What If Humans Controlled the Weather?
The human fascination with weather, the climate and our atmospheric surroundings stretches back to the days of even our earliest ancestors. From ancient, ritualistic rain dances to topics for twenty-first century small talk, we’ve endlessly contemplated the wind, rain, snow, sleet or sun, usually striving to predict whatever the weather will do next.
We obsess over warm fronts, cold fronts, charts, maps and up-to-the-minute forecasts, in the hopes that we can best prepare for what the future probably holds. But, our understanding of the weather is still mostly based on educated guesswork, and we’re almost always reacting to whatever the weather presenter confidentially tells us will happen.
But what if we knew what was on the horizon, because we put it there in the first place? What if weather was a man-made, human-controlled construct, ready to bend at our every beck and call? Would the future be bright, or could the outlook be a little more ominous?
First off, ‘weather modification’ is not the stuff of science fiction, only. Closely linked with climate or geo-engineering, theories and technologies have grown since the mid-twentieth century, when the ‘Weather Race’ became a sort of small-scale splinter scuffle between the USA and the USSR. While history most remembers the early Cold War as centring on the Space Race, some scientists were scanning the skies for something other than the moon – the clouds.
‘Cloud seeding’ involves the manipulation of clouds to shape when (and how heavily) rain falls from them. So, with political tensions rising during the mid-1950s, and as scientific ambition sought new heights in the atomic age, weaponizing the weather seemed a very real possibility. And whoever could manage it first would hold a massive advantage over their rivals.
Nobel Prize winner Dr. Irving Langmuir was a leading voice in this new, exciting but also kind of frightening field, working with Vincent Schaefer – who’s famous for creating the first man-made snowstorm – and Bernard Vonnegut, the physicist older brother of Kurt, the celebrated American writer. The trio tinkered and tampered with various weather adjustment techniques, including dropping dry ice and/or silver iodide into pre-formed clouds, to speed up and enhance rainfall. Soon, the US Military teamed up with Langmuir for Project Cirrus, which aimed to ‘rule the rain’ with even greater gusto – and even sought to shape and redirect fully formed hurricanes.
Langmuir et al weren’t always successful, with their experiments famously blamed for unnecessarily diverting a 1947 storm toward mainland USA - causing one fatality and millions of dollars of damage. But, the initial investigations did inspire the US Government to run Project Stormfury during the ‘60s and ‘70s – which targeted large-scale storms in a similar way – and Operation Popeye during the Vietnam War, an alleged military attempt to worsen the Vietnamese monsoon season, in a bid to damage enemy supply routes.
Weather Warfare was eventually banned by the UN in 1978, but less aggressive experiments are ongoing, with China making headlines in 2008 when cloud seeding was used to ensure clear skies at the Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony. Into the 2010s, increasing numbers of in-the-know researchers claim we might be able to make it rain, or even control or create lightning, by shooting super-powerful lasers into the sky. But those theories are yet to be extensively proven. And crucially, the vast majority of weather modification we’ve already achieved requires some sort of atmospheric scenario to already exist – usually a cloud stocked with water vapor – meaning clear, blue skies offer zero chance of even artificially induced rainfall.
So, we can predict the weather, and we’ve made some steps toward changing, relocating or enhancing it… But, for the sake of speculation, what if we could precisely dictate specific weather systems, summon clouds out of nothing and produce magic storms at the press of a button? How would the world be different?
Positive thinking pulls us towards the obvious upsides first of all. Most natural disasters could quickly be avoided, as previous ‘acts of God’ become well-conditioned, pre-planned atmospheric events – supposedly designed to inflict minimum impact or upheaval onto human populations. A study released in 2015 by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization found that, between 2003 and 2013, natural disasters had cost $1.5 trillion in damage worldwide, causing over one million deaths and affecting the lives of more than two billion people. But, with weather control, the most destructive conditions could disappear, and localized climates could be managed to ensure optimum global temperatures.
Farming industries would likely thrive thanks to the reliability of the weather, and the probable option to customize exactly how crops are grown. Harvests would then become more regulated and predictable, because controlling the weather should almost guarantee that fresh produce grows exactly as expected, with much less wastage. And, given that clouds are capable of carrying more than two billion pounds of water, there should be plenty to share around, allowing previously arid areas to develop into rich, farmable lands.
