Could we build a weather machine to stop climate change?

It's starting to get pretty warm outside. And it's also starting to get increasingly obvious that human-made global warming is not going away anytime soon. As our environment continues to degrade and collapse, we may be headed into some fairly desperate times — and with them, the inevitable call for desperate measures. Such out-of-the-box speculation has led to an increased interest in geoengineering and the fantastic possibility of controlling the Earth's weather outright.

But do we know enough to tamper with the climate without causing bigger problems? Or are we likely to create more problems than we solve?

Top image: Stewart Baird/Flickr.

Attempts to control the weather have been a part of the human fabric since the beginning of time, ranging from Native American rain dances up to China's efforts to prevent precipitation during the 2008 Olympics. But now, as we head deeper into the 21st century, and as the pressure to deal with climate change increases, some experts are suggesting that we need to get serious and address the issue with some grander visions.

Those who think about such things aren't thinking small, and there's no shortage of ideas. Some notable geoengineering proposals include stratospheric particle injection for solar radiation management, cirrus cloud seeding to reduce reflectivity, sulfur-aerosol injection to induce global dimming, and more simple solutions like tropical reforestation to restore the carbon balance. We've covered a number of these geoengineering strategies at io9, including an entire series on terraforming the Earth.

But perhaps the most innovative and wide-ranging proposal of all is the suggestion that we just go for the gusto and figure out a way to control the Earth's weather completely. And quite surprisingly, there's one very simple plan that could actually work.

The Hall Weather Machine

Could we build a weather machine to stop climate change?

Indeed, one of the more seemingly viable strategies for achieving complete weather control has been put forward by nanotechnology expert J. Storrs Hall, the author of Nanofuture: What's Next for Nanotechnology. We recently spoke to Hall about his idea to get a better sense of how it could work, and how such a thing could actually be built.

Hall's plan would see a thin global cloud of small transparent balloons lifted up to the stratosphere where it would shade or reflect the amount of sunlight that hits the upper stratosphere. "Think of it as a kind of programmable and reversible greenhouse gas", he says.

Each balloon would be about a millimeter to one centimeter in size, likely a very thin shell of diamondoid material about a nanometer thick. A mirror would be placed inside the balloon, along with a small computer, a GPS receiver to keep track of its location, and an actuator to control its vertical and horizontal orientation. Each balloon would be filled with hydrogen and lifted up into the stratosphere where it would come to a rest at about 20 miles above the Earth's surface (anywhere from 60,000 to 100,000 feet).

Like any regular high-altitude balloon, the heavier control and energy storage systems would pull down on the balloon, providing an automatic orientation for the vertical axis. Each balloon would also have a water vapor generator for altitude control, giving it the same directional navigation properties that an ordinary hot-air balloon has when it changes altitude. This is so each balloon could take advantage of different wind directions at different altitudes.

To make the weather machine work, enough reflective balloons would have to be created to cover the entire Earth. Hall estimates that 10 million tons of material would be required to pull off such a feat, but insists that it's not a problem; the same amount of mass is required to construct 100 miles of freeway.

Once the Hall Weather Machine (HWM) is up and running, it would essentially serve as a programmable green house gas. When the mirrors face away from the Earth they would reflect the sunlight back into space. When oriented sideways, the sunlight would be able to come through while also allowing for the longwave radiation to escape. Carbon dioxide has a radiative forcing capability of 1 Watt per square meter. The HWM, on the other hand, has a 1 Kilowatt forcing capability per square meter, which completely trumps any natural influence of that kind. In other words, this machine would be damn powerful.

In fact, all the system needs to do is control a tenth of one percent of solar radiation to force global climate in any direction we want. One percent is enough to change regional climate, and ten percent is enough for serious weather control. Subsequently, the implications to such things as remedial ecology, global weather patterns, and overall geoengineering endeavors are profound, to say the least. By using the HWM we would not only be able to potentially fix global warming, we would also be able to prevent the next Ice Age.

"The reason I call it a weather machine instead of a climate machine is that you could change the modulation on a regional or even local basis, and change it in minutes," says Hall, "You could cool Death Valley and warm the Yukon - at the same time." Because winds as well as water evaporation and rainout depend on temperature patterns, he adds, we could strongly affect the other components of weather as well.

Hall also believes that the weather machine could be used to make large portions of the Earth more human-friendly. "There is a huge portion of the Earth's surface that is only marginally habitable and could be made temperate with weather control," he says.

