideas are still in the realms of science fiction, and will almost certainly stay there.”
“I don’t think we ever will be able to control the weather in anything more than a superficial way. There are too many scientific variables to influence,” explains Martin Bowles.
Williamson appears to agree with this assessment, concluding, “The low level of scientific attention given to weather modification would seem to fairly reflect its feasibility. Weather is what we get, usually much the same as what someone else has already had yesterday.”
Mitigating climate change Williamson also makes the point that, despite the inherent uncontrollability of weather, it’s clear that long-term average weather (known as climate) has been unintentionally altered by human activity: burning coal, oil and gas, industry and agriculture. Indeed, such activity has increased the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere within our lifetime. In response, some scientists and engineers are now proposing that, as we’ve failed to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, it’s time to adopt a different approach, often called geo-engineering.
Dr Naomi Vaughan, senior research associate at the University of East Anglia, defines geo-engineering as “large scale modifications to the Earth’s system in order to moderate climate change”. In her opinion, geo-engineering consists of two broad approaches: firstly, those that seek to reflect more sunlight back to space to offset the increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, known as solar radiation management (SRM). Secondly, those that work to directly remove greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, from the atmosphere.
The first approach, SRM, includes various ways to reflect sunlight, such as mirrors in space, aerosol injection of small particles of sulphate into the upper atmosphere, and marine cloud brightening, using ships to spray sea salt particles into low lying clouds.
The idea of artificially cooling the global climate by way of releasing particles of sulphur into the stratosphere was popularised by Nobel prize-winning scientist, Professor Paul Crutzen in 2006, as a possible emergency measure to reduce runaway climate change.
Some Harvard scientists, backed by wealthy entrepreneurs such as Bill Gates are investigating whether geo-engineering or climate engineering is a way to modify or reduce the effects of climate change.
Kevin Trenberth, Distinguished Senior Scientist at the National Centre for Atmospheric Research in the US is highly critical of it, saying that “so-called” solar radiation management does not address the cause of climate change and has major side-effects that are undesirable. “Solar fiddling affects the incoming radiation. The problem is trapping outgoing radiation with an enhanced greenhouse effect. The effect on weather systems and the hydrological system are many and our models are not good enough to predict the outcomes.”
He also highlights a central ethical dilemma: “Who makes the decision on behalf of all humanity and other residents of planet Earth to change the climate deliberately?”
In purely practical terms, could such a policy be implemented? There are geopolitical risks if any measures that affect global climate are carried out unilaterally, creating "winners" and "losers." Moreover, creating an effective international governance structure is “unrealisable”, according to Vaughan.
The second approach includes technology fixes to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, such as using biochar to increase soil carbon and direct air capture and storage of carbon dioxide. Alternatively, some propose fertilising the oceans with iron to encourage the growth of marine plankton. These marine plankton then absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, during the process of photosynthesis, when they convert light energy into chemical energy.
Unfortunately, even these methods have various drawbacks, ranging from side-effects to issues of cost, practicality and reliability. It is therefore hard not to agree with Hamilton when he says, “The essential difficulty with all carbon dioxide removal approaches is that they want to push a reluctant genie back into the bottle.”
As Martin Bowles at the Met Office sums up, “Geo-engineering is much less likely to be successful and is more difficult than changing human behaviour/pollution to reduce the causes of climate change.”
It is also important to realise that once humans take responsibility for managing the Earth’s climate we can never relinquish it. That will be a heavy burden to bear, as Clive Hamilton warns: “The risks of its spinning out of control will always be high, because of the extraordinary complexity and inherent unpredictability of the global climate system”.
It therefore seems that while we can affect some aspects of the weather, controlling it is likely to remain beyond our abilities. Those who wish to "manage" our climate are perhaps guilty of even greater hubris and, potentially, risk destabilising the earth’s long term weather systems.