owning the weather

I had the chance to fast-forward through a documentary that I hope to sit down and view all the way through within the next few days. Owning the Weather, a 2009 film by Robert Greene, looks at the queasy science of geoengineering, in which scientists and charlatans attempt to modify the earth’s weather.


As one cautionary tale the films presents the story of rain-maker Charles Hatfield who was hired by my city of San Diego in 1916 to bring it rain after four years of drought. Hatfield set up his apparatus on the eastern edge of town and got to business seeding clouds. Within a month it had rained 35 inches and 14 people were dead in the ensuing flooding. [ Edit, April 28: This story might well be a case of a charlatan taking advantage of a natural weather occurrence. Whether this sort of weather modification actually makes a difference in practice is in dispute. ]

Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature, is interviewed and gets some of the better lines in the film:

“One of the great sadnesses and proofs of the extent to which which we’ve let global warming get completely out of control is [these geoengineering proposals] don’t sound quite as crazy anymore…

“The 20th century taught us a lot of things. And one of them is that scientific hubris can get us in a hell of a lot of trouble. Any sort of solution that we could introduce that was actually going to lower the temperature of the world several degrees—you know, whatever geoengineering solution—is inherently a big scale scary as hell.”

Interestingly much of the film is shot indoors, where there’s human-made weather, or looking out at the world from the climate controlled space of a car interior. All that reinforces one of the film’s points that we’re a culture that has cut ourselves off from what the environment brings us naturally.

I spend four days a week in a large, climate-controlled, open office. Some people are always cold, some always warm. No one can agree on the perfect temperature. Just extrapolate that out onto the entire earth and you can see that coming up with a scheme to modify weather so that everyone is happy is bound to be an impossible task.

What if Siberia decides it wants to grow tropical mangoes and geoengineers a frost-free climate? Or what if Dubai decides they want snow to ski on? What happens to the rest of the world?

7 thoughts on “owning the weather”

  1. I completely agree, it’s very scary. And even more scary is the fact that most people are not interesting in changing their behavior (consume, consume)…I find it hard to be optimistic.

  2. And they have already started experimenting. Just quietly going ahead with a small scale attempt at … dumped a load of something in the South Atlantic Ocean. But it is done so quietly, only a few know. And most don’t care, that they don’t know. Geoengineering – just the very word, the idea. There is no bio in that word.

  3. You’ll have to see “Toxic Skies” too. It’s a movie with Ann Heche about the poisoning of the population from an ingredient put into jet fuel and spread through exhaust contrails…corporate conspiracy to capitalize on a vaccine? secret government program to counteract global warming gone awry? Watch it and find out.

  4. Wow. Scary stuff. I honestly don’t know too much about this – how to seed clouds and all – I should make some time to watch the documentary as well!

  5. It seems common sense is a rare commodity these days. Whatever we’re doing is making things worse, let’s try and keep doing it to see if we get better results. It would be interesting to see if the crazy flood of 1916 in San Diego affected weather elsewhere, like Arizona had no rain that winter or somesuch. I know that
    El Nin~o years affect not just us, but change weather patterns around the world.

  6. EE, I’m definitely curious about the South Atlantic experiment. I like your observation about how there’s no “bio” in the name of this “solution.” Those humans seem to want to treat the world as an inert object.

    Jean, yeah, it’s pretty scary stuff. Of course, we’ve been geoengineering the world in a big way for the last 150+ years since the Industrial Revolution.

    George, I’ll look for it!

    Wendy, I’ve had a chance to view more of the film. It’s a little convoluted in spots, but it still raises some things I hadn’t thought about–still recommended.

    Brad, what really happened in 1916 is a good question. It was a markedly wetter January in California when compared to the previous years. This was the month when Hatfield did his rainmaking. The records for Arizona show an amount something shy of double the previous year’s rainfall, proportionally much smaller than the amount California received. Those are state-wide patterns, so better granularity is needed to really compare two cities affected by the same weather pattern.

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