While we don't have all the technologies required to pull-off such a feat, Hall feels we should still get started right now and develop such things as control software, weather modeling, and anything along the pathway to nano-manufacturing capability.

Hall has also devised a second version of this machine that would still utilize balloons, but would instead contain an aerogel with switchable antenna units. This would allow for the transmission of radiation in any desired frequency or direction. By doing this, the entire stratosphere would be converted into an enormous hologram that could take light and change it into any desired wavelength and focus it in any desired direction. This would allow for the near complete control over local weather.

Such a system would be a planet-sized powered machine, powered by 100 petawatts of sunlight. With a transmitting area of 10,000 km in diameter, and violet light for a beam, it would be able to carve graffiti on Phobos by focusing a petawatt beam on a 2.7 mm spot. "In other words", says Hall, "it's one hell of a planetary defense against anything from wayward asteroids to invading aliens."

Yet, the forecast still calls for rain

Now, while the HWM may solve the global warming crisis, it could also introduce an entirely new set of problems, some of which may be fairly catastrophic in nature.

Such a system could be easily weaponized and serve as a military engine that's second to none. As Hall notes, "If you can control the weather, you're pretty much in charge." And it's for this exact reason that Hall is confident that his weather machine, or some other variant, will eventually be built. And what's particularly alarming is that, in order for it to serve as a doomsday device, all that's required is 5% coverage of the planet's surface. Hall anticipates that the system will be highly politicized, with countries vying for weather control votes. There may also be several competing clouds up in the stratosphere, requiring some serious coordination and negotiations among the developers.

And it's not just Hall who is concerned about the potential misuse of this technology. Nanotechnologist Tihamer Toth-Fejel also sees the potential for disaster. He contends that managing the social and environmental implications of such a control system could prove to be tricky, if not completely untenable. The weather machine could prove to be a disaster, he says, either through misuse, abuse, or just plain ignorance.

Toth-Fejel feels that there are a number of broad areas in which the HWM could prove problematic. It could result in severe and unpredictable consequences, or it could be a complete waste of time and resources when efforts could be better spent elsewhere. Moreover, it would be near impossible to achieve consensus from an international perspective on how it should be used. In addition, it could be used as a weapon of mass inconvenience - a means of unjust coercion by making possible the threat of bad weather. It could also have a long lasting and detrimental effect on human character if the weather is pleasant every day.

And of course, there's also the possibility for war. Rival nations may work to control or undermine their enemy's weather control cloud. Worse, some nations may use it to wreak horrendous damage against the enemy. Toth-Fejel warns that the global coordination of the reflective weather machine would allow for the bouncing of concentrated solar energy around the globe, making it possible to set cities on fire - the type of fire caused by dropping a nuclear bomb per second for as long as desired. As Toth-Fejel warns, "The potential for abuse is rather large." The temptation to weaponize such a device may be overwhelming. The whole project could start various arms races, including efforts to bring the entire system down.

On this point, Hall believes that any country that tries to build such a machine would quickly have it stomped out by existing superpowers. It's for this reason that he feels the United States is the only country with the technology and backing power to construct such a thing. Consequently, he doesn't see it as something that would change the balance of geopolitics too much.

To build or not to build

The weather is a highly complicated and multifaceted thing. Should the weather machine be built, and in order for the entire global system to work in an ecologically friendly sort of way, some regions are still going to have to suffer through inclement weather, including monsoons, hurricanes, and vicious cold snaps. Given the presence of weather machines, some countries may be less than thrilled to have to continue to deal with these realities. They may feel ignored, maligned or even subjugated.

Such are the problems of newfound control.

We're still a few decades away from being able to construct the Hall Weather Machine, but it's important that we talk about it and other viable solutions now. Should climate change prove to be as catastrophic as some environmentalists claim, and should its effects start to get fairly out of control (not that it's very much in control right now), we may have no choice but to put this system up in the stratosphere. What needs to happen in the coming years, therefore, is a thoughtful discussion of not just the viability of such a device, but discourse on how we could ever hope to control and manage such a thing given all the interests at stake. Or better yet, we should figure out how to resolve the climate crisis now without having to resort to such radical and potentially dangerous measures.

But as Hall and Toth-Fejel note, some countries or groups may still choose to build it unilaterally, in which case there's going to be some serious problems. The weather machine, it would seem, may introduce some entirely new kinds of storms.

Hall Weather Machine image via Nanotechnology Now.