In the mid-1800s, companies such as the Goodland Artificial Rain Company and the Swisher Rain Company set out to make a killing in the United States with claims of knowledge of the techniques to make it rain and do away with the old adage “you can’t change the weather”. An example of the logic behind their solutions went something like: “If you start fires in the midwest, the soot will rise up into the atmosphere, coalesce into raindrops, and provide moisture to the Eastern United States, providing for blooming agriculture and prosperous farming families.” Today we know that the presence of soot, or black carbon in the atmosphere is poisonous to those of us on the ground and under the right circumstances acts as a greenhouse gas, though it remains in the atmosphere for a relatively short length of time. This was one of the first recorded instances of the United States attempting to modify weather patterns to the advantage of industry.
After the Great Depression and World War II, the United States built upon its ability to alter the natural world. The riches of war financed the construction of dams, insect control research, and forest management. These endeavors extended to climate control efforts such as Project Stormfury, an attempt to neutralize tropical hurricanes by seeding the storms with silver iodide, and Project Popeye, a multimillion dollar research project in Southeast Asia whose ultimate goal was the extension of monsoon season in the interest of flooding areas such as the Ho Chi Minh trail to the advantage of the American military (the existence of the project was only revealed to the American public with the release of the Pentagon Papers.) Although the results of these projects culminated in a general consensus that they “worked best when it was going to rain anyway” (Kristine Harper in an interview with DailyHistory), researchers did learn valuable information regarding cloud and atmospheric composition.
The phrase Climate Geoengineering refers to large scale interference with Earth’s climate. In the past, the focus of the projects were solutions to more localized weather phenomena. Today, the majority of more ambitious geoengineering projects fall into two categories: strategies for removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, or for redirecting solar radiation to combat the negative side effects of global warming.
The latest proposal comes out of Texas this past March during the annual Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, where Robert Nelson from the Planetary Science Institute in Pasadena, California suggested injecting simple table salt into the air. These small particles would serve as more effective than alumina (aluminum oxide) which would reflect the sun’s rays, without any of the negative side effects such as the possibility of the particles becoming embedded in our lungs. Nelson is not the first to consider salt. Matthew Watson, a volcanologist at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom, took part in the aptly named SPICE Project, a government funded investigation into the realm of injecting the atmosphere with particulates in an attempt to mitigate the amount of solar radiation reaching Earth’s surface.
Although the project was cancelled in 2012, the official webpage discusses the possible legal ramifications of atmospheric engineering. Should such technology be treated as a public good, as suggested by the UK House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology in their 2010 report? Is it possible to broker an international regulatory agreement or will patents become the only form of governance? Should these questions even be addressed and can they be properly addressed before the possible side effects of shooting particles into the Earth’s atmosphere (something that still sounds like the plotline for a Syfy channel original) are known or publicly discussed?
As we’ve seen, the SPICE project was not the first of its kind, and the proposal in Texas may be one to watch if it gains traction. Many questions remain and as with any new technology with such a vast scope, developments remain to be seen. Nonetheless, even Robert Nelson insists that these science-fiction-worthy solutions are not quite that, but only temporary mitigations of the worst consequences of global warming. They are not long-term solutions when it comes to climate change and that the primary focus of both governments and the public should be on curbing greenhouse gas emissions.