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Geoengineering: A Short History

How hacking the climate came to be seen as our least worst option for averting a global climate catastrophe.

STR/AFP/Getty Images
STR/AFP/Getty Images

For most of human history, weather control has been under the strict purview of sky gods and science fiction. But today, as superstorms ravage coastal cities and pollution blankets entire countries, averting climate catastrophe has become a serious foreign-policy issue. Not that it appears that the world’s major powers are making much headway in their diplomatic efforts to stop global warming. Instead, it is falling to so-called geoengineers to game out strategies for deliberate, large-scale intervention — everything from dumping iron slurry into the ocean in order to create massive CO2-sucking algae blooms to bombarding the stratosphere with sulfate-laced artillery to deflect sunlight. With the world’s fate potentially resting on the shoulders of these climate hackers, it’s worth recalling the dubious history of weather manipulation.

American meteorologist James Pollard Espy publishes The Philosophy of Storms, in which he lays out his thermal theory of storm formation and details a method through which "rain may be produced artificially in time of drought." By setting "great fires" and creating heated columns of air — something Espy lobbies Congress to allow him to do — he argues it would be possible to generate precipitation on command. The scheme, which rests on shoddier science than Espy’s theory of storm formation, earns him the moniker "Storm King." 

Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius investigates the impact of rising carbon dioxide levels on global temperatures in Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science. He is the first scientist to calculate how doubling the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would affect the climate. His conclusion — that Earth’s temperature would increase by roughly 9 degrees Fahrenheit — leads him to suggest in 1908 that by increasing the amount of "carbonic acid" in the atmosphere, "we may hope to enjoy ages with more equitable and better climates."

The Soviet Union establishes the Institute of Rainmaking in Leningrad, setting the stage for decades of experimentation with cloud seeding as a means of altering the weather. The United States follows suit in 1946, when researchers at the General Electric Research Laboratory in Schenectady, New York, discover that dry ice stimulates ice-crystal formation. In the Cold War’s early years, both superpowers carry out hundreds of experiments using solid carbon dioxide, silver iodide, and other particulate matter to trigger precipitation. The success of these experiments is greatly exaggerated, but scientists do manage to alter weather patterns on a small scale. 


"If an unfriendly nation gets into a position to control the large-scale weather patterns before we can, the result could even be more disastrous than nuclear warfare." —Howard T. Orville, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower’s weather advisor


U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Science Advisory Committee issues a landmark report, "Restoring the Quality of Our Environment," that warns of the potentially harmful effects of fossil fuel emissions. Considered the first high-level government statement on global warming, the report also raises the possibility of "deliberately bringing about countervailing climatic changes," including by "raising the albedo, or reflectivity, of the Earth." 

The U.S. Air Force flies more than 2,600 cloud-seeding sorties over North and South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia as part of a covert effort to extend the monsoon season and inhibit North Vietnamese troop movements. Dubbed Operation Popeye, the program is the first known instance of hostile weather manipulation in military history. When columnist Jack Anderson reveals its existence in the Washington Post in 1971, the public is outraged. The subsequent scandal soon becomes known as the "Watergate of weather warfare." 

Soviet climatologist Mikhail Budyko floats the idea of reversing global warming by burning sulfur in the stratosphere, thereby creating a reflective haze he describes as "much like that which arises from volcanic eruptions." Solar radiation management — or attempts to reduce the amount of sunlight that reaches the Earth’s surface — goes on to become one of two major branches of geoengineering (the other being carbon dioxide removal). In subsequent years, scientists propose everything from injecting particles into the stratosphere to lobbing great mirrors into space to reflect the sun’s rays. 

December 1976
Moved to act by the United States’ cloud-seeding activities in Vietnam, the U.N. General Assembly approves the Environmental Modification Convention, which bans weather warfare and other hostile uses of climate manipulation "having widespread, long-lasting or severe effects." The treaty goes into effect a little less than two years later and is eventually ratified by 76 countries. 

May 1990
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), established in 1988 by two U.N. organizations to assess the risk of climate change posed by human activity, declares unequivocally that increased carbon emissions are substantially augmenting the greenhouse effect, "resulting on average in an additional warming of the Earth’s surface." Unless global emissions are cut by 60 percent, the panel warns, global temperatures could rise by as much as 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit over the next 110 years. 