And then there’s the inevitable impact on international tourism, as travel agencies compete to provide the sunniest beaches, the snowiest ski trips and the most comfortable experiences for tourists, who could be capable of specifying exactly the weather they want – adding another strand to their all-inclusive vacation. The British luxury travel company Oliver’s Travels has already given us a glimpse into this hypothetical future. It made headlines in 2015 by offering ‘rain-free’ wedding days, via a collaboration with the Texan cloud seeding firm, Just Clouds.
While that endeavor has proven a difficult sell – mostly because of its £100,000 price tag – it does introduce a major issue. If we ever could control the skies, then who would have the authority to do so? Whose finger would be on the button?
As already shown in the early days of weather control tech, national governments would most likely have raced each other to conceive, design and build a machine (or system of machines) capable of doing the job. But, given that different parts of our pre-weather control planet are naturally subjected to different conditions, it’s likely that success could only be achieved through some sort of international collaboration. More than 50 countries currently operate some form of cloud seeding program, so the weather could become arguably the most significant trading chip in international diplomacy – shaping foreign affairs policies, cross-border relations, and becoming a propaganda tool for governments on the rise or fall.
Then there’s the problem of local government, and the powers that are (or aren’t) handed down the domestic pecking order. With weather management doubling up as a means for social welfare, ‘fairness’ and ‘equality’ will become big buzzwords when assessing the rainfall and average temperatures across multiple locations. And anti-establishment conspiracy theories are sure to spring up, much like those that already surround the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program, currently operating in Alaska.
Because, even if it’s theoretically possible for everyone everywhere to experience favorable conditions, it possibly (or probably) won’t pan out that way. Especially if weather control becomes a privatised business, with the most effective measures only available to the richest consumers. In this case, any example of ‘bad weather’ could trigger major unrest within a social class system that’s almost entirely built on how hot, cold, wet or windy it is in your neighbourhood. So, we could conceivably see a social uprising or Civil War because one side of a country blames the other when it doesn’t receive its fair quota of sunny days.
And the links with war continue when we consider the individuals or groups that might wield control. The old laws will undoubtedly be tested if the weather’s ever effectively turned into a weapon, and the military’s focus will turn to improving existing techniques to ensure maximum efficiency. Even the perpetrators of Operation Popeye conceded that their efforts might not have drastically altered the natural course of events in Vietnam. But, as technologies become more sophisticated, militaries will likely race to ensure that their hurricanes, typhoons and tidal waves are bigger, brasher and more intimidating than anybody else’s.
Universal sanctions would hopefully be widespread and exceptionally stringent, but the threat of Weather War would be a constant – especially if terror groups ever gained access to the controls of what could essentially become naturally brewed, ruthlessly dispatched WMDs. And there’d be an overarching concern that our weather control methods would one day fail, possibly through a massive computer glitch or cyber-attack. If weather reliability is an essential lynchpin to everyday life, then even small changes to the daily norm could prompt massive uncertainty, resulting in stock market collapses, political protests and fears for personal safety.
Of course, human-controlled weather does promise one major plus point, as the effects of global warming and climate change could be specifically targeted, and expertly addressed. In a world where we’re masters of our own atmosphere, rising and falling temperatures should be evened out. Ideally, the ice caps are replenished, and the doomsday clock is wound backwards – instead of always inching the other way. However, even in the early days of cloud seeding there were concerns over the long-term effects of pumping chemicals into the skies, so the environmental benefits largely depend on the discovery of a pollutant-free technique. Assuming that our future selves possess something like that, then Global Warming fears could quickly be soothed.
In fact, regulating the weather could calm (or perhaps control) other aspects of human emotion, too. By sidestepping the weather’s unpredictability, for right or wrong, we’d also be losing lots of our environmental, ecological and societal variety – and giving political, military and industry leaders unprecedented influence over millions of livelihoods. Yes, the sun would still turn and we’d still be subject to day and night within the rough parameters of our pre-existing seasons, but countries and cultures would surrender significant swathes of their individual identities, all to place a monumental mandate on Mother Nature.
You could argue that controlling the weather is akin to playing God – and in the early ‘60s, President Lyndon Johnson reportedly spoke of ‘controlling the world’ through weather modification. Ultimately, it’s difficult to imagine such unparalleled power existing without dramatic, and probably devastating, consequences.