Weather as a weapon: The troubling history of geoengineering.

What's to come?
Sept. 23 2010 11:09 AM

Weather as a Weapon

The troubling history of geoengineering so far.

Future Tense: ASU | NEW AMERICA | SLATE

This piece arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. A Future Tense conference on geoengineering will be held at the New America Foundation on Monday, Sept. 27. (For more information, please visit the  NAF Web site.) Read more of  Slate's special issue on geoengineering.

Is there a technological fix for global warming? Where would we put a "planetary thermostat," and who would control the settings? The long and tragicomic history of fixing the sky—of rainmakers, rain fakers, weather warriors, and climate engineers—indicates that such ideas are far-fetched. Dosing the stratosphere with sulfuric acid to turn the blue sky milky-white does not sound like a good idea. Neither does dumping an iron slurry into the oceans to fill them with algae and turn them soupy-green. A global forest of artificial trees? Storing massive amounts of carbon dioxide under our feet forever? A flotilla of ships pumping seawater into the clouds? Unlikely, unlikely, unlikely.

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

Global climate engineering is untested and untestable, and dangerous beyond belief. The famous mathematician and computer pioneer John von Neumann warned against it in 1955. Responding to U.S. fantasies about weaponizing the weather and Soviet proposals to modify the Arctic and rehydrate Siberia, he expressed concern over "rather fantastic effects" on a scale difficult to imagine and impossible to predict. Tinkering with the Earth's heat budget or the atmosphere's general circulation, he claimed, "will merge each nation's affairs with those of every other more thoroughly than the threat of a nuclear or any other war may already have done." In his opinion, attempts at weather and climate control could disrupt natural and social relations and produce forms of warfare as yet unimagined. It could alter the entire globe and shatter the existing political order.

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Indeed, the history of these schemes provides a valuable perspective on what might otherwise seem to be a completely unprecedented challenge. Geoengineering has been proposed before, many times. In the 1950s Nobel laureate Irving Langmuir wanted to seed the entire Pacific basin to control storms. In the 1960s the Russians declared war on permafrost and sought to engineer an ice-free Arctic Ocean. About a decade before the ozone concerns of the 1970s, Weather Bureau scientist Harry Wexler identified catalytic chemical reactions that could devastate the stratosphere—a potential "bromine bomb." In the 1990s a committee of the National Academy of Sciences suggested using naval guns to shoot sulfates into the high atmosphere, since it was cheaper than reducing carbon emissions.

The editors of the venerable Oxford English Dictionary err when they propose to define geoengineering (noun) as "the modification of the global environment or the climate in order to counter or ameliorate climate change." To assign a specific goal to geoengineering does not make sense, since, first of all, the discipline does not yet exist; it is at best "geoscientific speculation." Second, an engineering practice defined by its scale (geo) need not be constrained by the good that might result from it, such as the counteraction or amelioration of climate change. Nuclear engineers, for example, are capable of building both power plants and bombs; mechanical engineers can design components for both ambulances and tanks. So to constrain the essence of something that does not exist by its stated purpose, techniques, or goals is misleading at best. Large-scale planetary manipulation techniques, like any engineering practice, can be used for both good and ill. In fact, a type of military geoengineering was actually practiced by both the United States and the Soviet Union half a century ago, and it had nothing to do with staving off climate change.

On May 1, 1958, at the National Academy of Sciences, University of Iowa physicist James A. Van Allen announced that Geiger counters aboard the JPL Explorer 1 and Explorer 3 satellites had picked up high readings at certain points in their orbits, indicating that powerful radiation belts (later known as the Van Allen belts) surround Earth. This was the first major scientific discovery of the space age. Ironically, and on that very same day, Van Allen joined Operation Argus—the U.S. military's top-secret project to detonate atomic bombs in space, with the goal of generating an artificial radiation belt and disrupting the ionosphere. This was planetary-scale engineering—or "geoengineering."