June 15, 1991
Mount Pinatubo erupts, spewing molten lava over 250 square miles of the Philippine island of Luzon and throwing millions of tons of volcanic ash into the atmosphere. The debris forms a reflective aerosol cloud around the Earth, reducing the amount of sunlight that reaches the planet’s surface by roughly 10 percent for most of the next two years. As a result, the average global temperature drops by about 0.9 degrees Fahrenheit — or roughly the same amount that it had risen over the previous 100 years due to industrial activity. The eruption amounts to a perfect natural experiment, offering scientists a model for how deliberate efforts to counter global warming might play out in the future.

August 2006
Paul Crutzen, winner of the 1995 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his research on ozone, calls international action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions "a pious wish." In a now-famous article in Climatic Change, he advocates for additional geoengineering research, especially into the possibility of using reflective aerosols to decrease the amount of sunlight that reaches the Earth’s surface. Crutzen’s article provokes vigorous criticism — especially from scientists who fear it will hand governments an excuse not to reduce carbon emissions — but it thrusts geoengineering into the mainstream, inspiring reams of additional research. 

November 2006
At a NASA conference in Silicon Valley, Lowell Wood, a former top weapons designer at the Pentagon, lays out an "instant climatic gratification" scheme to reverse global warming. The plan involves using artillery to fire as much as 1 million tons of sulfate aerosols into the Arctic stratosphere in order to dull the sun’s rays and build up sea ice that could then cool the planet. Science historian James R. Fleming, writing in Wilson Quarterly, likens Wood’s plan to "declaring war on the stratosphere." 

August 8, 2008
Four hours before the opening ceremony of the Olympics in Beijing, Chinese authorities launch more than 1,000 rockets containing silver iodide into the sky outside the city to keep rain clouds away from the "Bird’s Nest" stadium. A storm that was forecast to hit on Aug. 8 holds off until the 10th, keeping the crowd of 91,000 dry for the evening’s pageantry. 

October 2008
Scientific American publishes an editorial titled "The Hidden Dangers of Geoengineering" that calls out the risks of trying to tinker our way out of a climate catastrophe. What used to be "fringe science," the editors write, has "gained respectability," but it could damage the ozone layer, reduce precipitation, or make rainfall more acidic. "And those are just the foreseeable effects." 

April 2009
U.S. President Barack Obama’s science advisor, John Holdren, says the United States doesn’t have the "luxury" of taking geoengineering options "off the table" in discussions of how to combat climate change. "The administration’s primary focus is still to seek comprehensive energy legislation that can get us closer to a clean energy economy," according to the advisor’s spokesman, but deliberate efforts to counter global warming, Holdren says, have "got to be looked at." 


"Playing with the Earth’s climate is a dangerous game with unclear rules." —Robert Jackson, director of Duke University’s Center on Global Change


September 2011
A British academic consortium called Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering attempts to carry out the world’s first large-scale geoengineering field test aimed at reversing global warming. But the experiment, a smaller version of the group’s grand plan to pump reflective particles into the atmosphere through a 20-kilometer-long hose held aloft by a hot-air balloon, never gets off the ground for political reasons. 

The National Natural Science Foundation of China, which distributes research funds on behalf of the Chinese government, lists geoengineering as a scientific research priority. Already, China is spending at least $100 million per year on weather modification schemes — mostly to induce rain and prevent hailstorms. 

March 2013
The CIA partners with the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to fund a 21-month, $630,000 "technical evaluation" of various geoengineering techniques, including proposed solar radiation management and carbon dioxide removal schemes. It is the first NAS geoengineering study funded by the intelligence community. 

May 2013
The average daily atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide surpasses 400 parts per million — higher than it has been in at least 3 million years. The grim milestone prompts the New Yorker‘s Nicholas Thompson to opine on the "dangerous, fraught, and potentially essential prospect of geoengineering." He writes, "[I]t’s dreadful but it may be the only way to prevent mass calamity." 

April 2014
The IPCC’s working group for policy responses to climate change will evaluate geoengineering options — including the use of aerosols, iron fertilization, and lighter-colored crops — in its fifth assessment report, marking the first time that the U.N. body will have actively considered invasive measures for halting climate change. The move, as the Guardian put it when the IPCC’s research agenda became public in 2011, "suggests the UN and rich countries are despairing of reaching agreement" on how to combat global warming.